The Grandissimes

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George Washington Cable, 1844-1925. Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress.

I have never been to Louisiana. But when my Swiss great-great-great grandfather, Frederick Wenker, born in Canton Bern, emigrated to the New World with his sister and widowed mother in 1855, they for some reason unknown to me disembarked not on the Atlantic coast of the United States but on the docks at New Orleans. And spent some time living in that city before taking passage on a riverboat up the Mississippi to arrive at a farm they had purchased near Joliet, Illinois. Which began a whole mid-western segment of my family’s history, in which Frederick’s grandson Harold, whom I met only once when I was a very young boy and he a very old man, married the woman who would become my great-grandmother. And whose own orphaned mother had been brought up by the Ursuline nuns at their well-known convent and school for girls in New Orleans. Meanwhile, Frederick’s sister married a Monsieur Ladrey, apparently forgoing the journey up the Mississippi to Illinois altogether, and thus began a whole Louisiana branch of the family, but that is an entirely different story. Harold, by the way, I have written about in an earlier post (‘In the Lands of the Gadsden Purchase’, June 16, 2012). He became a telegrapher and stationmaster for the Southern Pacific Railroad and sometime military spy for the U.S. Army during WWI, also another story. He probably never went to Louisiana either, but I really don’t know. 

Meanwhile, I have great fun reading about the state, its history and architecture, the complicated details of its sugar industry–all this constitutes one of my happiest and most inexhaustible of enthusiasms. The recent posts on Woodlawn and Belle Grove plantations and on the works of George Washington Cable find their place in this loose framework, of course. And for the past few days I have been reading Cable’s 1880 novel, ‘The Grandissimes’, about an illustrious family of that name who are involved in all manner of complicated adventures in Louisiana during the decades before, and immediately following, the purchase of that whole enormous territory (828,000 square miles) by President Jefferson in 1803. ‘The Grandissimes’, appropriately enough, I suppose, given its title, is something of a vast saga. There are: Grandissime half-brothers, one white and one a quarter black, who represent entirely different branches of the same family; an enslaved African prince living on a Spanish Creole plantation while betrothed to a voodoo practitioner who works as a lady’s maid; abolitionists and vehement advocates of slavery; a destitute Creole widow whose husband has been murdered by a Grandissime in a gambling dispute; entire families wiped out by yellow fever; various branches of the same extended clan who speak, according to the accidents of their specific ancestries, a multiplicity of dialects of French, Spanish, English, Native American and West African languages. The book is quite a journey.

One of our neighbors here in foggy San Francisco is originally from rural Louisiana. On one unseasonably warm day here I remarked to him how lovely the languid summer days of his home state must be–when you can sit out under the trees until late at night and never get cold, etc. At which point I was promptly informed that sitting out on the grass under trees is something one never does in Louisiana, lest you make the acquaintance of all the not-so-friendly creatures who will be occupying that grass right along with you. I can see I have so many more things to learn. 

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