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Lords of Misrule: Mardi Gras and the Politics of Race in New Orleans Hardcover – February, 1997

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Gill, a columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, covers a wealth of little-known history in this chronicle of the recent battle to desegregate Mardi Gras parade groups, or krewes. Mardi Gras is more than this saturnalian city's most famous celebration; it's a crystallization of its unique and volatile cultural mix and its arrogant tradition of formalized prejudice. As Gill documents every city council debate on this sensitive subject since the first desegregation order in 1991 instructed krewes to abide by the civil rights amendment in their membership policies, he traces the lineage of all-white male krewes intent on preserving their elitist status back before the Civil War. African Americans, the city's majority, also have long-standing krewes, and Gill vividly describes their splendid presentations inspired by artful interpretations of American Indian warriors. Mardi Gras history is fascinating, involving, as it does, religion, politics, potent personalities, the blatant abuse of power, all manner of debauchery, and the destructive consequences of an elaborate racial caste system that discriminates against blacks, Italian Americans, and Jews. This is one spicy slice of American life. Donna Seaman

From Kirkus Reviews

Less a history of Mardi Gras than a view of New Orleans through the lens of that all-consuming celebration of social hierarchy that shows how intertwined are carnival's charms with the misdeeds of the ruling class that invented it. ``New Orleans's pride is that it is unlike any other American city, which is also its undoing,'' writes Gill, a columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. The evolution of America's most promising and industrious antebellum port into a seedy, second-rate city notable primarily for the flamboyant means by which it has flouted conventional morality (through legal prostitution, corrupt and defiant governments, and a closed social order that holds racial and ethnic exclusion more dear than economic prosperity) presents a decadent legacy rivaling the drunken riot of Mardi Gras itself. Though he frames the book with firsthand reporting of Councilwoman Dorothy Mae Taylor's 1991 attempt to adopt an ordinance mandating the integration of the private clubs that stage carnival parades, Gill devotes three-quarters of his text to exploring how members of the secretive old-line krewes, formed in the years surrounding the Civil War, directed that evolution. In the process, he sketches the intricate schematics underlying what he aptly dubs ``the annual reaffirmation of social eminence over merit.'' What looks to outsiders like a chaotic street party is in fact a highly orchestrated social dance allowing the upper crust to establish their pecking order in public (albeit at masked balls hosted by secret societies) while spreading a little pre-Lenten cheer to the common folk. Relying mostly on old newspaper accounts, Gill forges a double-edged portrayal of Mardi Gras that, on one hand, captures the drama and romance of carnivals past and, on the other, unflinchingly details the bitter racial division it still fosters. Scrupulously evenhanded--a lively, irony-loving illumination of the politics and history of America's rowdiest street celebration. (30 b&w illustrations, not seen) -- Copyright ©1996, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 303 pages
  • Publisher: Univ Pr of Mississippi (Txt) (February 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0878059156
  • ISBN-13: 978-0878059157
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 5.5 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,298,668 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Stephen D. Kahn on November 17, 2006
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
After reading this book, I understand that there is much more to New Orleans' Mardi Gras than a drunken good time. Yet I am frustrated because Gill did little more than illuminate many promising lines of inquiry, without satisfying any of them.

I concur with another reviewer ("Temerous erudition") that Gill's organization is totally scattershot. He piles on the interesting tales, but without much of a conceptual scheme. Intriguing starts are made, then snapped off abruptly; and it's on to the next thought, like literary ADD. I knew I was not in the presence of a first-rate book when, in chapter 2, after introducing the Louisiana slave rebellion of 1811, Gill ends the one paragraph devoted to it thus:

"Thus ended the largest slave uprising in the history of the United States; though a failure, it at least encouraged somewhat more liberal treatment of slaves as well as free people of color for most of the antebellum era."

And then we are off to a different subject. The reader is given a tantalizing view of a fascinating incident--the largest slave uprising in US history! But the parade needs to keep moving and the trail is lost in a blur. It feels like the sort of thing you'd hear from a New Orleans tour guide while walking through the French Quarter.

Also, in this (as in many other instances), Gill does not substantiate his statements. What did the 'liberal treatment' consist of? Is the reader simply expected to look up the incident in an encyclopedia? If I had not read other sources, I would not know of the Louisiana "Code Noir" to which Gill is presumably referring. In a work purporting to be serious history, this is an abuse of the reader's time and money. (And when the sentence is deconstructed, does it really have any meaning?
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on May 3, 2000
Format: Paperback
Until I was sixteen, I went to Mardi Gras every year. I was therefore fascinated to read James Gill's account of the twisted and bizarre history of New Orleans' biggest tourism cash cow (albeit one which should not be kept alive through longstanding racist shibboleths), and see what sort of political and social struggles underpinned the history of the old-style Krewes (which, incidentally, I never got to see, my family--and eventually myself--preferring the big flashy ones like Endymion and Bacchus). Gill's accompanying history of New Orleans is even better, yielding many interesting and little known facts. Unfortunately, one gets so wrapped up in stirring episodes like the checkered postbellum career of James Longstreet that the occasional Mardi Gras asides actually get to be irritating (which surely was not the point of the book). Fortunately, Gill's concluding focus on the "battle for Mardi Gras" between Councilwomen Dorothy Mae Taylor and Peggy Wilson brings the story into an exciting present day context which will be unsurprising to anyone familiar with the running circus of lunacy that is Louisiana politics (although it's nice to have confirmation that female politicians can be almost as boorish and intolerant as male politicians). This book, along with John Kennedy Toole's A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES and Jerry Strahan's MANAGING IGNATIUS, is essential reading for anyone looking to learn about New Orleans.
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Steven K. Dickens on February 21, 2000
Format: Paperback
Lords of Misrule is the best history survey of New Orleans I have come across. The idea of using Mardi Gras (Carnival) as the hook for a general history is inspired: the cultural and political history of New Orleans is intimately intertwined with Carnival, and Carnival remains fascinating even when Louisiana politics are repellant. Gill has done his homework, studying promary sources and skeptically drawing his own conclusions, which is absolutely necessary in a place whose history-writing victors have liberally invented romantic myths for 150 years. In serious histories of Louisiana, it's easy to find victims but hard to find heroes, because all sides of each situation are tainted by fluid combinations of racism, violence, and corruption. Lords of Misrule deals with this problem by presenting Mardi Gras as an entity with a life of its own that somehow is able to stand firm on the swampy terrain of Louisiana political and racial history. The writing is quite good, with occasional Oscar Wilde-esque flourishes and frequent ironic double-negative descriptions (e.g. "not unknown" as a way of saying "frequent"). Several of the chapters cover events of the 1990's which Gill witnessed firsthand as a reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. These tend to be a bit overly detailed for my taste, but it doesn't bring the book down much. I would be interested in an update chapter, in which Gill discusses the new Krewes (most notably Orpheus, started by Harry Connick Jr) that arose in the mid-90's to replace the ossified old-line Krewes whose feelings were hurt in the tussle over the integration of Carnival. It seems to me that things really worked out for the best, but I haven't lived in New Orleans for over a decade. Doubtless the full story--well told, by a fair and erudite writer like Gill--is much more complicated and much more interesting.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Connecting the history and significance of the Mardi Gras was helpful but too many names and references. Was difficult remembering who was who and who did what.
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