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The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans Hardcover – March 30, 2012

4.3 out of 5 stars 42 customer reviews

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Hardcover, March 30, 2012
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Editorial Reviews


There are bigger cities than New Orleans, more beautiful cities than New Orleans, and more important cities than New Orleans but there is no city more interesting than New Orleans. This is a fascinating book about a fascinating city. (James Carville)

A masterful unfolding of the story of the most complicated and unusual city in the United States. This will become the definitive book on the early history of not only New Orleans but much of the Gulf Coast. (John M. Barry, author of Rising Tide and Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul)

The Accidental City is a tour de force--engagingly written, broad in scope, precise in detail, and completely worthy of its fascinating, complex, soulful subject. (Tom Piazza, author of Why New Orleans Matters and City of Refuge)

An epic account of how America's most exotic city crept and clawed its way into existence. Powell evokes the swamps, sweat, misery, grandeur, and colorful and seedy characters that came together to create a place that Thomas Jefferson could never comprehend. (Joseph J. Ellis, author of American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson)

Powell's fluid, pungent narrative and comprehensive interpretive reach argue powerfully for New Orleans' enduring cultural significance in America and globally. (Nick Spitzer, producer of public radio's American Routes)

The Accidental City is an extraordinary book--hands down, the best account of the first two centuries of the history of New Orleans. (Ira Berlin, author of Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves)

The author knows well the geographical and geopolitical history of the city where he teaches, and the complexity of this story would daunt a faint-hearted historian--which Powell manifestly is not. He dives confidently into the murky bayou of the region's story, and what a tangled tale he emerges to tell...Powell is brilliant at elucidating the city's intricate racial politics. (Kirkus Reviews 2012-02-01)

This rich story of the emergence of the Crescent City from its unlikely floodplain site is the best history of early New Orleans ever written...In Katrina's aftermath and the shock of nature's claims on our lives, this timely work brings out the complexities of New Orleans's history as well as the rich tapestry of its gritty people...This is a splendid telling presented in a clear, robust voice. (Publishers Weekly (starred review) 2012-01-02)

Should stand for years as the definitive history of New Orleans's first century...Powell's account of New Orleans's racial history is extensive; he is especially good on the subject of the black militias that formed during the Spanish rule and helped strengthen the city's community of free blacks. (Jonathan Yardley Washington Post 2012-04-01)

The ebb and flow of cultures, and the way they melded and reshaped New Orleans in its first century, is the subject of Lawrence N. Powell's masterful history...It's an account of how an improbable city came to be and then survived through its own determination and the flexible social and political structures of its first inhabitants...In his telling, Powell deftly manages to bring historic personages to life with a few well-chosen words...Like the city itself, [the book] is a successful hybrid, filled with well-rendered writing that doesn't preen. (Wayne Curtis Wall Street Journal 2012-04-06)

A dazzler...This is a hellaciously good book about the founding and first few centuries of New Orleans that is so well-crafted that it reads like a fictional thriller. The rich history of the city and its swampy environs offers Powell an eclectic cast and a kaleidoscopic series of events to chronicle, and he takes full advantage. Here's a chance to learn critical American history and be brilliantly entertained at the same time...This book is a treasure, and essential reading for anyone who wants to know the why and how of New Orleans history. (Jeff Guinn Dallas Morning News 2012-04-01)

A superb book by one of America's foremost living historians. (Simon Caterson The Australian 2012-04-01)

Deepens readers' appreciation and understanding of this city. (Sonnet Ireland Library Journal 2012-04-01)

Filled with vivid characters and insights into the city's deep-rooted culture, this sweeping history traces the growth of New Orleans from swampy colonial outpost to strategic linchpin during the War of 1812. (Times-Picayune 2012-04-01)

[The Accidental City] is one of the finest regional American histories I have encountered in a long time, a delight to anyone with even the faintest curiosity about how our nation became itself...[A] marvelous book. (Charles C. Mann The Daily 2012-04-01)

[Powell] catches all the high and low notes as New Orleanians improvised an American future--and he makes it clear that America would be a very different place without the city's contributions. (Chris Waddington Times-Picayune 2012-04-04)

[Powell's] book addresses the reasons New Orleans has survived and thrived, against impossible odds, and what makes this "accidental" city so fascinating and precious...Powell's brilliant study meticulously traces the story of the city's founding in a swamp and its first century of growth into an extraordinary hybrid Indian-European-Caribbean-African-American place...The narrative traces the early French settlers' conflicts and relationships with Indians, slaves and free people of color around the settlement and its architectural designs, through the short but significant period of Spanish rule, and finally to the famous Louisiana Purchase and American political, though never social and cultural, domination. It documents with compelling detail and anecdote the disputes and compromises involved in the settlement's design and post-conflagration rebuilt versions, and illuminates the complex history of the city's smuggling, tripartite racial order, slave and free population and African-American "cultural creation," metissage (race mixing), marronnage (fugitive slaves), Creolization and hybrid religions (notably Catholicism and voodoo)...This will become the definitive study of New Orleans' early history. When, I ask impatiently, can we read Powell on the next two centuries of this "accidental" city's life? (Helen Taylor Times Higher Education 2012-05-03)

Powell has composed a comprehensive early history of the Crescent City in The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans. Beginning with La Salle, Bienville and Iberville's early forays on the wild Mississippi River--the "Impossible River," as Powell christens his first chapter--he leads us through over a century of rambunctious colonialism, delving into trade disputes, shifting economies and race relations, all the way through the growing pains of the Louisiana Territory. (Alex Gecan New Orleans Magazine 2012-04-01)

Most visitors to New Orleans know it is a magical city. But "accidental"? A strange word, but appropriate, according to this fascinating account of the origin and history of what the author describes as "America's only original contribution to world culture."...The heart of this story lies in the rich chapters devoted to the African-Americans who came as slaves. Many of them attained their freedom because they held the city together through their strength and ingenuity. From the three-tiered culture that developed--white planters, free blacks and slaves--grew the cuisine and music that make New Orleans the queen of the delta. (Kathleen Daley Newark Star-Ledger 2012-04-01)

Written as a historical text in narrative form, Powell manages to unpack several different American and American-related histories into one, which is the great success of the book. He writes this history of New Orleans in the only way one can: carefully. Powell doesn't stick to one narrative because the history of New Orleans is an ever-changing confluence of events, people, and cultures that lacks the same kind of linear story of other cities...Weaving together events that range from international politics to the socio-cultural development of poor American families, Powell's comprehensive glimpse of the past is particularly important today. (Sylvio Lynch PopMatters 2012-05-24)

[The Accidental City] provided for me the back story to anything I've ever wondered about in our enigmatic city...[The book displays] Powell's copious research, his penetrating insights, his wry humor and poetic turns of phrase. (Orissa Arend New Orleans Tribune 2012-05-01)

Powell advances sympathetic understanding of what very well may be the U.S.'s most curious city. He traces the dynamics of politics and business that ultimately located a city in virtually uninhabitable swampland. The lively narrative continues from the French through the Spanish colonial periods, concluding with Louisiana statehood in 1812, all the while revealing the disparate forces that bound the city together just as they threatened to tear it apart. Consistent with the author's established interests, race and race relations remain central to this interpretation. Readers may not agree with all aspects of Powell's argument, but they are certain to find this an intriguing read that answers scores of questions about a complex city. (S. C. Hyde Choice 2012-10-01)

About the Author

Lawrence N. Powell, former holder of the James H. Clark Endowed Chair in American Civilization, is Professor Emeritus of History at Tulane University.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; Sew edition (March 30, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674059875
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674059870
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.5 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #796,013 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I visited New Orleans last week. It felt like no one could really tell me the nerdy, detailed history of the place. Tour guides glossed over details. Locals had great "local color" of recent decades, which is certainly valuable. But this book is the answer to a question that I think many have been asking. The women at the local bookstore told me, "We've needed this book for a while." I can't wait to read the rest. Sitting down for another 50-70 page sitting now.

Note: you need some resilience as an academic reader to get through this. It's dense, and you need to be willing to let certain details fall by the wayside as you pick-up on the most important ones, constructing a narrative in your first reading. After that, go back and dig in deeper if you wish.
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This is a book I didn't want to put down, and now that I've finished it, I find myself returning to it. Powell is a good storyteller, and through all the muddy history of early New Orleans and the colony it was supposed to center, he keeps the reader firmly located in time and place. That is a difficult task, since understanding New Orleans in its colonial period requires situating it in the contexts of French and Spanish colonial aspirations, Anglo-European rivalries, the Caribbean world of trade, African and Indian slavery, the rivalry between the French Canadian establishment (e.g., the Lemoyne brothers Bienville and Iberville) and the natives of France who make up the military, the Church, government bureaucracy, and the entrepreneurs. Yet Powell makes the job seem easy. His comprehension of the city along with his graceful writing style and lucid organization makes this book one of the best histories I've read in a long time. Devoid of the dreary academic jargon that impedes understanding, it is nevertheless the work of a scholar. of I recommend it to anyone who wants to understand how New Orleans became the city it is today and, to a large extent, how Louisiana became the state it is.

"The Accidental City" is not a simple linear history of the founding of New Orleans. In it, Powell seeks to identify the qualities that distinguish the city and to account for these in an interwoven complex history of geography, ethnicity, colonialism, class, geography, and the West Indian world of slavery. He does it both with flair and clarity.

He begins with the iconic legend of English Turn, 15 miles downriver from the current French Quarter.
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Format: Hardcover
The knowledge of the first 100 years of New Orleans history is usually confined to a few well-known facts: it was founded by Bienville, owned by France, the French Quarter was burned and rebuilt by Spain who owned it at the time, then later transferred to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase.

This wonderful book shines a light on those obscure years and makes this early history come to life with lively prose and stunningly beautiful passages. So interesting I didn't want it to end.

I live in New Orleans, born and raised here. This detailed, well-crafted book is a delight to read, not a trudging chore as some history books are. If you really want to find out about why New Orleans is the way it is, and why it's here on the edge of a swamp, stuck on a ridge along one of the world's most powerful rivers this book is a must-read.
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Format: Hardcover
I wasn't sure I was going to post a review of City when I first got it. The author is a longtime friend. I wasn't so much worried about favoring the book too highly as that I might find parts of it objectionable and would find it difficult to tell my friend that.

I needn't have worried. The book is excellent. The story it tells is a fascinating one, and especially relevant post-Katrina, with naysayers second-guessing the merit in restoring a city so vulnerable to the elements as New Orleans is. One of the (many) things I admire about this book is Larry's passion for his city, a passion that doesn't compromise his ability to view its history objectively.! Good history doesn't have to be dry. It can be passionate as long as it's faithful to the record, and this book is.

New Orleans's history was complicated from the start. The settlement shouldn't have been built where it was in the first place - on a site with limited commercial or agricultural merit, founded on unstable soil, and subject to heat, disease, floods, rain, and torrential hurricanes. There were more sensible places to found a city. It was founded -confirmed--where it was almost by trick.

At every stage of its growth (up to 1814, where the story ends) there have been dramatic changes, volte-faces, as the city changed hands -first French, then Spanish, finally American. It had a society that was unique in the world, a tri-partite blend of white, African slave, and free men of color (gens de couleur libres). Some of the most interesting portions of this book deal with the tensions and accommodations made between blacks and whites in this culturally fertile frontier society.

Throughout the book, Powell gracefully balances narrative and analysis.
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