Charles Gayarre

If Charles Étienne Arthur Gayarré (1805-1895) is remembered at all today, it is for his monumental, three-volume History of Louisiana, which was held in high esteem in its day by the eminent historian George Bancroft and which is still valued today as much for its literary quality as its historical content. Gayarré  eschewed dry history, believing it the historian’s prerogative to inject imagination into his writings. “History is marble,” Gayarré wrote, “and remains forever cold, even under the most artistic hand, unless life is breathed into it by the imagination….Then the marble becomes flesh and blood—then it feels, it thinks, it moves, and is immortal.” In his revealingly titled Romance of the History of Louisiana, the forerunner of his later History, Gayarré declared his intention “to relate events, and…to point out the hidden sources of romance which spring from them—to show what materials they contain for the dramatist, the novelist, the poet, the painter.” A Creole patrician, Gayarré was not only a historian but a politician, novelist, and satirist whose career and writings reflect his disdain for democratic politics and the emerging egalitarian society of nineteenth-century America.

Gayarré initially pursued a career in Louisiana politics as a Democrat, but after being passed over by the Democrats for a diplomatic post that he coveted, Gayarré thumbed his nose at the party and ran for Congress in 1853 as an independent Democrat candidate. Defeated at the hands of the mainline Democrats, Gayarré directed turned to the pen to exact his revenge on what he saw as a corrupt party machine. In Gayarré’s view, a few party bosses had picked the eventual winning candidate in the election, a malleable mediocrity, to be the party’s candidate for Congress and then had ensured the defeat of Gayarré, an independent gentleman who refused to pay tribute to the party bosses.

The following year, Gayarré published a “dramatic novel,” The School for Politics, in which he expressed through drama his disdain for the brand of politics that had come into fashion in Louisiana. Gayarré’s stated purpose in composing the work was to “attack evils which have become so serious as to be alarming.” From his experience as a candidate, Gayarré had come to believe that democracy in Louisiana was a farce. In reality, a few men—the Democrat party’s political bosses—decided who won elective office. Popular elections were just a window dressing to add a veil of respectability to what was at heart a closed process. “The people don’t bother themselves about these things,” one of the party bosses explains in the novel, “except going to the polls merely to ratify what a few of us, their leaders, have determined.”

The School for Politics—which Gayarré hoped to stage—centers on the fictional governor’s attempt to secure for himself the office of United States Senator and at the same time find a suitable candidate to assume the governor’s office. The party bosses choose a state senator named John Washington Randolph for the job, believing that he will be easily elected and controlled. They advise Randolph that he can win the governor’s seat only if he caters to the tastes of the lowest citizens. “Shake hands with every low fellow you meet—the dirtier the better,” counsels one of the bosses, named Lovedale. “Dress shabbily—affect vulgarity…spout against tyrants, aristocrats, and the rich—above all, talk eternally of the poor oppressed people and of their rights—drop entirely the garb, the manners, and the feelings of a gentleman.” Lovedale also advises Randolph to expend $25,000 in bribes to buy the support of the newspapers and important political operatives. “Should you give that,” he tells Randolph, “you will sweep everything before you.”

But Randolph protests that a man named Crawford is far more suited to be governor of the state. “He has been for twenty-five years a consistent party man,” Randolph explains, “has rendered great services, has filled with much credit, and to universal satisfaction, very important and arduous offices which brought him no pecuniary profits. . . . He is of unbending independence—of iron energy—a polished gentleman—a distinguished scholar—a statesman whose integrity no man would venture to attack.” It is clear that Gayarré is describing himself here. But the governor replies that Crawford is “out of place and out of time—unfit for the age….He ought to have lived centuries ago.”

Randolph is more cunning than the political handlers realize. Rebuffing Lovedale and telling him that he disdains political power, he secretly decides to play the governor’s and the political bosses’ ambition and avarice against each other in an attempt to obtain the United States Senate seat for himself. All the while he professes that he will remain pure of heart. “Let men lay their snares—let them spread their nets against one another,” Randolph muses in a soliloquy. “I will profit by their weaknesses—their lies—their vices—and their treachery—but I will keep free from contamination. I will not corrupt any one—but I will use the corrupt for noble and patriotic purposes.” Randolph succeeds in winning the office, and his victory over the corrupt party bosses is one that Gayarré clearly relishes.

If Gayarré’s early satirical work was directed at the corruption of American politics, his post-Civil War writings focused even more on the evils of the democratic society that made such politics possible. Gayarré lost his slaves and his fortune as a result of the war, and he never reconciled himself to the idea that he now had to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. Like many southern aristocrats, he considered labor–even writing–a mark of social inferiority, the burden of the lower class. “I formerly wrote for amusement,” the Creole complained, “I must now write for money, or do something else that will put that vile trash in my pocket.” He soon produced a novel, Fernando de Lemos: Truth and Fiction, a strange work, blurring fact and fiction and combining many genres— autobiography, novel, fantasy, history, and social and religious commentary. It is “a world of the imagination,” Gayarré explained, “peopled by beings of my own recollection, or creation, according to my choice.”

The novel, set in antebellum Louisiana, chronicles the adventures of the Creole Lemos, who is obviously the author himself and through whom Gayarré expresses his own views. The other major character in the story is Tintin Calandro, a sexton at the St. Louis cemetery in New Orleans who is thought a buffoon but who reveals himself to Lemos as an erudite philosopher and a talented violinist to boot. The character of Calandro also serves as a mouthpiece for Gayarré’s views, most significantly about the idea of the natural hierarchy of society, a tenet which Gayarré regretted was becoming extinct in post-war America.  In a conversation with Lemos, Calandro blasts the notion of egalitarianism, which he deems “an invention of the Devil.” He warns Lemos that the doctrine of equality sweeping the United States will produce “a chaos of evils sufficiently horrible to gladden the heart of his satanic majesty.” A belief in deference and the natural superiority of some men, Calandro asserts, “has been the deep-laid foundations and the sills of the social edifice every where since the beginning.”

The antebellum South, in Gayarré’s view, was the model of this ideal, hierarchical society. In Lemos, Calandro praises the aristocratic society of the South and argues that the democratic North senses its “inferiority in that talent of government and statesmanship, and in that nameless and indescribable refinement and charm of manners which have always characterized all aristocracies.” Calandro predicts that there will be a civil war in which the North will crush the South. “You live in an age essentially democratic,” he tells Lemos, “in which numbers will, with the rod of majorities, rule despotically over crushed and obedient minorities.” The victorious free states, Calandro predicts, would then compel the South to free its slaves, and the consequences will be disastrous. Because the two races cannot “exist together on a footing of equality, the Caucasian race will annihilate the African.”

Through Calandro, Gayarré depicts slavery, which the sexton deems “the basis of Southern society,” as a benign institution. “Under the softening influence of Christianity,” Calandro observes, “and of an education which is becoming every day more extended and more liberal, the master is growing more indulgent, more humane and more affectionate, and the slave more attached and more contented.” Still, Gayarré realized that pro-slavery briefs would be rejected by the northern reading public to which he wished to appeal, and in Lemos therefore he went only so far as to argue for racial separation. Southerners ought to emancipate gradually their slaves, Calandro advises Lemos, and give blacks “all the civil rights you enjoy, and some of the political, under proper restrictions.” But he warns that the races must be kept “distinct and apart,” and that southerners ought to “beware of debasing amalgamation.”

At its heart, Lemos is a work of nostalgia in which Gayarré idealizes antebellum southern society. He was greatly pleased with the work, and he immediately began work on a related novel, Aubert Dubayet, which he completed in 1872, the same year that Lemos was published. Gayarré described the new work, which is a prequel to Lemos, as “history, but with its nudities embellished under the glittering gossamer veil of fiction.”  This was the kind of history that Gayarré found most palatable, and he enjoyed the freedom that the genre of historical fiction allowed him as an author. A blend of fact and fiction, Aubert Dubayet is, however, somewhat less fantastic in nature than Lemos, though the outlandish character Tintin Calandro appears again. The tale is set in the 1790s, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, when the radical Jacobins were still in power. The protagonist named in the title is a New Orleanian, who is a witness to the American and French Revolutions. Though Gayarré’s story is disjointed, the book’s real value lies not in its literary merit but in its political commentary. Dubayet is largely a conversation about the relative merits of monarchy and republicanism. As in Lemos, Gayarré blasts democracy and the leveling spirit, this time through the character of the Abbe Maury, a French opponent of the Revolution. “Equality among men,” the Abbé declares, “demands equality of rights, civil and political; political equality means general suffrage, and general suffrage means the supreme power in the hands of the ignorant, the needy, and the vicious.” Maury asserts that God Himself has ordained hierarchy on earth. “There will ever be in this world,” the Abbé proclaims, “the poor and the rich, the learned and the ignorant, the strong and the weak in intellect as well as in body.”

The radical French Revolutionaries—particularly Robespierre and Jean Paul Marat—are the main villains in Dubayet. But Gayarré reserves some of his sharpest arrows for Thomas Jefferson, whose naïve support of the bloody French Revolution he details at length. Into the mouth of the radical Frenchman Jean Paul Marat, Gayarré sarcastically puts words of praise of the Virginian. In regard to Jefferson’s famous comment that he did not care if every man and woman except for a single Adam and a single Eve were killed as a result of the French wars, as long as aristocracy were wiped from the face of the earth, Marat says: “I am overwhelmed with the grandeur and heroism of a sentiment for which I can not have too much admiration.” And addressing the Jacobin Club, Marat says of Jefferson: “Our breaking into all the prisons of Paris and killing in them thousands of men, women, and children, he considers to be ‘a battle in a good cause.’”

Though completed in 1872, Dubayet was not published until a decade later. During those ten years, Gayarré’s financial situation continued to worsen, placing a great psychological strain on the Creole, who had been used to a comfortable living for the first six decades of the his life. “It is inexpressibly distressing,” Gayarré lamented through the character of Fernando de Lemos, “for one who was born in opulence, and who had always existed comfortably on an inherited income, to be suddenly reduced to the sad necessity of making a living.” Gayarré was at last forced to sell  his beloved family plantation, Roncal, in order to raise cash, and he and his wife moved to an apartment in New Orleans. In October 1887, Gayarré wrote a remarkable letter in which he informed a friend that he had “come to the final conclusion that it is time for me to die with dignity.” Gayarré planned to starve himself to death, a course of action that in his mind did not constitute suicide, which he, as a Roman Catholic, deemed to be “a violation of the law of God and man.”

Gayarré apparently did not follow through with his plan, as he lived another eight years.  A conservative in every sense of the term, Gayarré mourned the passing of the aristocratic, slave-owning society of the Old South and was never able to reconcile himself to the egalitarian mores of post-war America. The roles of romantic historian and biting satirist perfectly suited Gayarré, for he looked back nostalgically to the past and believed that he was, like the principled statesman in his The School for Politics, “unfit for the age.”

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