Spectacular Wickedness

  • by Emily Epstein Landau
  • Narrated by Lee Ann Howlett
  • 9 hrs and 42 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

From 1897 to 1917 the red-light district of Storyville commercialized and even thrived on New Orleans' longstanding reputation for sin and sexual excess. This notorious neighborhood, located just outside of the French Quarter, hosted a diverse cast of characters who reflected the cultural milieu and complex social structure of turn-of-the-century New Orleans, a city infamous for both prostitution and interracial intimacy. In particular, Lulu White, a mixed-race prostitute and madam, created an image of herself and marketed it profitably to sell sex with light-skinned women to white men of means.
In Spectacular Wickedness, Emily Epstein Landau examines the social history of this famed district within the cultural context of developing racial, sexual, and gender ideologies and practices. In 1890, the Louisiana legislature passed the Separate Car Act, which, when challenged by New Orleans' Creoles of color, led to the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896, constitutionally sanctioning the enactment of separate but equal laws. Landau reveals how Storyville's salacious and eccentric subculture played a significant role in the way New Orleans constructed itself during the New South era.

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What the Critics Say

"Historians of race, gender, and sexuality will learn much from Landau's explanation of how vice precincts such as Storyville reinforced the patriarchal and racial logic of segregation, and challenged it in the most subversive (and intimate) of ways." (Journal of American History)
"Well-researched and informative, Spectacular Wickedness is a welcome addition to the ever-growing canon of New Orleans cultural history books." (New Orleans Advocate)
"Landau's scrupulously researched profile of Lulu White, in particular, is a model for historians interested in giving voice to women of color so often absent from the archival record." (Journal of Southern Religion)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

A fascinating [academic] read

The Book

First off, Spectacular Wickedness an academic work and it shows. For someone who enjoys non-fiction and has experience reading academic papers and such this is a great read, especially if you're already familiar with the turn of the century South. If you're just picking this up out of prurient interest and/or don't have any affinity for history, sociology, anthropology, etc, this is not going to be the book for you. This is not the book's fault; it does what it says on the tin.

Now that that's out of the way.

I really enjoyed this. I've never gotten to go to New Orleans, but I spent many months each summer in Mobile, another originally French-settled Gulf city, all the way through my teens. That influence is still there, even if not as pointed as in New Orleans, so it wasn't completely foreign to me going in.

I do feel that understanding race relations in the post-reconstruction South is essentially to fully grasping the reality of Storyville. Landau does touch on it, and to be fair the topic is several books worth of analysis on its own, but I feel given how much Storyville relied on sex tourism that expanding the historical concept would have helped.

The biggest issue I had with this book was that it was frequently repetitive. The fact that sex was for sale in Storyville and that Octoroons were a huge draw was explicitly stated at least three or four times a chapter. A more ruthless editor was definitely needed.

Where I felt the book really worked best was the chapter on Lulu White. After a plethora of exposition and analysis, Landau discusses the life of one particular madam, Lulu White. After a lot of general information this case study so-to-speak really crystallized that. It made me want to read more about the individuals in Storyville.

Another thing I liked was the bits of the story of jazz. Landau uses several quotes from jazz songs and performers to describe and contextualize Storyville and very unsubtly points out how our modern-day concept of the birthplace of jazz is incredibly shortsighted and sanitized.

The Narration

The narration for Spectacular Wickedness was solidly decent. Howlett's pacing was reasonable, pronunciation was mostly okay though I'm sure a New Orleans native could find things to pick at, and her tone was balanced. Another reviewer mentioned this was like listening to a good professor and I'd have to agree. I'd happily listen to other works from her.

Disclaimer

I received this audiobook for free in exchange for an unbiased review. All opinions are entirely my own.
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- A. C. Skinner

Good history of New Orleans 1800-1920

I grew up on the Westbank and downloaded this hoping to find out a little more about the hometown.
Not only does the book cover Storyville, but it lays out much of the race relations and history of NOLA in the hundred years preceding it. Jazz is a side item in the book as it focuses more on prostitution and efforts to control it at the turn of the century.
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- Michael

Book Details

  • Release Date: 09-08-2015
  • Publisher: University Press Audiobooks