December 24, 2009


And the Battle of New Orleans

By Robert Tallant
196 pages, Pelican Publishing.

Review by Kate Kasserman

In the course of researching my next book, I realized that all I really knew of Jean Lafitte and his band of pirates, who preyed with remarkable success from their little Baratarian stronghold outside New Orleans in the early nineteenth century, was pretty much legend, and I needed to fill in those broad sketch-strokes (at least for my own peace of mind; when I make misstatements or alter facts, which I do, I like to be conscious of it).

Lafitte unfortunately, if understandably, exerted himself during his lifetime to muddy his trail and wreathe himself in a fog of shadows and implication, leaving precious little that is solid for historians to go on. We do know where he operated from (because we flattened it to matchsticks); we know that he stole ships and their cargoes and sold them brazenly, even opening his own market; we know that he liked to cut a figure in “good” society; we know that in the War of 1812, the British fully expected him to come to their aid, but Lafitte refused and placed himself, his men, and his sizable stores at the service of Gen. Andrew Jackson; we know that in the wake of the Battle of New Orleans, after Lafitte was briefly feted (deservedly, given his contributions) as a hero, the people then grew chilly to him and he took off for…somewhere else.

Everything else is pretty much a blank. We don’t even know where he came from. (One modern scholar has done yeoman’s service in tracing the fine, fine threads even the wily Lafitte trailed, and I will probably review that book later.)

So to get a basic initial grounding in what little is known, I found myself thrown upon the resources of fifties-era “Read this, it’s good for you! Like brussel sprouts! And Pall Malls!” kid-lit. The Pirate Lafitte makes a small concession to entertaining the reader early on, by semi-dramatizing the events of one of the few first-person accounts surviving of Jean Lafitte: a letter written by a visiting Virginian boy Esau Glasscock whose father had skedaddled down to the Big Easy to pick up some slaves. Slaves, by the bye, were Lafitte’s main stock in trade (a bubble of romanticism just went pop and died) – it was illegal to import them but not to sell them internally, a peculiar American legal loophole that made JL a mint. (And very likely a key reason he was so keen to make sure New Orleans remained in American hands rather than English. Pop, there goes another romanticism-bubble!)

The rest of the book commits what is regarded (along with the passive voice) as one of the cardinal sins of modern writing – it tells rather than shows. I think the style works just fine. It takes the reader with commendable care (Tallant has made a few small assertions that researchers after him have discredited, but he is pretty painstaking about differentiating between what was known and what was guessed, and he does not fear the subjunctive) through the few events of Lafitte’s career in the public eye, giving even-handed context and some local color, all in the style of your pipe-smoking uncle sitting you down to explain Jean Lafitte one evening (no, I don’t have a pipe-smoking uncle either, but I still think they’re cool). It is not wildly immediate or dramatic, and it definitely chooses not to engage with Lafitte’s less savory characteristics, but the text is accessible and fast-moving and covers a surprising amount of ground.

I wonder what the market for this is precisely these days (other than, I would imagine, grade-school libraries). American History seems to have become a battleground for partisans, where one unit of fact (at best) has to be mixed with twelve units of pissy censoriousness and/or smug approval – particularly when it comes to what we give our children. And this is a book quite devoid of overt moralizing; the tone is controlled and upbeat and cheerfully factual. The Pirate Lafitte is a window into other times – both Lafitte’s and Tallant’s – just as imperfect as our own, but with their own lovely gifts to offer nevertheless.

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