The New Orleans writer Grace King was an intensely loyal daughter of the South. Fostered by bitter memories of the Civil War, her loyalty was kept burning by her family’s struggle to regain its wealth and maintain its social position during the long agony of Reconstruction.
In Grace King: A Southern Destiny, Robert Bush tells of King’s life and her art, both of which she enthusiastically dedicated to the memory and welfare of her region, her city, and her family. When she began writing in 1886, it was out of a sense of anger at what she saw as George Washington Cable’s disloyalty to the South, his deliberately false portrayal of New Orleans’ Creoles and blacks. King was herself a conservative in racial matters, and a number of her stories celebrate the loyalty that she has observed freed slaves showing their former masters.
But Grace King was far from conservative in her determination to earn money as a writer and to master the ideas of her era—neither endeavor considered a particularly appropriate ambition for a patrician woman of her time. She was proud to be able to contribute to her family’s income, and she developed a sharp eye for the fluctuations in the literary marketplace. In the late 1880s King worked in the local-color genre that was then in vogue. When the demand for that school of regional writing declined in the 1890s, she turned to the shorter “balcony stories” in which the details of local background were minimized. Then later in the decade, she focused her talents on writing Louisiana history after she found that publishers wanted the kind of sound, colorful work she was capable of producing.
Grace King’s major accomplishments in fiction are a small number of first-rate stories and a quiet, realistic novel about New Orleans during Reconstruction—The Pleasant Ways of St. Médard. Her best historical work is New Orleans, the Place and the People. However the significance and fascination of her life lies not just in the pages of the books she wrote but also in her role as a literary champion of the South, carrying her determined views from New Orleans to New York, New England, Canada, England, and France.
Robert D. Bush, former head of research for the Historic New Orleans Collection, is the author of The Louisiana Purchase: A Global Context and editor of The First Constitution of the State of Louisiana and Observations on the Colony of Louisiana from 1796 to 1802. He was formerly an adjunct professor of history at Front Range Community College in Westminster, Colorado, from which he retired, and is currently living in Wickenburg, Arizona.
Found an Error? Tell us about it.