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Spectacular Wickedness

Sex, Race, and Memory in Storyville, New Orleans

336 pages / 6.00 x 9.00 inches / 13 halftones, 2 maps

ebook available

Southern History | Regional Studies

  Hardcover / 9780807150146 / January 2013
  Paperback / 9780807169261 / March 2018

From 1897 to 1917 the red-light district of Storyville commercialized and even thrived on New Orleans’s 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.

Storyville’s founding was envisioned as a reform measure, an effort by the city’s business elite to curb and contain prostitution—namely, to segregate it. In 1890, the Louisiana legislature passed the Separate Car Act, which, when challenged by New Orleans’s Creoles of color, led to the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896, constitutionally sanctioning the enactment of “separate but equal” laws. The concurrent partitioning of both prostitutes and blacks worked only to reinforce Storyville’s libidinous license and turned sex across the color line into a more lucrative commodity. 
By looking at prostitution through the lens of patriarchy and demonstrating how gendered racial ideologies proved crucial to the remaking of southern society in the aftermath of the Civil War, 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.

Emily Epstein Landau earned her Ph.D. in history at Yale University and teaches in the Department of History at the University of Maryland at College Park. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and two daughters.

Praise for Spectacular Wickedness

“Landau...contributes to a nuanced understanding of agency and coercion in these troubled circumstances....Landau has admirably demonstrated that the red-light district’s notoriety was, and continues to be, premised on the exploitation of the city’s reputation for racialized sexuality.”—American Historical Review

“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 takedown of Storyville's place in the United States's creation myth proves relevant in a country that still doesn't know how to categorize this sea-level city of intersections.”—Bitch Magazine

“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. That being said, Spectacular Wickedness is also a reminder of how little we can know of the women who lived and worked and dreamed in Storyville. With a keen understanding of this erasure of the past, Landau know[s] full well that there is so much that we will never know about Storyville.”—Journal of Southern Religion

“Emily Epstein Landau dives into this underworld to examine the lives of those who made it tick and the problems facing New Orleans and the Jim Crow South in general. . . . Landau’s exhaustive use of sources, ranging from court cases from the federal, state, city, and district levels to national and state government documents and private document collections, allows her to provide a comprehensive investigation of the city’s history, with a particular emphasis on the lives of those who called Storyville and New Orleans home. Landau’s book is successful in breaking down myths about the city’s history under Jim Crow while at the same time illuminating the differences between New Orleans and other southern cities.”—Journal of the History of Sexuality

Video: Landau Discusses Spectacular Wickedness

As part of the series "Speaking of Books: Conversations with Campus Authors," a program of the University of Maryland Libraries, Emily Landau presented her book on April 3, 2014. Watch the video here!

SOURCE: UMD Libraries

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