Places: The Grandissimes

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1880

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Regional

Time of work: 1804

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*New Orleans

*New Grandissimes, TheOrleans. Louisiana’s leading city, located on the Mississippi River near the Gulf of Mexico. New Orleans is essentially an island, surrounded by Lake Pontchartrain to the north; the Mississippi River, which curves in a semicircle around it; and numerous bayous and swamps. Because of its status as the most foreign of all American cities, New Orleans, especially the old French Quarter, in which most of the action of the novel occurs, seems itself a character in the novel. Founded by the French in 1718, the city became part of the United States after the sale of Louisiana in 1803. Following the purchase and the American occupation, the city remained very much a French and Spanish city, with language, culture, and food more associated with Europe than with the rest of the United States. Cable was a native of New Orleans and was fascinated by the Creoles, descendants of French and Spanish settlers; their history and unique lifestyle, so different from his own, intrigued him, even as certain aspects of their existence repulsed him.

The plot of The Grandissimes could not have occurred in any other American city, for only in New Orleans did the peculiar institution called placage exist as an established and accepted part of society. White Creole men frequently took mistresses of mixed blood, known as “quadroons” or “octoroons.” They housed these young women in their own homes on the periphery of the French Quarter and proceeded to father and rear second families. The result was a mixed population unique to New Orleans and unlike any other in the country. This type of situation is dramatically exhibited in the story of the two branches of the Grandissime family. Although Creoles tended to be secretive about their lives and distrustful of outsiders, the practice of placage was common knowledge and seems to have intrigued even as it repelled the staunchly religious Cable.


*Louisiana. When the United States acquired Louisiana from Napoleon, the territory consisted of more than one million square miles that stretched west from the Mississippi River to the Rockies and north from Mexico to the Canadian border. From this enormous area, several states were carved, including what is now the state of Louisiana.

*French Quarter

*French Quarter. New Orleans’s old Frenchtown district, also known as the “Vieux Carre.” After 1718, the district grew up around the original settlement on the banks of the Mississippi. By 1804, the Quarter had expanded up and down the river. White Americans found themselves unwelcome in the French Quarter–a conflict dramatized in the struggle between Joseph Frowenfeld, Cable’s protagonist, and the hot-tempered young Creole men. The Americans soon moved outside the Quarter, many to an area upriver that became known as the Garden District.

At the point on the river where the Creoles landed, they set apart a square where the militia could drill. This was known as the Place d’Armes (place of arms). After the mid-twentieth century it became known as Jackson Square.

*Congo Square

*Congo Square. Quadrangle on the outskirts of the French Quarter. It was so named because, before the Civil War, many of the slave owners in the Quarter brought their slaves to the area on Sunday afternoons for their only recreation, which consisted of singing and dancing to the music that would later evolve into jazz. Cable wrote an essay, “Dance in Place Congo,” in which he collected several of these songs.

BibliographyButcher, Philip. George W. Cable. New York: Twayne, 1962. An excellent beginner’s source for discussions of Cable’s fiction. Analyzes the themes, structure, and characters of The Grandissimes and discusses the novel’s importance in Cable’s development as a writer.Elfenbein, Anna Shannon. Women on the Color Line: Evolving Stereotypes and the Writings of George Washington Cable, Grace King, Kate Chopin. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989. Compares Cable’s female characters with those of two other turn-of-the-century New Orleans writers. Places special emphasis on Cable’s treatment of women of color.Rubin, Louis D., Jr. George W. Cable: The Life and Times of a Southern Heretic. New York: Pegasus, 1969. An excellent study of Cable in the context of Southern fiction and culture. Calls The Grandissimes “the first ‘modern’ Southern novel” and explores Cable’s treatment of race. Compares Cable to later Southern writers such as William Faulkner. A good starting point for serious study.Turner, Arlin. George W. Cable: A Biography. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1956. An excellent biographical study with a detailed chapter on The Grandissimes that analyzes the novel’s place in Cable’s artistic and political development. Analyzes Cable’s philosophy of fiction and his pioneering use of dialect in fiction.Wilson, Edmund. Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962. Examines the political dimensions of The Grandissimes, including a discussion of the historical setting of the novel in comparison to the historical period in which it was written.
Categories: Places