An Acadian Journey

The year just ended was the 200th since the birth of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, America’s first great poet and revered in Louisiana as author of Evangeline, a Tale of Acadie. So 2007 in the bard’s home state of Maine was 12 months of special events: stage adaptations of the stories, lectures, tours and book-signings for all of the new books about his old books. The city of Portland, Maine, saw record crowds at Longfellow’s boyhood-home museum and land-office business at the Maine Historical Society’s special Longfellow family exhibit. A couple of blocks away, after a half-hour of personal observation at the giant bronze statue of the robed and seated poet at Longfellow Square, I can report an unbroken stream of reverent visitors: journal-jotters, pad-sketchers, camera-clickers, backpacking students and even a sincerely respectful brotherhood of bums who gathered there to plan an escape from that week’s imminent nor’easter.

Odd sort of a place, New England, what with their “nor’easters” and all. And they have an accent; don’t think they don’t. And do you know what they put out in front of their courthouses? Statues of Yankees! (That caught me off guard.) All in all, though, it’s a pleasant corner of the country. The folks are cautiously friendly, and somehow, somehow, though the towns and countryside are not littered with signs forbidding littering, there’s no litter! For lagniappe, the leaves do turn colors nicely, as advertised, and they do have lots and lots of clam chowder, lobster, covered bridges and lighthouses.

Portland itself can claim a half-dozen or so lighthouses along its stretch of Atlantic coast, and everyone’s favorite, including Longfellow’s, has always been the Portland Head Light, where he would sit for hours, enjoying the view as he meditated and jotted his notes. By road it’s no distance from that spot to Canada and L’Acadie, and by sea, well, standing in the shade of his lighthouse, Longfellow could have thrown a rock and rippled the waters navigated, only a half-century before his birth, by British seamen departing the Bay of Fundy with shiploads of Acadian exiles to be resettled in the New England colonies. Yet word on the streets of academia is that somehow, when he set about using that famous human upheaval as the setting for his tale of separated lovers, he began with no knowledge whatsoever of the Acadian people or the geography and other facts of their great diaspora.

Deportation of the Acadians began in 1755, with the British figuring them for natural enemies in the midst of French-British hostilities that were quickly evolving into the French and Indian War. In Longfellow’s story, Evangeline Bellefontaine is separated from her fiancé, Gabriel Lejeunesse, as the townsfolk of Grand-Pré are herded onto the ships. Finding herself unloaded in a place where Gabriel was not, she is eventually able to take hope in the news that many exiles are gathering in a place called Louisiana. That’s when Longfellow –– apparently not aware of the mortal threat English troops and their Indian allies would pose to French overlanders –– sends Evangeline and her party off on a route that University of Louisiana at Lafayette historian Carl A. Brasseaux believes they would never have chosen or survived: a mountainous trek to the Ohio River and thence down the Mississippi.

Upon passing Baton Rouge and arriving at Bayou Plaquemine, today marked by the Plaquemine Lock State Historic Site, the party traveled that tributary west before paddling through the Atchafalaya’s labyrinth of waterways. After camping in the basin on the final night of their journey, not knowing Gabriel had passed heartbreakingly close to them in the darkness, they emerged from the swampland and “entered the Teche where it flows through the green Opelousas.” Bayou Teche is born of Bayou Courtableau at Port Barre, just east of Opelousas, and they’re soon floating down the bayou in search of Acadian settlements around the “towns of St. Maur and St. Martin” (St. Maur being a long-vanished west-bank village below St. Martinville where the Teche begins its big easterly loop toward Loreauville).

Chance allows Gabriel’s father, Basil, blacksmith turned Louisiana cattleman, to recognize the newcomers and beckon them ashore for a festive reunion. There Evangeline learns Gabriel and his hunter/trapper buddies are off on a northbound expedition with a day’s head start, and she and Basil leave at sunrise to catch them at “the town of Adayes” (the Spanish presidio of Los Adaes, west of Natchitoches near today’s Robeline) where Gabriel would be stopping to trade for mules before heading for the Ozarks. They’re too late, of course, and Evangeline begins her ill-fated lifelong search, never to return but leaving behind a state so devoted to her memory that her name remains attached to hot sauce, white bread and an entire parish.

Evangeline, a Tale of Acadie appeared in 1847, and by the end of the War Between the States, the little book from the Ticknor and Fields publishing house in Boston was in its 20th edition. By the end of that century (in its 97th edition), it was required reading in most every school in the land, and its heroine, as Brasseaux’s In Search of Evangeline states succinctly, was “perhaps America’s best-known literary character.”

Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that so brief a fictional passage through our state would inspire such poignant and permanent devotion to her here. Indeed, the reason lies not only in Longfellow’s account, which was merely the story, but also in a later story of the story that persuaded Louisianians and the nation that the “true prototype” of Evangeline belonged finally and forever to Louisiana and in particular to St. Martinville. Longfellow’s story has “spun off” many other writings, including a Classics Illustrated comic version and a rather good piece of historic fiction called A Sister to Evangeline by Charles G.D. Roberts (1898, about Acadians who escape to join the French military). With the advent of motion pictures came books containing screenplays and movie “stills” from the two major films: Carolyn Bailey’s adaptation for the 1919 Evangeline was published in 1922 and Finis Fox’s for The Romance of Evangeline in 1929.  The “story of the story” that has echoed down the decades, however, is Acadian Reminiscences by Judge Felix Voorhies of St. Martinville.

Voorhies was a kinsman of the Mouton family of Lafayette, which has given us a governor, a Confederate general and (outranking them both) a legendary Mother Superior of the Sacred Heart school in Grand Coteau. An oral tradition sprang up around 1900 that a Mouton great-grandmother had adopted a girl in Acadie who became Longfellow’s prototype for the Evangeline character. A four-page preview of that revelation appeared in 1906 in George Bible’s The Acadians: The Historic Basis for Longfellow’s Poem of Evangeline, and Judge Voorhies developed it into the slender but full-length Acadian Reminiscences that appeared in 1907. In it the judge has his own grandmother telling the story of raising the orphan girl named Emmeline Labiche, witnessing the maiden’s separation from her betrothed as the exiles boarded the British ships and then traveling with her to Maryland and on (via another impossible overland route) to Louisiana. She tells of the girl’s loss of sanity in St. Martinville upon finding her Gabriel prototype, Louis Arceneaux, already wed to another, and she describes the young woman lingering only a short while before dying quietly, at the height of her mental disorder, in the arms of her adopted mother.

Various accounts have credited various Louisianians with sharing that story idea with Longfellow, but historian Brasseaux produces proof to the contrary –– the journals of famed novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, which record a New England clergyman relating to Hawthorne a true story of lovers separated in the exile but with the girl’s lifetime of searching confined to New England.  A year or so later his journal entry for May 2, 1844, documents a dinner where Hawthorne and the clergyman were joined by Longfellow, to whom the reverend repeated the story.

Longfellow liked it and used it, extrapolating from the theme a work of fiction involving continent-wide wandering, and Brasseaux believes Voorhies also intended the Reminiscences to be fictitious. Both works seemed so authentically detailed, however, that they were immediately perceived as gospel, and legions of Louisiana Acadians such as Andre Olivier took up the cause of establishing local landmarks for the Evangeline/Emmeline stories. “M’sieur Andre,” as he was called, was instrumental in the drive to erect Evangeline’s statue in the church square, and for years afterward, the big “Evangeline Enshrined” sign just across the bayou, marking his own museum and souvenir shop, enjoyed landmark status itself. In his dotage and in my youth, I met him there and became an easy convert, guiding readers of my old Plantation Homes of the Teche Country to the nonexistent Emmeline’s unmarked grave site and even describing the old Louis Pierre Arceneaux home (in the Beaubassin area near Carencro) as being the home of the Gabriel prototype.
So “we was had,” mostly because of our own desire to believe, but the truth that remains is of far more importance: the great Longfellow created one of the world’s best-known and most long-lived works of fiction, and the “Eden of Louisiana,” as he called it, owns a piece of it. The rest of it –– the story of the story and the embellishments that came with generations of retelling –– has become folklore in the purest sense, and lore is far more powerful and valuable than mere history in defining a people. We can credit Longfellow for the great fiction; ourselves for the great lore; and, lest we forget, our dedicated historians for volumes of accurate detail about the “Grand Derangement.”

Many physical and cultural landmarks remain of Evangeline’s and Emmeline’s storybook visits to the Teche, but much has been lost, not only the village of St. Maur but also trees, films, one WPA mural and one elusive statue.

They say the Evangeline Oak, at bayou side near the downstream corner of the church square, is the third so designated –– all, in their time, serving as living landmarks of the spot where so many early Teche travelers first set foot in St. Martinville –– but the town’s famed Evangeline mural is long lost and irreplaceable.

It had been created by WPA artists of the 1930s on a wall of the post office, which then occupied the historic Duchamp Townhouse that still stands on Main Street adjacent to the square. By way of consolation, however, we now have the epic 12-foot-by-20-foot mural by Robert Dafford of Lafayette that depicts the arrival of dozens of actual exiles, some posed for by their actual descendants.

Of the five known Evangeline films, the 1908 and 1911 short versions and the 1914 full-length production (the first feature film ever made in Canada) no longer exist, and the 1919 production is also feared lost. The best-known of all, however, the silent movie that brought actress Dolores del Rio to St. Martinville and Catahoula in 1929, though unseen for generations and rumored to be lost, is now suddenly resurrected and available in DVD format.

The star endeared herself to the community by personally contributing to the Evangeline statue fund and by allowing her likeness to be used for the sweet face of Evangeline that we see in the tiny church-side cemetery today. The stone plaque there, which announces that this is the unmarked burial place of Emmeline Labiche, has become a memorial to the spirit of Louisiana’s Acadians, whose love for a symbolic exiled maiden was strong enough to make her forever part of their most precious tradition.

A few blocks up the bayou in Longfellow-Evangeline State Park, you will find a great stone memorial to Voorhies and his Reminiscences of Emmeline, and his great contribution is this: He gave us a story that became the impetus for a movement in the mid-20th century that won for Louisiana’s Acadians, for the first time, the attention and acceptance they deserved from their kinsmen in Canada and New England.

You must travel to L’Acadie itself to see the 1930 statue of Evangeline by Philippe Hebert (completed by his son Henri) at Grand-Pré National Historic Site (a standing figure that radiates youthfulness and hope from one angle and age and despair from another), and in the St. John River valley of extreme northern Maine is a restored 17-building Acadian Village complete with a marble statue of Evangeline that stands near the entrance of a small Evangeline Museum. Or just drive to Kaliste Saloom Road in Lafayette, where the entrance (Asma Boulevard) to Saloom Office Park is graced by Cajun artist George Rodrigue’s 1983 tribute in bronze and stone to Longfellow’s Louisiana legacy. Rodrigue’s trademark live oak, made famous in his paintings of the Cajun people, becomes in this sculpture the Evangeline Oak, sheltering Longfellow as he embraces his creations, Evangeline and Gabriel.

The oldest Evangeline statue of them all, a marble beauty shown in the loosely draped garments of a goddess, head bowed in sorrow, dropped out of sight 150 years ago after receiving the highest honors of the London art world. It was the work of Samuel Ferris Lynn of Belfast, who was yet unborn (1836-1876) when Longfellow’s epic was written but who, having entered London’s Royal Academy of Art in 1854, was sufficiently inspired by it to create an image worthy of being shown at the academy’s invitational exhibit of 1858. Records do not indicate whether the statue was sold at the exhibit, and when J.H. Baker’s steel engraving of the statue appeared in the academy’s prestigious Art Journal (page 372) in 1865, the text shed no light on its whereabouts. We can rest assured, however, that if it wasn’t pulverized in the blitzkrieg, it will surface again one day.

Categories: Travel