John Gregory Brown: New Orleans Will Always be Home

by Renée Ruggeri

John Gregory Brown is an American novelist who has been hailed for his portrayal of life in New Orleans in the 1960s. A native of the city, Brown was born July 31, 1960, and lived in New Orleans until 1984 after finishing his undergraduate study at Tulane University. He is currently the Julia Jackson Nichols Professor of English and director of creative writing at Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Virginia. His wife, Carrie, is also a writer. They have two daughters and one son. Although he has lived in Virginia now for almost as long as he lived in New Orleans, that city clearly shaped him: “My New Orleans is a child’s city, the city I left behind 24 years old, but which remains, as hometowns so often do, somehow at the very center of who I am. I will never be from anywhere but New Orleans (“Losing”). Indeed, he carries the city with him, “The city has stayed with me, stayed inside of me, even though I’ve now lived away from the New Orleans much longer than I lived there. But everything about it– food, geography, weather, music, religion– feels so familiar to me. That has never gone away” (E-mail). Because of his deep family history in New Orleans, his geographical surroundings, and the cultural atmosphere that unconsciously shaped his upbringing, New Orleans has, and always will be, influential in Brown’s novels.

John Gregory Brown is the child on the far left.

John Gregory Brown is the child on the far left.

Brown was one of eight children. While that is considered quite a big family by today’s standards, Brown said his family was not the largest in town by any means, as one family had 22 children (Interview). Families of this size were a direct result of Catholicism being the predominant religion in New Orleans, and birth control not being an option. Brown described the city as, “a magical silent blend of choreography and faith,” noting that his family made “the sign of the cross in unison every time we rode past a Catholic Church” (“Losing”). Brown weaves religion into the lives of his characters as part of his New Orleans setting. In Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery, Meredith’s grandfather makes garden statuaries of Jesus, Mary, and the saints, “a display that might be considered gaudy and trite in other cities but in New Orleans was a symbol of genuine and modest devotion” (Decorations 10).

Brown and his siblings lived with their parents in a modest-sized house on Chatham Drive, which is near City Park. This is considered part of the Gentilly neighborhood, but Brown said it more closely resembled the Lakeview sector (E-mail). The actual development neighborhood where Brown lived was Vista Park, which was built in the 1950s in the northern part of New Orleans, near Lake Pontchartrain.

The current street view is not the actual house where Brown and his family lived. Brown said a young family built the current house and used the slab and frame from his family’s house, so the configuration is similar for both (Interview). When Hurricane Katrina struck, Brown’s mother was still living in the house, and it was destroyed.

Brown attended Jesuit High School on Banks Street, the school where his grandfather, father, uncles and brothers all attended. His grandfather was a locally famous football coach and teacher at the school as well. This long-standing family history would have ingrained the school in Brown’s mind. By including the school’s chapel as a landmark where Meredith thinks her father may take her brother and her after leaving their stepmother in Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery (39), Brown once again incorporates the city he knew into his work. Brown said all of the places he mentions in the book were written mostly from memory, but each has a connection to his life (University). For example the cemetery on Pontchartrain Boulevard, identified as the “white” cemetery in Decorations, is where Brown’s father is buried.

Brown said that he wrote Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery because he wanted to write about the complexity of family relationships (University). While the novel is not autobiographical, Brown’s own family was an indirect influence. His father was in a bike accident that left him with a paralyzed leg, an event which he never talked to his children about. Brown’s mother never spoke about her own mother, Brown’s grandmother, either. These facts, which were present in Brown’s life, but never openly discussed, were the inspiration behind Thomas Eagen’s inability to discuss his background with his children. The novel explores the consequential pain that comes from not disclosing such information, and Brown said that he believes telling one’s story is the way to find peace or make reconciliation, which we see Thomas, and eventually his daughter Meredith are unable to do. In terms of his family today, Brown himself is a stepfather, which influenced his characterization of Catherine as the loving stepmother to Meredith.

Brown said New Orleans shaped him as a writer because of the “peculiarities of time and place” (E-mail). He described the city as a “racially diverse Catholic city in the deep South in the 1960s and its complicated history of both segregation, which was typical, and integration, which was not, as well as miscegenation and complex social and racial hierarchies” (E-mail). In Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery, the Eagens are a mixed family, and even though the book is not a direct reflection of Brown’s childhood, it is still very much inspired by the circumstances Brown grew up in. Brown said that he did not intend for Decorations to be a book about race, but because he set the story in the time period in which he was familiar, he had to deal with the issue regardless (University). Brown’s parents employed a number of African Americans, but as a child he did not realize the deep racial lines at the time. This unawareness is why Brown said he wanted to evoke the African Americans’ lyrical speech, as opposed to trying to directly imitate the dialect. Brown said writing the chapters from Murphy’s point of view were his favorite because they acknowledged the stereotypes that blacks faced, but still allowed him to write Murphy as an individual because he was based on an actual person. Most reviewers agreed with Charles Larson of the Chicago Tribune who judged the novel “a triumph” and pointed out that “much of its magnificence is the result of the author’s decision to create imaginary voices other than his own” Larson went on to say that Brown brilliantly orchestrates his novel through a series of inventive narrative techniques. His treatment of the issue [of race] is compassionate and profound” (“Decorations”).

All of Brown’s novels, including the one he is currently at work on, are either set in New Orleans or feature characters from there. Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery was Brown’s first novel, which was published in 1994. Brown said the three narrators in Decorations were a combination of people from his own life, as well as invention. Brown said Murphy was named after (the only character in the novel to have the same name as the real person) and based on an actual employee of his family’s, who Brown said was a “figure of interest” to him (University). Catherine, who Brown said was completely made up, was written in the voice of author Lee Smith, a friend of Brown’s. And Brown said Meredith was the character who most resembled him, and originally set out to write only from her perspective before realizing the other two narratives were necessary. The three-character narrative was a challenge for the first-time author, Brown said (University).

In 1997, Brown published The Wrecked, Blessed Body of Shelton Lafleur, which takes place in New Orleans during the Depression. His third novel, Audubon’s Watch, which was published in 2001, includes characters who come from New Orleans. Brown said his new novel is about a displaced man in Virginia who is originally from New Orleans and who is dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (University).

John Gregory Brown has said that even though he and his family are settled in Virginia, his mother and sister still live in New Orleans, and he would like to move back there himself, even if just for part of the year (Interview). Whether this happens or not, readers we will always have Brown’s books to go back to if we ever want to take a trip to New Orleans ourselves.  Lee Smith said of Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery, “What a writer he is! This novel is shot through with light- with love that transcends time and race, with the old, pearly glow of New Orleans itself, with John Gregory Brown’s luminous prose (Decorations). This “luminosity” is palpable because of how invested Brown is in his novel, both in its literary prose and the evident care and dedication to portray the reality of New Orleans.

Illustrations

1. “John Gregory Brown.” Photograph. Moral Compass Blog: Sweet Briar, VA. 24 Feb. 2013. Web.

2. Browns c. 1967. Photograph. 1967. Courtesy of John Gregory Brown.

3. Google Map. 5800 Chatham Drive, New Orleans, LA. Satellite and street view.

4. Katrina damage. Photograph. Courtesy of John Gregory Brown.

5. Katrina watermark. Photograph. Courtesy of John Gregory Brown.

Works Cited

Brown, John Gregory. Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery. New York: Avon Books, 1994. Print.

Brown, John Gregory. “Losing My New Orleans.” NPR, 2005. Web. 24 February 2013.

Brown, John Gregory. University of Richmond. Richmond, VA. 6 March 2013. Guest Speaker.

John Gregory Brown. E-mail message to author, 24 February, 2013.

John Gregory Brown. Interview by Renée Ruggeri, 27 February, 2013. Telephone.

Larson, Charles. Review of Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery by John Gregory Brown. Chicago Tribune. 23 April 1995. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.

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