Ludwig von Reizenstein: The Mysteries of New Orleans, 1854-1855
Baron Ludwig von Reizenstein
The Mysteries of New Orleans
translated and edited by Steven Rowan
Paperback, 600 pages
Published June 10th 2002 by The Johns Hopkins University Press
A lost classic of America's neglected German-language literary tradition, The Mysteries of New Orleans by Baron Ludwig von Reizenstein first appeared as a serial in the Louisiana Staats-Zeitung, a New Orleans German-language newspaper, between 1854 and 1855.
Inspired by the gothic "urban mysteries" serialized in France and Germany during this period, Reizenstein crafted a daring occult novel that stages a frontal assault on the ethos of the antebellum South. His plot imagines the coming of a bloody, retributive justice at the hands of Hiram the Freemason—a nightmarish, 200-year-old, proto-Nietzschean superman—for the sin of slavery. Heralded by the birth of a black messiah, the son of a mulatto prostitute and a decadent German aristocrat, this coming revolution is depicted in frankly apocalyptic terms.
Yet, Reizenstein was equally concerned with setting and characters, from the mundane to the fantastic. The book is saturated with the atmosphere of nineteenth-century New Orleans, the amorous exploits of its main characters uncannily resembling those of New Orleans' leading citizens.
Also of note is the author's progressively matter-of-fact portrait of the lesbian romance between his novel's only sympathetic characters, Claudine and Orleana.
This edition marks the first time that The Mysteries of New Orleans has been translated into English and proves that 150 years later, this vast, strange, and important novel remains as compelling as ever.
"Reizenstein's peculiar vision of New Orleans is worth resurrecting precisely because it crossed the boundaries of acceptable taste in nineteenth-century German America and squatted firmly on the other side.... This work makes us realize how limited our notions were of what could be conceived by a fertile American imagination in the middle of the nineteenth century."—from the Introduction by Steven Rowan
"Uncovering the vices of a city that was steeped in sexual promiscuity of every variety and crimes of greed, passion and malice... Reizenstein invests a good many satiric jibes at religion, society and human nature in general. A mixture of naturalistic realism and gothic melodrama, Mysteries of New Orleans really focuses most of its attention on the city of its title. Reizenstein's greatest talent is for minute detail, and, under his scrutiny, very little that goes on in the city escapes his notice.... Steven Rowan's astute and clearly written introduction and his very informative notes on each chapter are helpful in understanding the historic context of the book. His translation allows readers a glimpse into a city whose varied and intriguing population has created a potpourri as rich today as it was 150 years ago when Baron von Reizenstein took up residence and took up his pen."—Mary McCay, New Orleans Times-Picayune
"The essence of New Orleans is invested in a history of vice, vagrancy, and pirate vibes... What is [this] history exactly? In The Mysteries of New Orleans a novel written in the mid-nineteenth century by Baron Ludwig von Reizenstein, just published by Johns Hopkins University Press, the squalor is more vivid that anything we might mention today. The Baron was just reporting."—Andrei Codrescu, NPR's All Things Considered
"Ethnic American literature has found legitimacy in the classroom, so this novel comes as a welcome surprise... This roman a clef include[s] scandalous depictions of salacious antebellum life amid the European, African, mulatto, and Creole societies that intermingled in the city... The book offers a rare and candid look into a much earlier time. A significant document."—Choice
"Painstakingly reconstructed... Has... taken its place as a founding text for a city whose open and tolerant atmosphere was no longer any mystery at all."—Christopher Capozzola, Bay Windows
Baron Ludwig von Reizenstein (1826-1885) was born in Bavaria and emigrated to America in 1848. By 1851 he had established himself as a civil engineer, architect, journalist, amateur naturalist, and publisher in New Orleans, where he lived until his death.
Steven Rowan is a professor of history at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.