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New Orleans vs. Indianapolis in the literary superbowl

January 26, 2010

Tennessee Williams, captain of the New Orleans team.

A baseball snob, I didn’t know the teams for this year’s Superbowl were set until someone mentioned it on Facebook. Superbowl–that’s football, right? Not NASCAR? Anyway, it got me thinking about the literary prowess of the two cities involved, Indianapolis and New Orleans. You might think the Big Easy would handily win a Battle of the Authors, but not so fast.

What do you say? Which city fields the better literary team?

Let’s expand the contest to take in all of Indiana and Louisiana, which is more than fair, given the gridiron fever that will sweep the two states.

New Orleans certainly is the gaudier of the two. Indiana, with its cornbelt wholesomeness and the small-town Americana of John Mellancamp, can hardly compare to N’awlins — jazz and voodoo and Mardi Gras and Jean Lafitte and the French Quarter. Breaded pork tenderloin with fried biscuts and apple butter sounds yummy, but lacks the panache of jambalaya, filet gumbo or blackened redfish.

And what a roster Lousiana can muster! First and foremost, of course, Tennessee Williams, followed by Truman Capote. William Faulkner belongs to Mississippi, but he resided in New Orleans for a brief but formative period as a young man. Katherine Anne Porter lived in Baton Rouge as a young (and unhappy) woman.

Indianapolis' go-to superstar, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Robert Penn Warren taught at Lousiana State University in Baton Rouge, while Robert Olen Butler taught at MacNeese State University in Lake Charles. Walker Percy, though raised in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi, set most of his novels, including The Moviegoer, in Louisiana.

Poor, doomed John Kennedy Toole set his wonderful comic novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, in his native city, New Orleans. Earnest J. Gaines spent the first 15 years of his life in Pointe Coupee Parish.

The list goes on: Anne Rice, Andrei Codrescu, Lillian Hellman, Stephen Ambrose, James Lee Burke, Robert Crais, Ellen Gilchrist, Valerie Martin, Shirley Ann Grau, Rebecca Wells, Sarah Shankman, Fatima Shaik, Tom Piazza, Poppy Z. Brite, to name but a few.

Okay, Indiana, whatcha got? To begin with, Indiana’s got Kurt Vonnegut Jr., an Indianapolis native and a dominant literary performer by any measure. How about Theodore Dreiser? There’s a Norton Anthology of American Literature All-Pro for you. Born in Terra Haute, flunked out of Indiana University.

Booth Tarkington, another Indianapolis native, is an unjustly forgotten American novelist overdue for a revival. Jessamyn West, the mere mention of whom takes me back to junior high school (and I’m not from Indiana). James Whitcomb Riley, an important regionalist poet. George Ade, a fabulously popular writer and playwright of the early 20th Century.

Humorist Jean Shepherd, author of the classic, A Christmas Story. Ross Lockridge Jr., author of a forgotten masterpiece, the novel Raintree County. Born in Bloomington, committed suicide shortly after the publication of his only book. Ralph McInerny, religion scholar and indefatigable popular novelist (The Father Dowling mysteries). Meg (The Princess Diaries) Cabot.

Mystery writer Rex Stout. Edgar Award-winning young adult novelist Phyllis Naylor. Newbery Medal-winning children’s author Kathryn Lasky. Norman Bridwell, born in Kokomo, creator of the children’s classic, Clifford the Big Red Dog. Children’s llustrator and classic-era Disney artist, Bill Peet. Jim Davis, creator of Garfield, the comic strip. Newbery Honor children’s writer Mabel L. Hunt.

Scouting report: The edge has to go to Lousiana, with its starting squad of marquis players and its deep bench. But Indiana fields some impressive superstars, too, and its special teams squad — Garfield, for Pete’s sake! Ralphie! Clifford! — could carry the day.

So place your wagers, and start reading. My bet: A book by any author from either state will be more entertaining than that overblown football game.

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35 Comments leave one →
  1. January 26, 2010 12:47 pm

    WHO DAT WHO DAT WHO DAT!!!!
    The Saints genuinely deserve the win that’s coming up. The power of devotion,love,stregnth,sacrifice and hard work always pays of for New Orleans. We are a rare breed here in New Orleans, Louisiana and we love to show people how to persevere and pull through at the end of the day in time of crisis or pure joy! So have fun and play hard because the WHO DAT NATION loves you and we know who’s bringin it home!!!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 26, 2010 6:38 pm

      Can anyone see why I’m not a football fan?

  2. Candice Simmons permalink
    January 26, 2010 3:00 pm

    While I love Kurt Vonnegut, the literary trophy still has to go New Orleans. Sorry, Indianapolis. But when the Saints go marching in, I want to be in that number.

  3. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    January 26, 2010 6:38 pm

    I dunno, Candice. Clifford is a really big dog.

  4. Connie permalink
    January 27, 2010 9:04 am

    Chauncey, you are HOPELESS when it comes to appreciating the power and violence of the sport. (Baseball. The smell of the grass, yadda yadda yadda. Whatever.) However, I have to say I’m going to agree with you and go with Louisiana in the literary Super Bowl, despite the presence of Mr. Vonnegut and the fact that I have never, ever understood why people love A Confederacy of Dunces so passionately.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 27, 2010 1:11 pm

      Connie, did your Mother hold you enough when you were a baby? Because you scare me when you talk about football. You must LOVE the new Starz series, Spartacus: Blood and Sand. You bloodthirsty plebe, you. Basically it’s football , but with nudity.

      As for Confederacy of Dunces, nothing succeeds in the arts like the romance of youthful death. John Kennedy Toole followed the Jim Morrison career model, but he stripped it to its essence, skipping the drugs-and-sex part and going straight to the early exit. Dunces is a fine minor comic novel of considerable charm, but I make no claims for it beyond that.

  5. Candice Simmons permalink
    January 27, 2010 9:43 am

    I’ve never been a big fan of football either. But gosh Chauncey Mabe, you’ve now gotten me interested in the Super Bowl. Both literary and athelectic.

    Go Saints.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 27, 2010 1:16 pm

      To the extent I give a crap, I’m leaning toward Indianapolis. I’ve always favored the underdog. The Colts are the underdogs–right? I can’t muster the interest to Google the thing and find out. Indy is certainly the underdog in the Literary Superbowl. I don’t think you people are giving enough weight to the presence of Kurt Vonnegut on the Hoosier team. He’s like the Peyton Manning of literature, for heaven’s sake.

  6. rachel permalink
    January 27, 2010 10:43 am

    Down with the football, up with the reading.

    I have to agree with what has already been said here. I think that Louisiana wins, but Indiana put up a pretty good fight, and they might have more of a chance if the superbowl was limited to children’s literature.

    You are right Chauncey Mabe, Clifford is a really big (and really red) dog.

  7. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    January 27, 2010 10:57 am

    Rachel, at last someone notices Indiana’s edge in children’s lit. Yes, if this were pee-wee football, the Hoosiers would run away with the game.

  8. January 27, 2010 11:04 am

    Both places are wonderful The big Lou is a special place though. Not just New Orleans but other place like Baton Rouge. The culture and life style (like Jazz) just make it a place to write. The place has a special heart. I actually went to Baton Rouge one year on business. I liked it so much, I took my vacation there that year.
    Big Lou for books and authors by 3 points.

    Game: Indy by 6. That Manning character is unreal this year. I love the Saints but I do not know. I am doing my exercises now so I do not pull a hamstring getting the good food, quickly off the couch. You always have to be ready. No excuses.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 27, 2010 1:34 pm

      I’ve read a fair share of the Lousiana authors (Porter, Williams, Toole, Percy, Capote, Faulkner, Rice, Codrescu, Burke, Martin, Warren, Butler, Gaines,), but I have to confess my romance for the state comes more from Americana music: Delbert McClinton, Dr. John, BeauSoleil, and, among others, especially Lucinda Williams (Lake Charles, Crescent City).

  9. Diane Mooney permalink
    January 27, 2010 11:14 am

    Indiana also claims Michael Koryta, winner of last years L.A. Times Book Prize for the year’s best mystery/thriller, ENVY THE NIGHT.

  10. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    January 27, 2010 1:19 pm

    Diane, thanks for that addition. Michael Koryta did not come up in my rough-and-ready research. Anyone have additional authors I may have overlooked?

  11. January 27, 2010 1:49 pm

    Yes, the music is magic. Has a soul of its own. Nothing like walking down a street. Hearing some music and going toward it.
    Sure enough. One of the best ever playing.

  12. Connie permalink
    January 27, 2010 3:15 pm

    If we’re talking music, Louisiana wins by a mile, even if we only count Lucinda. Who probably likes football, too, since she grew up there…

    BTW “Kurt Vonnegut is the Peyton Manning of literature” is my favorite quote of the week.

  13. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    January 27, 2010 3:57 pm

    Why thank you, Connie. Now I feel guilty for that crack about your Mama.

    I do acknowledge that neither Indiana nor Lousiana has a MLB team, more’s the pity for them.

  14. Candice Simmons permalink
    January 27, 2010 4:08 pm

    But Michael Jackson comes from Indiana–I think. So if we’re talking music…

  15. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    January 27, 2010 4:25 pm

    In defense of Indiana musicality: Uh…Michael Jackson, the late, great King of Pop, is from Gary. John Hiatt, the Kurt Vonnegut of rock music, is from Indianapolis. Babyface Edmonds. Crystal Gayle grew up in Wabash. Janie Fricke. Lisa Germano. Barbara Higbie. Randy Jo Hobbs played bass for Jimi Hendrix. Bebop luminary Freddie Hubbard. Country rock pioneer Sneaky Pete Kleinow. Jon McLaughlin (the pop hunk, not the jazz-rock guitarist). Mike Mars. Travis Meeks. Country crooner Steve Wariner. Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin (Guns N’ Roses). Sax sideman James Spaulding. Daryl Simmons. David Lee Roth (I kid you not). P-Nut. Phil Niblock. Jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery.

    And Cole Porter, born and reared in Peru, Indiana. Cole Porter. Did I say Cole Porter?

    Indiana fields a musical team that could compete on any field, I think. It even has some clowns and mascots in its line-up.

  16. Connie permalink
    January 28, 2010 8:40 am

    For the record, my mama is from Pittsburgh, where the hardcore football fans grow. She’s the one who turned me into a football fan.

  17. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    January 28, 2010 11:27 am

    Ah, I see. That changes everything. I respect a woman who can spit and chew and do a full day’s work in the steel mill and then go home and drink her man under the table.

  18. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    January 28, 2010 11:28 am

    Oops. Sorry. I indulged in some Pittsburgh profiling there. I should know better. Maybe your mother didn’t drink…

  19. Connie permalink
    January 29, 2010 8:41 am

    No, actually you’re fairly close to reality there. (To engage in even more stereotyping, let me say that my family is Irish.) But she does love to read, so it’s all good.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 31, 2010 2:53 am

      Of course she does. She’s Irish, the people who had English forced on them, then took it away from their oppressors.

  20. Tommy permalink
    January 29, 2010 1:11 pm

    Speaking of Robert Olen Butler, I heard he was going to release an audio book of “Hell”. Is this true? I can’t seem to find it. I just may purchase my very first audio book if so. If for no other reason than to hear how he handles the love scene or mis-adventure between Hatcher and Anne.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 31, 2010 3:02 am

      Tommy, I can’t find anything on an audio edition of Hell, either, but I wouldn’t be surprised if one is forthcoming. Should be a treat. As I’ve said elsewhere, he’s a terrific reader of his own work–one of the best. He studied theater in college, which probably doesn’t hurt.

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