New Orleans vs. Indianapolis in the literary superbowl
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.
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.