Harnett Thomas Kane was a popular historian of the South and, most especially, a well-known chronicler of Louisiana. He was gifted with a mastery of literary expression and a talent for engaging the reader with colorful, near-poetic prose that could be alternately dramatic and comic. That he had great abilities was undeniable but that he had great depth was more problematic. Nonetheless, Kane was a product of his time and, all things considered, his time was a good one.
Kane was born in New Orleans in 1910 and he grew up as a member of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (Episcopal) establishment that dominated the historically “American” part of the city. While at Tulane University, he worked part-time as a “cub reporter” for the New Orleans Item (later the States-Item) and, upon graduation, became a full-time journalist. Kane was intrigued by public affairs and by the rough give-and-take of New Orleans politics, but he also enjoyed the less-hurried authorship of feature articles and the research such articles required. By birth and by temperament, he was a gentlemen in the traditional, now sadly old-fashioned, sense of the term and he believed that professional writing, in any form, should seek to uphold positive values, which, in turn, resulted from an ingrained respect for tradition, honor, and law.
As a young reporter, Kane had ample opportunity to observe the corrupt and dictatorial regime of Governor, and then United States Senator, Huey Long, who was the very antithesis of a Southern Gentleman. The tentacles of Long’s pseudo-populist empire embraced Orleans Parish and virtually all of the state by the early 1930s. New Orleans Mayor Robert Maestri served as a buffoonish lieutenant to the “Kingfish”. Like virtually all well-educated, reform-minded, and relatively urbane citizens of Louisiana’s middle and upper classes, Kane was appalled that Louisiana, once led by such governors as William C.C. Claiborne, Henry Watkins Allen, and Francis T. R. Nicholls, was now in thrall to an amoral and vicious opportunist like Long. After Long’s assassination in 1935, his ragtag successors attempted to continue their domination of the state. In short order, however, their greed and brutality, unleavened by any traces of intelligence, led to federal indictments and the election of anti-Long reform candidates to public office.
The drama and excitement of this period convinced Harnett Kane to begin work on his first book, Louisiana Hayride: The American Rehearsal for Dictatorship 1928-1940, which was published in 1941. The book was a factual, comprehensive, and well-documented account of the rise and fall of Longism. Louisiana Hayride was a bestseller throughout the nation and Kane was lauded for the quality of his writing and for the depth of his research. Louisiana Governor Sam Jones, who led the anti-Longs to victory in 1940, later said of Kane, “He lived with history. He traveled with history. He worked with history. And there is no living man more conversant with ‘the Huey Long Story’ than Kane.”
Recognized as a writer of rare ability, Kane now had a national audience. He continued to work as a journalist, and in addition to his articles for the Item and, subsequently, for most of the other major newspapers in Louisiana, he published in The New York Times, Reader’s Digest, National Geographic, and The Saturday Review of Literature. In the years that followed his initial success, Kane wrote more than two dozen books, both fiction and non-fiction, and virtually all dealt specifically with Southern locales, Southern men and women, Southern culture, and Southern history. Each book was praised in its turn for readability, for descriptive detail, and, above all, for conveying a sense of place and of time.
Many of Harnett Kane’s works after Louisiana Hayride were “romantic biographical novels”. They especially appealed to women in the 1950s and 60s and included The Gallant Mrs. Stonewall, The Lady of Arlington, Bride of Fortune, New Orleans Woman, and The Smiling Rebel. As usual, the research for these novels was thorough but romance triumphed over biography and Kane’s reputation as a serious historian was diminished. Unfailingly, however, the books were staunchly Southern in their sympathies and their popularity was unquestioned by the ladies of Dixie. Similarly, Kane produced Young Mark Twain and the Mississippi for the teen and pre-teen audience.
While nothing really compared to his masterpiece, Louisiana Hayride, he produced books that were fundamentally accurate, eminently accessible, and redolent with nostalgia. Popular, often well-illustrated, histories and what could be called “travel books” were Kane’s true forte’ and became his major claim to fame. Three of them in particular warrant close examination: Gone Are the Days: An Illustrated History of the Old South was especially noteworthy in that it encapsulated everything about the South that Kane found fascinating in one volume. It was primarily a social and cultural history of the region he referred to as the “first America” and that he loved deeply. Gone Are the Days traced Southern settlement and development from the Age of Discovery and Exploration through the colonial and early national periods to the pinnacle of antebellum society and then, inevitably, to the War Between the States and the end of a civilization. Kane, though fond of plantation culture, emphasized that the majority of Southerners were yeomen farmers, the individuals Frank L. Owsley described as “the plain folk of the old South”, who neither owned slaves nor necessarily admired the ownership of slaves. He discussed the role of American Indians and blacks in Southern history commenting frankly on both good and bad episodes common to that history.
In the closing pages of Gone Are the Days, Kane pointed out that Southern defeat in the War Between the States forced Southerners to become part of a larger America and to rebuild their society and their economy in keeping with that reality. He believed and hoped, however, that important and symbolic parts of the Old South would continue to influence the modern age. Looking back on the antebellum era, he wrote, “Some of the lovelier aspects of the earlier life survived: majestic double lines of oak that outlived a crumbled Greek temple along the Mississippi; Atlantic coastal gardens of azaleas…the river landings of Memphis and Vicksburg; the Spanish balconies of Florida and Texas; the Creole patios and fountains behind the brick facades of New Orleans.” Regrettably though, despite Kane’s obvious appreciation for the physical beauty and the manners and grace of the Old South, he seldom offered anything resembling a real commentary on the true essence of his Southern homeland: the agrarian-based philosophy of states’ rights and individual liberty that was fundamental to the impassioned defense of both honor and tradition. The defeat of the South was far more than a military disaster, it was the defeat of honor itself. Kane delighted in the survival of plantation homes and Creole fountains but he did not understand that the sense of place he celebrated was in greater danger from an invading culture than it had ever been from invading armies.
In The Bayous of Louisiana, Kane largely reverted to his journalistic instincts and emphasized the modern (1940s) state of the bayou country as well as the history of the region. He was sympathetic to the Cajuns who lived along the waterways and described the expulsion of their Acadian ancestors from Canada and their subsequent impact on south Louisiana. In relating the history of the Cajuns (l’Acadiens) to the Creoles of the New Orleans area and to the Anglo-Celts who entered the bayou region after the Louisiana Purchase, Kane paid homage to Jean Lafitte, the smuggler and privateer; Captain Joseph Harvey, who was the driving force behind the Harvey Canal; the Islenos or Canary Islanders, who settled much of St. Bernard Parish; and, as the phrase goes, a host of others. Chiefly, however, he focused on the towns, fishing villages, and isolated cabins of the Cajuns. Their then-common French language, their Catholicism, and their self-sufficiency made them unique among Southerners. Far more gregarious than either the Creoles or the Anglo-Celts, the Cajuns welcomed Kane and gave him a front-row seat to watch and record their daily lives.
Along Bayou Lafourche, Kane witnessed Cajun society and culture on a grand scale. Fisherman, trappers, merchants, priests, and small farmers shared anecdotes and reminiscences with him and, for a time, he basked in the joie de vivre that characterized their communities. Kane declared, “It has been said that the Acadian philosophy is ‘Digest well by day, sleep well by night.’”
From the Lafourche region he entered the Bayou Teche country. The Teche was the original “highway” of the Acadians leading them from the Atchafalaya River to the prairies of St. Landry Parish. As Kane discovered, the bayou wound for one hundred fifty miles through the heart of Acadian Louisiana. The Teche passed New Iberia, where, a few miles to the south, can be found Avery Island, the home of Tabasco; passed numerous sites of battles and skirmishes from the War Between the States; and, most poignantly, passed the town of St. Martinville where the Evangeline Oak still stands and where, as Kane described, the original of Longfellow’s heroine, Emmeline Labiche, waited for her “Gabriel”.
After a sojourn in the Cajun prairies west of the bayous, Kane reversed his route and traveled southeast down the Teche. East of Berwick Bay, part of the Atchafalaya River, he found Morgan City, which he described as being more of “an American town” than a Cajun one. He felt the community was “entrepreneurial” by nature, a fact he attributed to its namesake, the Yankee “robber-baron” Charles Morgan. Succinctly, Kane stated that Morgan City was “the end of the line”.
The Bayous of Louisiana is one of Harnett Kane’s best books simply because he enjoyed writing it. He liked the Cajuns and he liked south Louisiana, both bayou and prairie. The people of the region reciprocated by considering the book to be one of the best ever published about them and their way of life. Only in recent years have other works, such as Shane Bernard’s superb The Cajuns: Americanization of a People, overtaken The Bayous of Louisiana in popularity in La Louisiane.
Kane’s native New Orleans was one of his favorite topics and in Queen New Orleans he introduced readers to an abundance of anecdotal stories following a loose chronology from the French colonial period to Kane’s own time. In the book’s forward, he referred to the city as a “Caribbean-flavored” metropolis thus anticipating by nearly half a century Jimmy Buffet’s famous declaration that New Orleans is “the northern-most city of the Caribbean”. In rapid-fire chapters, Kane moved from the amorous life of Creole playboy Bernard de Marigny to the tale of a cannibalistic Attakapas Indian widow and a lost French officer to a power-struggle between two Capuchin priests. Advancing into the New Orleans of the antebellum period, he described the fiery Baroness Pontalba and her apartments, the extraordinary popularity of dueling under the oaks in City Park, and the constant terror of yellow fever.
Additional chapters in Queen New Orleans told of theatricals, songfests, and the unrestrained partying that continues to characterize the city and that seemed to ensnare Creole and American alike. In what had been, and largely remained, a French-Spanish city with a relaxed color-code, a large number of Free People of Color existed and thrived. In his description of mixed New Orleans society, Kane mischievously provided a sample list of racial mixtures from mulatto to octoroon and from tierceron to sacatron. He described in detail the fabled Quadroon Balls that “enticed” Creole gentlemen to live dual lives with church-sanctioned marriages and legitimate heirs on one hand and a mistress and illegitimate offspring on the other.
All was not fun and games in New Orleans and Kane wrote effectively of Know-Nothing inspired anti-foreign riots, political chicanery (an inevitability from the first French governor to the present), and, especially, the fury engendered by the fall of Confederate New Orleans to Union forces in the spring of 1862. As is well known, the Union military commander in the occupied city was a Massachusetts politician named Benjamin F. Butler. Corruption and brutality were Butler’s hallmarks and Kane correctly called him “the most hated man in the city’s tradition”.
Reconstruction was one giant battleground in New Orleans culminating in the Democrats’ rout of the Radical Republican Metropolitan Police in the Battle of Liberty Place in 1874. Anti-Italian violence rose during the spurt in immigration that occurred after Reconstruction and lynchings blighted the city. Kane spent not a lot of time on the events of that dark period but instead, in later chapters, focused on the hedonism and the illicit desire that sprang from the streets and the nearby swamps. Jazz was counted as a positive force in proving the uniqueness of the city and the Storyville redlight district, bane of the United State Navy, enhanced the image of New Orleans as “the city that care forgot.” Queen New Orleans ended with a lengthy description of Mardi Gras, that prolonged and exaggerated carnival that intrigued Kane but that, in contrast, many native Louisianians detest.
In summation, one may say that Harnett Kane was a prolific and gifted, but not profound, defender of tradition. Though dated, his books still provide useful information and can be read for the pure pleasure of reading. Above all, Kane was a man of the South and he never failed to revel in the undeniable “exceptionalism” of his region. In 1984, he died of Alzheimer’s Disease, that most dreadful of ailments for any historian.