Book Review: Empire of Sin

Book Review: Empire of Sin by Gary Krist

A criminal called “the Axman” opens this story, and after a thirty-year flashback through New Orleans history, wraps it up as well.  No one is sure who the Axman actually was, how many of the crimes attributed to him he actually did, or his final fate.  Rather more is known of many of the Crescent City’s other colorful characters between 1890 and 1920 or so.  The reformers tried to make prostitution and other vices confined to a small neighborhood sardonically named “Storyville.”  This created one of the most notorious red-light districts in American history.

Empire of Sin

Gary Krist, who also wrote City of Scoundrels, which I reviewed earlier, covers rather more ground in this volume, expanding from 12 days to three decades of history.  In addition to the brothels and saloons of Storyville, presided over by the genial vice lord Tom Anderson, the history also looks at the alleged Mafia/Black Hand involvement among Italian immigrants, the infancy of jazz music and the coming of Jim Crow.

The high-minded citizens who wanted to reform New Orleans and make it a modern city unfortunately wanted to make it like other Southern cities of the time.  So in addition to segregating out sin and temptation, they wanted to segregate out people of color as well.  New Orleans’ complicated social scene, including many Creoles of color, was simplified (legally at least) into black and white, the first of which was to be suppressed and oppressed.  This resulted in Storyville being one of the few places where people of different races could meet and interact as something like equals.

Meanwhile, the Italian immigrant population had persistent problems with crime;  how organized it was is up for interpretation.   Paranoia and the assassination of the police chief resulted in the Parish Prison lynching of eleven men.   It didn’t help when some of the alleged Mafia people decided to try to muscle in on Storyville.

Quite some space is devoted to the early musicians who created what would become jazz,   “Buddy” Bolden, considered by many to be the first, had a tragically short career due to a sudden onset of mental illness.  But by that time, he had inspired many others, with Storyville providing work opportunities for them in dives and brothels.

While reform movements constantly assailed the vice district, what dealt the crippling blow to Storyville was World War One.  With a major military encampment near New Orleans, and the War Department insistent on keeping their soldiers moral and fit for duty, they imposed restrictions that made it difficult at best to operate.  After the war, Prohibition struck, making it illegal to serve alcohol, the lifeblood of many demimonde establishments.

While crime and vice never actually went away, they did have to go underground, leaving New Orleans a much duller place.  The “better class” people disdained jazz, so the city lost many of its best musicians to other cities, particularly up North.  Eventually, economic doldrums convinced the New Orleans tourist boards to play up its seedy and jazzy past, though somewhat whitewashed.

There’s small pictures at the beginning of each chapter, a bibliography, end note and index.  The paperback edition also has a short interview with the author, a suggested playlist for New Orleans music, and a list of fictional treatments of the Crescent City.

I found this book to be more…diffuse…than Mr. Krist’s previous one–thirty years is a lot of territory to cover.  The focus on the Storyville district means that a lot of other matters get only a glancing view at best.   Still, if you’re curious about New Orleans history, this is a good place to start, well-researched and full of lurid bits.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this volume from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review. No other compensation was involved.

Book Review: Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion

Book Review: Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion by Tansy E Hoskins

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Stitched Up

Fashion…isn’t something I notice a lot.  I buy clothes when I have to, and try to wear matching socks, but I don’t know a lot about fashion as a subject.  This book may or may not have helped with that.

Early on, Ms. Hoskins defines fashion as “changing styles of dress and appearance adopted by groups of people” so that she can talk about the entire clothing and accessories industry, as opposed to just haute couture.  She chooses to view the industry through an “anti-capitalist” lens, which yes, does take its roots from Marxism.

The book primarily deals with the modern fashion industry, from the Industrial Revolution on, and doesn’t dwell too much on the early history.  The first few chapters provide an overview of the industry, from the wealthy owners through the fashion press to the exploited factory workers.  It should be noted here that this is a British book, and this influences the examples given.

Then there is a section about the many problematic issues involving fashion, such as environmental damage,  body image and racism.  (The recent film biography of Coco Chanel cut off before World War Two for a reason.)  There’s  a fair bit in here that I already knew, but I had no idea of just how bad it actually was.

The final chapters of the book deal with ways in which people are resisting, and trying to reform fashion, but Ms. Hoskins believes that all the problems with the fashion industry are at their roots caused by capitalism.  Therefore, revolution to smash capitalism is the only true solution.

The last chapter goes into some detail of what post-capitalist fashion might involve.  The author points out the (sadly short-lived) blossoming of the arts and textile design in the post-revolution Soviet Union.  However, the cautionary tale of Cultural Revolution China is also mentioned, where a simple outlawing of “reactionary” fashion led to nationwide conformity because the Mao suit was the only thing everyone could agree was not reactionary, and therefore safe to wear.

Ms. Hoskins is thinking that revolution should instead lead to more of a democratic socialism…or something.  Anyway, smash capitalism, and everything else should work out okay.

The striking illustrations are by Jade Pilgrom.  There are extensive end notes, a bibliography and index.

I’d recommend this book to students of fashion, budding Socialists and people who have always wondered what the big deal is with fashion, anyway.

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