By Lucy Frost-Helms, Copy editor
Dr. Paul Mahaffey, Chair of the English Department at the University of Montevallo, loves New Orleans. He loves it so much, in fact, that he has been offering a class about the cultural geography and literature of New Orleans for almost 20 years now.
The class, which is offered every fall semester, gives students a chance to explore the culture of New Orleans through supporting literature with an optional class trip to ‘The Big Easy.’ This year’s trip is set for Oct. 18-22.
Mahaffey first became interested in New Orleans as both a research topic and fascination after reading John Kennedy Toole’s novel “A Confederacy of Dunces,” which follows protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly as he travels the streets of New Orleans in the 1960s.
“New Orleanians consider it to be their bible,” said Mahaffey. “The irony was that I had never been to New Orleans, and I said, ‘You know, I’ve got to check this place out.’ I went and it was–I was immediately reminded of the places that I visited in Europe when I was in the Navy,” he continued. “Spain and especially France, and just that European feel to it.”
New Orleans has influences from multiple international cultures which developed distinct types of architecture, cuisine, music, folklore and subcultures throughout the city.
Mahaffey, a UM alum, first visited New Orleans during his senior year. His curiosity was immediate, he said.
“I grew up in the South, I grew up in Alabama, and I said, this is not the South. This place is really different.”
In 2006, one year after New Orleans was struck by Hurricane Katrina, Mahaffey took his first group of students from the class to New Orleans. This fall will mark his 18th trip.
“We have not missed—even in 2020, even in the COVID year—we went to New Orleans. It was strange, really strange to see Bourbon Street shut down at 11 o’clock. Usually, it’s around 11 that Bourbon street really opens up,” said Mahaffey.
Bourbon Street, located in the French Quarter of New Orleans, is seen as symbolic of the city’s culture.
The class itself is hosted by the UM English Department, and aims to investigate the cultural and environmental geography of New Orleans through both news and literature. Novels that tell the stories of New Orleanian history, culture, cuisine, physical environment and tragedy, such as the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, are used as primary resources for learning more about New Orleans. The scope of literature includes both fiction and non-fiction.
While Mahaffey’s literature lineup differs from year-to-year, novels such as “Liquor,” written by Poppy Z. Brite, reflects the culture of New Orleanian cuisine and tells the story of Rickey and G-Man—two cooks who try to open their own restaurant with recipes influenced by different types of liquor.
“Wading Home,” another previously novel used for the class, written by Rosalyn Story, describes the culture of tragedy by following father and son, Simon and Julian Fortier, as Julian attempts to locate his father after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
Students in the class have, in the past, examined news reports of contemporary events in New Orleans, held discussions surrounding New Orleans’ many subcultures, written essays about assigned readings and reflected on their experience if they attend the class trip.
Mahaffey believes it essential to investigate the literature of New Orleans and that UM’s English Department, and the university in general, are complementary to the subjects of the class.
“I graduated from Montevallo as an English major and one of the things that I just loved about the English department–it seemed to be distinctive from other English departments,” he said. “There was some quirkiness to the department that, to me, kind of set it apart.”
As for the university as a whole, Mahaffey said, “To me, UM is a nice reflection of New Orleans because of the emphasis on the liberal arts, because of the, you know—the uniqueness of the student that goes to Montevallo. I kind of feel like it’s the perfect match.”
Mahaffey encourages all UM students to visit New Orleans.
“With every group of UM students that have gone—they’ve been at home,” said Mahaffey. “They’ve found something that attracted them to the city, they’ve found something that, what’s the best way to put this—let them be whoever they want to be.”
If you are interested in taking the class, it is typically offered every fall semester.
If you are a student who is interested in joining the trip to New Orleans, you do not have to know anybody in the class. However, Mahaffey requests that you fill out a field trip waiver form prior to attending. Mahaffey welcomes friends, significant others, family and other interested parties in joining the trip.
Regarding the trip to New Orleans specifically, Mahaffey said, “If you go, you’ll find something that you’ve been looking for.”
Lucy Frost-Helms is the copy editor of The Alabamian. She’s majoring in social science and minoring in philosophy. She enjoys being a goober, eating chicken salad for breakfast, watching “National Treasure” and telling you that she will “definitely pay you back for that.” Lucy has the worst memory of all time and will forget major, important details of stories you tell her.