Undergraduates embark on literary journey through Louisiana and “The Big Easy”

USC Dornsife’s Maymester in Louisiana introduces a new, holistic approach to studying the humanities: Bookpacking.
BySusan Bell

Rows of hand-blown apothecary jars line the old wooden shelves of the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, housed in an early 19th-century town house in the city’s historic French quarter. The group of USC Dornsife undergraduates clustered around those containing age-old gris-gris potions used by practitioners of voodoo, including the infamous “Love Potion Number 9.”  

The students’ interest in the voodoo artifacts was piqued by the fact that the group — all participants in the month-long Maymester in Louisiana, “Bookpacking ‘The Big Easy’: A Cultural and Literary Journey,” — were reading Anne Rice’s gothic horror tale Interview with the Vampire.

“The novel is full of fantastically visual imagery, and there’s no book better to savor a feeling of New Orleans in the early years of its growth when it’s a Creole society, but also decadent and opulent,” said Andrew Chater of English, who led the course. “It’s a book that oozes superstition, incorporating elements of vampirism and voodoo.”

Chater, an award-winning British filmmaker and presenter, is the creator of the bookpacking concept. The idea, he said, grew out of something he’s been doing all his life — traveling with novels that are set in, or somehow strongly linked to, the places he visits.

“What I find as I travel with books is that the book informs the place and the place informs the book,” he said. Chater encourages his students to use these novels almost as guidebooks, adopting a holistic approach to the humanities whereby literature, history, geography, politics, and social studies combine into a unified course of study.

In her course blog, English major Olivia Jones described how bookpacking had informed a deeper understanding of the city, its history and its culture. “We had become part of that dialogue, part of the story of New Orleans,” she wrote, “our books shedding light in corners of the city that would have otherwise been overlooked.”

Cultural gumbo

Chater picked Louisiana as the destination for his first USC Dornsife bookpacking course because of its extraordinarily vibrant and diverse literary culture.

His selection of novels for the course reflected that cultural gumbo, including works that addressed the region’s Creole, Cajun, rural white Protestant, Catholic, and African-American roots.

The course began with a three-night stay in Grand Isle, an island on the southern Louisiana coast that is the setting for Kate Chopin’s late 19th-century novella, The Awakening — an early feminist work that takes place in Creole society. The students stayed in a traditional wooden fisherman’s house on stilts overlooking the Gulf and followed in the steps of the book’s unorthodox heroine, Edna Pontellier, as they made their way along the sandy path that leads through the dunes and down to the beach.

In New Orleans, they read Walker Percy’s existential novel The Moviegoer and John Kennedy Toole’s rambunctious, comedic romp, A Confederacy of Dunces. The group visited Baton Rouge, where they studied Robert Penn Warren’s tale of a corrupt Southern politician in All the King’s Men. They then spent time in Lafayette and Cajun Country where they met Ernest J. Gaines, author of the classic A Lesson Before Dying, set in the rural black South. Other highlights included trips to a plantation, a New Orleans cemetery and a second-line parade.

Chater believes that literature only gives a small fraction of its educational potential when it is confined uniquely to the classroom. By studying books in places they are set, he argues, they provide a tremendous insight to regional cultures and their history.

“What you get with bookpacking is a wonderful way to combine different disciplines,” he said. “It’s not just a study of literature — far from it. It’s a study of literature within a historical, geographical, social and political context. It’s the whole kit and caboodle of the humanities.”