Saturday, February 7, 2015
Cane Juice: One of Louisiana's More Interesting Scandalous Novels
Mr. Uhler was an English professor at LSU and in 1931 he published a book: Cane Juice: A Story of Southern Louisiana.
And then he got fired.
Mr. Uhler was a native of Pennsylvania but came to Louisiana in 1928 to teach freshman English at the university. His book centers around the "Cajun Gorilla," Bernard Couvillon, who was born and raised on Bayou Lafourche. Bernard's father runs a sugar plantation and as the novel begins, sugar in Louisiana isn't doing very well. The borer and the mosaic are taking their toll and the cane is no longer producing much juice; the mills that used to run constantly are falling quiet.
Bernard, as it turns out, is a pretty intelligent fellow and because of his excellent grades in school, (well, except for English - most people around the bayou still spoke French then...), the local police jury awards him a scholarship to LSU. Bernard dreams of going to the university sugar school in order to learn just enough to save the sugar production in Louisiana. His father is torn; he wants Bernard to stay and work with him. "We don't need no book learnin' to raise sugar," Bernard's father said. "This boy work wit' me in the mill...".
But, Bernard packs his $2 suitcase and walks down the levee to the university where he is promptly met with the ritual hazing of freshmen ("dogs") by upperclassmen and his temper is tested.
The book is filled with local color and Uhler's plot moves quickly. As a piece of regional literature, it's as good as anything I've read. It lacks the syrupy moonlight and magnolia prose that so many books of local color seem to have. The protagonist, Bernard, is beautifully drawn and you pull for his success from the very beginning. The dialect is just enough without being over done.
"Sugar-raisin's dead in Loosana," Bernard is told, but he refuses to give up his dream of saving the industry.
At the university, Bernard meets an assortment of characters from his mentor, Professor Paul Gatz, to the lovely Juliette Filastre who dates Morgan Fairchild, the star quarterback on the football team. We also meet Bernard's sister with the dubious reputation, who lives in New Orleans.
When Mr. Uhler's book came out in 1931, it ignited quite the controversy. The powers that be at LSU rather objected to the portrayal of the university - the hazing, the wild parties on the levee or at abandoned plantations in the countryside. Chapter 25 describes a party at a deserted plantation house, Shadowlawn, which was now "waiting for the tragic end that has befallen so many of the old Louisiana river houses...within a few years it will go into the Mississippi." At this party there is an abundance of drinking and more than a few intoxicated young women, one of whom makes very direct advances toward Bernard which the boy gently refuses because he doesn't want to take advantage of her in her intoxicated state and notes as well, "You' only a babee." Bernard, in fact, takes measures to protect the young lady's reputation before he leaves the party.
Scenes like this one, while quite tame by our standards today, led to vigorous objections about Uhler's book by the Right Reverend Monsignor E. L. Gassler of St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Baton Rouge. Monsignor Glasser objected to the young people in the novel "seeking out dark corners" at these parties, insisting that none of the fine ladies in southern Louisiana would act in such a way. Scandal!
He also highly objected to the portrayal of university boys (and sometimes ladies) "breaking the Eighteenth Amendment" and consuming (sometimes in great quantities) alcohol. There is one scene where at a party in a hotel where Bernard is challenged to a drinking contest - a challenge that actually Juliette Filaster finds offensive, not so much for the use of alcohol but that it targeted and was mean-spirited to, Bernard.
As it turns out, Huey Long (who never actually read the book) was displeased that an employee of "his university" would write and publish anything that would damage the reputation of the school and so Professor Uhler was fired. Whether or not Huey Long actually had anything to do with the firing is still a matter of debate, and it, as Thomas W. Cutrer points out in Parnassus on the Mississippi, "cannot at this late date be verified."
In response, Uhler enlisted the aid of the ACLU to get his job back. He was reinstated within the year.
In Cammie Henry's Scrapbook no. 12, housed at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, there are pages and pages of clippings from newspapers around the state as this controversy unfolded. There is also a letter from Mr. Uhler to Mrs. Henry in which he thanks her for her letter of support and promises to send her an autographed copy of his novel which was sold out all over the state. Otto Claitor, a frequent correspondent with Mrs. Henry, noted that he simply could not keep the book in stock.
While Cane Juice is probably not considered "fine literature" by the literati, I found it to be a jolly romp through the LSU of old and through the cane fields, levees, and plantations of the old south. At the very least it is one of the more colorful controversies in our state's literary history and one that is worth preserving.
And how did Bernard Couvillon fare at LSU? Did he save the sugar industry? You'll have to read the book for yourself! I found my copy on the third floor of an antique shop in Minden, Louisiana, a nifty little first printing, hardback edition with a tiny bit of water damage to the cover. It's got a few pages breaking loose from the binding, but to me, it's a treasure.