I don’t know when it started really, but I’ve always had a fascination with the Cajuns. The music, the food, the language, the history all of it has intrigued me. Maybe because they are one of the last links between Europe and the U.S. that we still have and maybe it’s because they’re the “underdogs” of the colonial struggle between France and the U.K. in North America. Actually, I think it’s all of the above.
The name “Cajun” is a shortened version of the French pronunciation of “Acadian”. Acadia was what we now consider Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. It was one area, besides Quebec, that the French had settled. However, in the colonial wars around the French and Indian war the French lost many of their smaller colonies and Acadia was one of them. The British being the colonial master-builders, kicked the French out of this area. Many Acadians went to the French colony in Louisiana, but many were sent on ships that landed at ports all up and down the eastern seaboard. The story of Evangeline is based on actual people but of course the events have been altered due to artistic license. The gist of Evangeline’s story is that she is separated from her fiance, Gabriel, when they are exiled from Acadia. She spends the rest of her young adulthood looking for him, ranging from Philadelphia, to Louisiana, to Michigan. She certainly got a taste of the wild, American frontier! Ultimately, the true Evangeline and Gabriel have been mythologized and are part of the Cajun folktales. There’s even a reference to Evangeline in the movie “The Princess and the Frog”. The Cajun-accented firefly describes his crush on the star Evangeline and later explains the myth and why it’s important to Cajuns.
After watching the movie and learning more about Cajuns, I was informed by my very thoughtful wife, Queen Bess, that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had written a poem about the Evangeline story. So of course I read it. And now I’ve read it again in preparation to share with my students. When I first read it about six years ago, it was the first time I had read Longfellow’s works aside from “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”. I was amazed that I actually made it through the poem seeing as how most of my poetry reading was limited to Dickinson and Whitman. But I connected with Longfellow’s descriptions that he paints with simple words. It was almost as if the poem disappeared and I was seeing one painting after another. I was also drawn into the tragic love story. Deep down under my icy veins I do have a romantic side. And being a good melancholy German, I enjoy stories that are true-to-life in that they don’t always have a happy ending. (Sorry for the spoiler).
But reading it the second time I was struck by something else. Maybe it’s because I’ve become more of a feminist over the years (thanks again to Queen Bess). But I also think it’s because I’m now filtering what I teach through the lens of how-will-this-impact-the-students’-points-of-view. And I’m not sure what to do with the character of Evangeline. On the one hand, her journey to find Gabriel demonstrates loyalty, tenacity, and pure survival out in the American wilderness. She’s certainly one of few women who are featured as the protagonist in her own story. But the feminist side of me wonders if she isn’t defined by her relationship with Gabriel? After all, the entire poem is focusing on her finding a man, and her sadness at not being married to him. Right there it wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test. And while Gabriel is described as heartbroken over not finding Evangeline, he manifests his feelings by joining the trappers and voyageurs and basically disappearing into the wild. But then the literary side of me wonders if she and Gabriel aren’t a metaphor of the Cajuns. Gabriel is the land and Evangeline are the people, ever searching and longing for the “good ole days”, yet not able to recreate what they had. If any of you have read this I’m curious to know what you think.
As a footnote, I read the critical introduction to this piece and found out that Hawthorne had originally come across the story and instead of novelizing it or turning it into a short story, he gave it to Longfellow instead. I’m quite disappointed because I’m sure Hawthorne would have made a wonderful, intriguing narrative version of this story.