Betje Black Klier. Pavie in the Borderlands: The Journey of Theodore Pavie to Louisiana and Texas, 1829-1830, Including Portions of His Souvenirs atlantiques. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000. x + 279 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-2530-4.
Reviewed by Carl J. Richard (Department of History, University of Louisiana at Lafayette)
Published on H-SHEAR (October, 2001)
A Tale of Two Pavies: The Romantic and the Realist
A Tale of Two Pavies: The Romantic and the Realist
In 1829-30, just two years before Alexis de Tocqueville's famous excursion to America, another Frenchman, eighteen-year-old Theodore Pavie, undertook an arduous journey to Louisiana and eastern Texas. Motivated as much by a desire for adventure as by the intention of visiting relatives, this passionate, charming, and well-educated youth made numerous sketches and kept a journal of his travels. Upon his return to France, Pavie used the journal as source material for a two-volume book entitled Souvenirs atlantiques. Under the recommendation of Victor Hugo, a close friend of the Pavies, a Parisian publisher printed 500 copies of the work. When Betje Black Klier came upon a rare copy of Pavie's travelogue in 1988, it launched her on a quest for information about the Pavies, a quest that culminated in this fascinating volume, Pavie in the Borderlands, which consists of Klier's account of the Pavie family in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, followed by excerpts from the Souvernirs.
The first Pavies to settle in Louisiana were Theodore's great uncles, Etienne and Joseph, who had immigrated to the colony in 1765. The brothers had paddled up the Red river and had settled in Natchitoches, the westernmost French trading post in North America accessible by water. There the Pavies had prospered through trade and agriculture. Their nephew, Charles, after being captured by the British while serving in the French navy during the Napoleonic Wars, had also immigrated to Natchitoches (1805) and had become one of the town's leading citizens. Meanwhile, Louis-Victor, the brother of Etienne and Joseph, had remained in France, managing the family's printing press in La Rochelle until it was destroyed by radicals during the French Revolution. After the broken-hearted Louis-Victor had passed away, his determined wife, Marie, had rebuilt the press and had passed it on to her son, Louis, Theodore's father. The Pavies had become intimately acquainted with many of the leading lights of European romanticism, including Hugo, Walter Scott, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Alexandre Dumas. When Charles, Theodore's uncle, had visited France in 1818, his tales of Louisiana had filled the seven-year-old boy with dreams of journeying there, desires further encouraged by Theodore's reading of Francois Chateaubriand's romantic Voyage en Amerique.
Theodore Pavie's account of antebellum Louisiana is a remarkable blend of romanticism and realism. Alternating between a contagious enthusiasm and a fashionable melancholy, he regards all the marvels that he encounters---the hot, humid climate, the exotic wildlife and cuisine, and the intense fear produced by lethal, mosquito-carried diseases---with a keen eye and an indomitable curiosity. He is as enthralled by the ubiquitous alligators and vultures as by the moonlit herons and the Spanish moss. He relishes the squirrel gumbo. Though he is clearly pained by the practice of slavery, which stands in contradiction to his Gallic love of liberty and his Catholic faith, he cannot bear to speak ill of his hospitable and loving relatives, who are slaveholders. He relates, with obvious satisfaction, the story of the murder of a cruel slave trader by his slaves, and he calls slavery "the great vice of American society" (p. 145), but quickly adds: "I have lived with such gentle and virtuous families that it would be unjust to wrap in a common condemnation all those whose servants often differ from ours only in color" (p. 145). This statement is remarkable in light of the fact that the Pavies in France treated their white servants as family, even living in the same house with the employees of the press.
Pavie's treatment of Native Americans is equally complex. On the one hand, in accord with the romanticism of his day, he portrays them as "noble savages" whose oneness with nature endows them with a greater wisdom and nobility than is possible for civilized Europeans. He complains, with uncharacteristic harshness, about the irregular and tasteless houses of Natchez, Mississippi, a village built on the ruins of the Natchez tribe, whose nobility Chateaubriand had emblazoned on Pavie's young mind. He tells the story of a wise and just Coshatta chief who once prevented his men from looting a band of white travelers. Yet he also notes the ethnocentrism of Native Americans, who "will not acknowledge the victories of others since each nation believes it should take precedence over the others" (p. 201). He also declares: "An Indian almost never bothers to pay his debts" (p. 205).
By contrast, Pavie has only positive things to say about the French culture of Louisiana. He remarks: "An open and generous hospitality characterizes the people of Louisiana" (p. 144). He adds that Creoles love to dance all night and are "French in the soul without thinking of it" (p. 144). He exults: "Residents here read and understand literature of all peoples: Shakespeare, Dante, Tasso, Byron, Cooper, Walter Scott, Lamartine, Victor Hugo---all of these glorious names blended harmoniously with the silence of the forest, and all the poetry that great men have divined grew even greater in the bosom of this nature" (p. 167). Of Natchitoches he writes: "How many happy families spend peaceful days there, leading an independent existence where neither political troubles, nor civil wars, nor the deafening roar of the agitating masses ever arise! ... Oh, delicious village, peaceful retreat! I loved you because your inhabitants are loving, hospitable, and sensitive.... I loved you for a thousand things more!" (pp. 211, 214). He adds that the "French spirit" is "still throbbing in these inhabitants, who did not forget their fatherland in the few intervening years" since the Louisiana Purchase (p. 225). Yet Pavie notes that these same Creoles are patriotic Americans too, having played a pivotal role in Andrew Jackson's defeat of the British at the Battle of New Orleans, a battle witnessed and cheered by Charles Pavie. Only rarely does a more realistic assessment of antebellum Louisiana peek out through Theodore's youthful enthusiasm, as when he writes of the state: "It is an unbelievable mixture of good and evil, of abundance and sterility, of opulent cities and cabins scattered in the wilderness, of gentleness and cruelty, of happiness and misery" (p. 143).
One can quibble with several of Klier's assertions. For instance, her statement that Florida "until 1819 extended westward to the Mississippi river" (p. 3) is not precisely accurate. As early as 1810, after American inhabitants of West Florida revolted against Spain, the United States annexed the land between the Mississippi and Pearl rivers. This territory (still popularly known as the "Florida parishes") was absorbed by the state of Louisiana in 1812. In 1813 the United States seized the rest of West Florida (the land between the Pearl and Perdido rivers), which became the Gulf coasts of Mississippi and Alabama. Furthermore, while Klier is correct in noting that General James Wilkinson was guilty of treachery against the United States (he was secretly employed by several different foreign governments), it is not accurate to write that "documents now prove" that Aaron Burr was "relatively innocent" of treachery (p. 25). Finally, Klier exaggerates when she claims that "the world's attention" was riveted on the Louisiana-Texas boundary dispute and when she asserts that Great Britain was trying "to resubjugate its American colonies" in the War of 1812 (both p. 29).
Nevertheless, Klier has performed an invaluable service in relating the story of the Pavies, a remarkable clan whose experience spanned two very different worlds, the borderlands of the Old Southwest and the salons of Paris. Equally great is her contribution in providing excerpts from Theodore Pavie's Souvernirs atlantiques, one of the fullest accounts of life in western Louisiana in the years just before the Texas rebellion. In bringing to life a diverse and fascinating cast of characters both Klier and Pavie enlighten our understanding of a time and place too long shrouded in mystery.
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Carl J. Richard. Review of Klier, Betje Black, Pavie in the Borderlands: The Journey of Theodore Pavie to Louisiana and Texas, 1829-1830, Including Portions of His Souvenirs atlantiques.
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