The Modern Evangeline, 2.0

Close at her father’s side was the gentle Evangeline seated,
  Spinning flax for the loom, that stood in the corner behind her.”

Evangeline, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Sitting at her wheel, the figure of Evangeline spins together myth, history, and identity. Indeed, these three elements are layered and often stitched together in ways that are difficult to untangle. For the Cajun communities of South Louisiana, descended from Acadian refugees who arrived in the colony in the eighteenth century, Evangeline occupies a central place in their collective identity, despite her origins not in life but in literature.

After arriving in Louisiana in 1765, Acadians’ gradually came to identity as Cajuns (the anglicized version of Acadian) by developing a distinct set of traditions, industries, and cultural expressions rooted in their new home. After decades of this identity being used as a derogatory slur against what were seen as a curious, uncouth, and distinctly un-American group, upwardly mobile Cajuns in the early twentieth century began to stitch their Cajun identity back to their Acadian roots. The threads of myth and history were spun tightly together, with Evangeline at its center. However, over time these threads can fray and tear, revealing an identity that was never as tightly spun as it seemed.

As a 21st century Cajun, I am curious how glitching the image of Evangeline can tug a little harder at these loose threads. As a field of art, glitching engages with the failures in technologies, with the breaks in code. As one practitioner described it, it’s about locating the “soul in the machine.” Michael Kramer provides a more technical description for glitching as a historical method: “glitching produces new iterations of a digital file by introducing or removing strands of code, either at random or through some kind of logical “chance operation.” Like glitch art, using glitching as a method of interrogating sources takes mistakes as its focus, and engages directly with the meaning of sources in the digital age as objects encoded in highly mutable formats. This random technical disruption of archival sources can bring to light deeper assumptions about the trustworthiness of an image or our often unreflective trust in the archive. It encourages new experiences of looking, forcing us to see the image in new ways and within a new web of digital entanglements.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published his epic poem Evangeline in 1847, a poetic retelling of the eighteenth century expulsion of Acadians from present-day Nova Scotia. A violent and tragic event, the British-led expulsion forced the French-descended Catholic community of Acadians from their homes, separating families and ushering in years of wandering through North America by land and by sea. A significant group of these Acadians eventually made their home in Louisiana, believing that they could rebuild their families and communities within the largely Francophone colony (despite Louisiana being recently turned over to the Spanish). For roughly a century, the tragic story of the Acadian refugees was largely forgotten to most of the nation as Acadians dug into their new surroundings and found their place among the Creole, French, Spanish, Native, and free and enslaved Black communities around them. However, Longfellow’s poem made the story a national sensation, leading to many reprintings, reinterpretations, and even a motion picture. The sensation of Evangeline transformed the tragic heroine into the centerpiece of Acadian memory.

In the poem, Evangeline is separated from her lover Gabriel during the expulsion. She travels by boat and over land to find him, eventually waiting for years at a Jesuit mission. She is finally reunited with Gabriel in Philadelphia, only to find him on his death bed. The poem ends with the lovers reconnected eternally through death:
Side by side, in their nameless graves, the lovers are sleeping.
   Under the humble walls of the little Catholic churchyard,
   In the heart of the city, they lie, unknown and unnoticed.
   Daily the tides of life go ebbing and flowing beside them,

Despite her fictional resting place in Philadelphia, Cajuns were quick to capitalize on their connection to the story. In 1907, fifty years after the poem’s original publication, local Judge Felix Voorhies wrote Acadian Reminiscences: The True Story of Evangeline. Voorhies asserts that although Longfellow captured the emotion of the story, he didn’t quite get it right. Spinning a new myth, now firmly rooted in Louisiana itself, Voorhies begin to tell the story of the “real” Evangeline and Gabriel: Emmeline Labiche and Louis Arceneaux, although according to historian Carl Brasseaux these names have not been found in the historical record. In this retelling, their reunion happened not in Pennsylvania but deep in the heart of Southwest Louisiana. This story was no more historical than Longfellow’s original telling, but gave it the local weight it needed to develop an entire collective identity around their claim to Evangeline.

The image of Evangeline considered here is played by Mildred Dessens, a young woman from St. Martinville, Louisiana. St. Martinville is said to be the final resting site for Voorhies’ “real” Evangeline and the hub of Evangeline tourism. The site features a shrine with sculptures of Longfellow and Evangeline as well as an oak tree dedicated in her honor. In the mid-1920s, local boosters chose Dessens to represent Evangeline in a number of different photoshoots and PR opportunities. She was even selected as the “official” Evangeline by Huey P Long in 1930, as she traveled with a group of other “Evangeline Girls” who made a pilgrimage back to Nova Scotia to commemorate the 175th anniversary of the expulsion.

Taken a few years prior to this event, the image of Dessens was reprinted in various newspapers and publications to illustrate the roots of a newly rebranded Cajun people. The figure of Evangeline–a young, white, respectable woman who, despite her devotion and purity, meets a tragic end–became a perfect way for Cajuns to introduce their new claims to whiteness and the political, social, and economic benefits that came with it. At the same time, the foreignness and romance of the myth–particularly Voorhies’ local version–allowed the group to maintain its distinctiveness in the face of assimilationist policies and mass culture that threatened their language, culture, and lifeways.

Images used in this post are taken from Mildred Dessens’ scrapbooks documenting her time as the Modern Evangeline. These can be found on microfilm in the University of Louisiana at Lafayette University Archives, Acadian Manuscript Collection, Collection 259.

In this image, Dessens is dressed in a traditional Evangeline costume and is sitting at a spinning wheel. The costuming is drawn directly from Longfellow’s original poem:

Down the long street she passed, with her chaplet of beads and her missal,
  Wearing her Norman cap, and her kirtle of blue, and the ear-rings,
  Brought in the olden time from France, and since, as an heirloom,
  Handed down from mother to child, through long generations.

All of the elements are represented here. Dessens dons a cap on her head and a black kirtle over her white dress. Standing in for a chaplet and missal, we see a crucifix prominently featured on her chest, drawing attention to her pious heart. We can’t see her earrings, as they are covered by Dessens’ dark hair, a marker of her French Acadian features. In place of the earrings, the heirloom we see is a spinning wheel, showing Evangeline engaged in dutiful domestic work, unlike contemporary New Women. Here, she is embedded in the generations of women who have long served as culture bearers, passing down handicrafts from one generation to the next.

However, by the 1930s, it is unclear if Dessens knew how to use this spinning wheel, as many cultural practices had already given way to encroaching impact of modernity. The regional interest in contemporary artisans and handicrafts also wouldn’t really take off until later in the decade, again through the work of Cajun women. Instead, the spinning wheel is included here, and in many images of “Evangeline,” in order to link the present to the past. Like the cap and kirtle, the use of this anachronistic object in an image widely printed in progressive-era newspapers and publications jars the viewer into considering their connection to the past in the midst of a society embedded firmly in modernity.

Further, because the motion picture Evangeline had just come out only a year before, “casting” one of their own in this role would have likely elicited great feelings of pride among Cajuns who saw their heritage positively represented in the newspapers and on the silver screen. In fact, the star of the Evangeline film, Mexican actress Dolores Del Rio, was so moved during her time filming in Louisiana that she donated one thousand dollars toward a monument to Evangeline to be placed in St. Martinville at the gravesite by then assumed to belong to Emmeline Labiche, further tying together this myth to the landscape. These boosters, however, weren’t trying to hide these connections between past and present, modern and traditional, but rather draw attention to them. When printed, these images of Dessens often referred to her as the “modern Evangeline.”

For me, this raises the question: what would the “modern Evangeline” look like in the digital age? I attempted to explore this idea by glitching the image of Dessens sitting at wheel to see what might it might obscure and reveal. The glitched image of the “Modern Evangeline” erases nearly all of the anachronistic elements that tied past to present. What’s left is only Dessens expression, causing us to look even deeper into it or, perhaps, even notice it for the first time. In the context of the original image, Dessens stares straight ahead, into the camera, into the eye of viewer, as if the past is looking directly at us. Hers is a resolute yet expressionless face, perhaps trying to mimic the wheel in her historical neutrality, an emotionless window into the past.

In this glitched image, Dessens’ body, originally costumed in anachronistic clothing sitting at an anachronistic household item, is disappeared, replaced by a stream of rainbow lines of various colors and widths. All that remains of the original image is her face and the cap upon her head, which without the rest of the costume appears even more anachronistic than before. Her expression has not changed, but now my eyes are drawn to the blackness of the background that surrounds it. Without the wheel, we see only a young woman’s face against a void, dutiful and focused.

Juxtaposing this dark void now is a splash of vivid color. It appears almost as an antidote for the kind of historical preservation in the first image that freezes the past in place. Just like the preservation of a spinning wheel without a spinner, an object and a craft itself displaced by the machinations of modernity, it creates a partial record of the past; perhaps even a pseudo-record. These are objects meant to be used. Women used them to provide clothing and warmth for their families in old Acadia. In its Louisiana context, it conjures an even knottier web of entanglements, forcing us to reckon with the violent relationships between of slavery, cotton, and industry and Cajuns’ role in this history. The original image engages with none of this, instead fixing the object in time and outside the flow of daily life, and therefore outside the narrative of history.

The glitched image shrouds this familiarly static depiction of the past in active color, even though we may have lost some of its relics in the process. The colors draw out a new tension between past and present, light and dark, and maybe even senses of freedom and confinement. Is Dessens (or, the “modern Evangeline”) trapped by the past, perhaps objectified by it herself? Is she being displaced by the encroaching wave of modernity that strips her away from the wheel, the homespun of her ancestors? Or does the movement of modernity enliven this mythical figure, as a kind of patron saint of a particular ethos of a modern Cajun identity, always partially preserved to return to?

It seems that as we grapple with the legacies of our collective histories–on national, regional, and local levels–engaging more fully with digital tools might allow us to investigate the stories we tell ourselves. The random glitching of this image provided new entry points for analysis and by taking the time to slowly, patiently consider it, generated new questions and directions for research. The connections between myth, history, and identity are tightly wound. Perhaps glitching is a way to disentangle us from the cloth and spin together a new, more honest, tapestry.

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Jessica Does History