Serialized in a German-language newspaper, Mysteries failed to reach a large enough audience to become a succès de scandale in the antebellum South, but as University of Missouri-St. Louis historian Steven Rowan, who recovered and translated the heretofore lost novel, notes, "The book was published. It is a strange fact that it was published. It circulated, and it was in the daily press, for God's sake. You wouldn't have it in the daily press in English, not on a bet."
Baron Ludwig von Reizenstein's Mysteries reveals a nineteenth-century imagination that few believe existed. Rowan says a few scholars have murmured among themselves that the historian made the whole thing up. Lesbian sex, miscegenation, an apocalyptic vision of black slaves overthrowing the South: Mysteries of New Orleans is more grotesque than Poe, as kinky as de Sade and radical in ways that 21st-century Republicans don't want you to believe America ever was.
"Mysteries of New Orleans was a famous scandal," says Rowan between bites of a whopping cholesterol breakfast at the South City Diner. The silver-goateed, bespectacled Rowan is the most dapper customer in the unkempt South Grand restaurant. He hands over an impressive vita, which shows, among other things, that he's a Harvard man, as well as the translator of other nineteenth-century novels in the "mystery" genre.
"Mysteries was often mentioned [in contemporary accounts] when they talk about people who went too far, but nobody had ever read it because they thought it was lost," Rowan says.
Plenty of far-out, scandalous stories were published in those days, Rowan explains. "It's a real lost literature that nobody knows about. Some of it's just junk, but some of it's kind of interesting." He mentions a friend at Bryn Mawr who's been hunting for Mysteries of Philadelphia for years and has only uncovered two episodes. Yet what is found there, says Rowan, is "a wonderful book. It features a free black seamstress in south Philadelphia. These are people who never appear in American fiction."
Free black seamstresses, quadroon prostitutes and German immigrant cross-dressers appeared at the margins of the American literary scene. Reizenstein found his fictional subjects in the flesh in New Orleans. The author went to the Big Easy in the nineteenth century for the same reasons people go there today. Rowan points to the cover art for Mysteries, a daguerreotype of a New Orleans prostitute from the 1850s: "If Reizenstein had been into girls, he could have had sex with her.
"In New Orleans, Reizenstein found a world he was looking for, which is basically a world that would leave him alone," Rowan continues. "He says exactly that: 'New Orleans won't let you starve. They'll take you to a restaurant. They'll feed you. They'll make sure you're all right."'
Reizenstein came from the German noble class. Young Ludwig's family sent him out to make a go of it in America after his activities in Bavaria proved to be lacking in respectability. He was referred to as "frivolous" and perhaps was suspected of being homosexual. In the States, he traveled the country selling birdcages until he came to St. Louis and learned the surveyor's trade. St. Louis and Southern Illinois figure as the setting for about a third of the 600-page Mysteries. He eventually moved to New Orleans and worked as a civil engineer and architect.
Mysteries, however, was mostly composed in Pekin, Illinois, near Peoria, where Reizenstein failed in an effort to start a newspaper.
The "mystery" genre of the time, Rowan explains, "has nothing to do with whodunit." The style originated with the French novelist Eugène Sue, author of Mysteries of Paris and The Wandering Jew. "It's a story of conspiracies," says Rowan, "basically how the highest classes and the criminal classes are conspired together for some sort of goal. Usually there's a person who enters into this picture who isn't in on the conspiracy and who then gets involved in it and discovers it."
Reizenstein's book doesn't quite fit the mold, though. "It's a horror story," says Rowan. "It's based on the gothic tradition in Germany."
In Mysteries of New Orleans, German gothic meets Southern gothic, the result being totally weird. Although Reizenstein's physical descriptions of New Orleans are remarkably accurate, says Rowan, "you can usually tell every place he's describing within about two doors." The historian and translator can only guess whether his depictions of the Crescent City's netherworld are based on reality: "Who knows? The sex, of course, goes on from then until now. How accurate specifically or how much is fantasy is a tough call."
For example, in addition to lesbians and orgies, Reizenstein attempts to shock his audience with accounts of cross-dressing: "Emil had completed his ensemble.
"A straw-colored dress of satin with an extended, segmented bodice set with black lace and beads was most becoming on him. His blond hair had been parted in the middle, combed on both sides so as to cling to his forehead, and from there descended to his ears. He almost had a problem with Lucy's shoes because they were -- too large for him. Lucy had small feet, but Emil's were even smaller.
"The head covering he chose was entirely in keeping with the rest of the ensemble in its elegance. He looked like a young lady of the court, pretty as a picture, suitable to be led on the arm of a dutiful chamberlain in the chamber of his mistress."
The phrase "cross-dressing," says Rowan, "was a hell of a job translating." Verkleidung literally means "cross-dressing," he says, but his editors found the phrase too modern, so he changed it to "masquerade."
As part of his research into Reizenstein and his background, Rowan took a swing through a gay area of Berlin during a trip to the Fatherland. "It's certainly a different tradition. It's not your father's Germany," he chuckles.
He also became a guest of Ludwig's descendants, a sojourn as weird as anything in Mysteries. "It was bizarre," Rowan recalls. "It was right out of The Addams Family." Baron Konrad von Reitzenstein (the spelling has been modified over the years), in his late eighties, met Rowan at the train station dressed in a cloak. "I didn't have any problem picking him out of the crowd," Rowan says.
"Next to the house they have an honest-to-God castle that got blown up in the Thirty Years' War. The Reitzensteins are called Uradel, which basically means 'they've always been there.' As far as anybody knows, at least since the year 1000 they've always been there. I think they came in with Conan the Barbarian."
Rowan recounts that while looking for a photo of Ludwig, he opened an armoire and a piece of armor landed on him. "The house was as cold as a tomb," he says. "It's all stone and covered with paintings and trophies and weapons. My main impression was that I was visiting the lair of recently domesticated wolves. These are killers. Ludwig basically left them because they were killers. This was not his personality type."
As a guest at dinner, Rowan was regaled with Hitler stories.
He says the family related well to news of their scandalous ancestor. "In these big noble families," says Rowan, "everything happens."
Rowan's now on the hunt for a novel serialized in a German newspaper in St. Louis in the 1840s: The Whore House on Chouteau Pond. "The Anglos would occasionally translate a few snippets of the really offensive stuff from radical German newspapers. They called it 'the spirit of the German press.'"
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