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Eliza Moore Chinn McHatten Ripley, 1832-1912
Social Life in Old New Orleans. Being Recollections of My Girlhood
New York; London: D. Appleton and Company, 1912.

Summary

Eliza Ripley, daughter of Judge Richard H. and Betsy Holmes Chinn, was born in Lexington, Kentucky on February 1, 1832. The family moved to New Orleans when Eliza was just a toddler. She returned to Lexington in 1852 to marry James Alexander McHatton, but relocated with her husband to Arlington Plantation near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Ten years later, the couple fled their plantation when Union gunboats appeared on the Mississippi River near their home. Eliza, James, and a small caravan traveled with cotton and supplies through Texas into Mexico, and remained there until they, like many other southern escapees, sailed for Cuba in 1865. In Cuba, the McHattons ran a sugar plantation, using the southern antebellum model with which they were familiar. In 1889, Ripley published a memoir, From Flag to Flag, with D. Appleton about this period of her life. After her husband's death, she and her children returned the United States. She married Dwight Ripley in 1873 and lived the rest of her life in the North. Just one day before her death on July 13, 1912, Ripley completed an agreement to publish her second book, Social Life in Old New Orleans, which chronicles her coming of age in the bustling southern city. A brief biographical sketch is appended to this work.

Social Life in Old New Orleans is a series of anecdotes that reflect the changes in southern society from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century. Ripley, who mourns the passing of many of her contemporaries throughout the narrative, waxes nostalgic for the simplicity of her childhood years. She begins the narrative with descriptions of her early educational experiences in Louisiana and contrasts them with accounts of the years spent at a distant boarding school in New York, where she was separated from family for long periods of time. These reminiscences include descriptions of courtship in the North and South, as well as the literary culture at her conservative northern school.

Ripley focuses much of her attention on the popular entertainment and fashions of New Orleans. She takes the reader on walks through typical upper-class New Orleans homes, commenting on the gardens, lighting, clothing, furnishings, and interior designs, especially murals and other art. She also addresses the southern social customs and mores of the 1840s and 50s, including visiting and invitation rituals, food preparation, makeup, and shopping habits. This discussion of customs also includes a comparison of nineteenth and twentieth century weddings (including ceremonies, receptions, and gifts) and divorce trends.

In one of the most important chapters in the work, "The Old Plantation Life," Ripley recounts key elements of antebellum plantation culture, including the treatment and day-to-day life of enslaved African Americans. Although she refutes many abolitionist allegations, she claims that she is not an apologist for slavery and demonstrates her familiarity with John Brown and Booker T. Washington as well as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. She also pays homage to African American women who worked as domestic caretakers. In the chapter entitled "A Monument to Mammies," Ripley describes many families' dependence on the black domestic servant. As part of this discussion, she mentions her servant Charlotte, who is a major character in Ripley's first book, From Flag to Flag.

These controversial issues set the stage for Ripley's last chapters, which are concerned with the Civil War and Reconstruction. She describes, for example, a wartime wedding, conducted in haste, so that the groom would not be taken prisoner by the advancing Union forces. As part of this story, Ripley reflects, "All information about things beyond our physical eyesight was questionable. In the rush of uncertain and unlooked-for events, we could not plan any future, even one day ahead, so overwhelmed were we in mind and estate (not to mention body) with the strenuousness of the pitiful present" (p. 233). She portrays the North as paternalistic and punitive, forcing the South to drink the "nauseous medicine, labeled 'Reconstruction'"(p. 275)—a description that contrasts markedly with her more restrained sentiments about the Union in From Flag to Flag.

Works Consulted: Conrad, Glenn R., ed., Dictionary of Louisiana Biography, New Orleans; Louisiana Historical Association, 1988; Kaufman, Janet E. "Ripley, Eliza (Moore Chinn) M(cHatton)," American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present, New York: Ungar, 2000.

Jennifer L. Larson

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