Book Review: French St. Louis

It’s right there in the name—Louis—to say nothing of the stately fleur-de-lis that adorns the city’s flag, and yet it doesn’t seem like the average Missourian regards St. Louis as being a French city. The cultural lineage of St. Louis is clearly traceable to the many demographic groups who’ve landed there, not least of all Irish, German, and Italian immigrants as well as Black Americans moving north during The Great Migration. Though many St. Louisans and Missourians broadly know the names Chouteau and Laclede, our understanding of the way the city’s French lineage still influences its character today could probably stand to be broadened. So argues French St. Louis, released in August by University of Nebraska Press and edited by Jay Gitlin, Robert Michael Morrissey, and Peter J. Kastor.

In the book’s introduction, readers get a sense of the way historical scholarship has shaped popular understanding of the city, and the limitations of that understanding. The book is, itself, a scholarly work complete with citations, but that shouldn’t stop the average reader from giving it a chance. The book’s structure is a series of essays, each one tackling a different aspect of St. Louis’s French origins. “The Capital of St. Louis” by J. Frederick Fausz examines the way successful trading partnerships between the French and their Osage neighbors in particular helped establish St. Louis as a powerhouse city in its formative years. Patricia Cleary’s essay “Fashioning Identities on the Frontier” deals with the surprisingly vital role played by fashion in St. Louis’s early days. Later essays explore the ways St. Louis has kept its connection to France alive, as well as the complex relationship between St. Louis and New Orleans, America’s other great formerly French city.

Although French St. Louis’s scholarly perspective and historical subjects may preclude some readers from picking it up, there are trickle down effects from the kind of deeper dive into our past that this book attempts. Namely, it can foster a better understanding of our present and our future for all of us. With that in mind, let’s hope to see more works of this nature in the near future.

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