What is a Levee? (Part 1)

The London Avenue canal levee and floodwall

An excerpt from an academic paper (for a list of the references used, please contact me):

Levee [French levée, from Old French levee, from feminine past participle of lever, to raise; see lever.]

The primary meaning of levee, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a reception held by a person of distinction on rising from bed”.  This is a custom still practiced in Canada, where it is a general New Year’s celebration, a social affair in which people recount the past year and anticipate the next one.  The use of the term to describe a social event originates with the Levée du Soleil, the Rising of the Sun, a custom of King Louis XIV (1643-1715).  Apparently the King was in the habit of receiving male subjects in his bedchamber after waking, a custom that was then passed down to subsequent monarchs and later, heads of state and other leaders.  These gatherings were long restricted to men until recently, and now includes women and children in most cases.

The secondary meaning for levee is, perhaps, no longer secondary since Hurricane Katrina, which propelled the term into media and international conversation.  According to Merriam-Webster a levee is “an embankment for preventing flooding, a river landing place, a continuous dike or ridge (as of earth) for confining the irrigation areas of land”.  Petroski defines it as a “natural or artificial slope or wall to prevent flooding of the land behind it … often parallel to the course of a river or the coast” (Petroski 2006:7). A few people (outside of the Delta, of course) have told me that they don’t really know what a levee looks like, and can’t really imagine one.  Of course, people who live with and depend on delta engineering know all about them; in fact, the technology as well as the word entered the U.S. through the Mississippi River delta.

Levee was first appropriated into English in New Orleans in the 18th century, according to linguists.  Levee (both the party and the technology) stems from the French word lever, which means “to raise” or “to rise”.  Levée in French (we have lost the accent) was the noun form, meaning simply raised.  When Captain Harry Gordon arrived in New Orleans in 1766, 37 years before the Louisiana Purchase, the city had already been founded and enclosed by an artificial embankment known as the levée.  There was something particularly accurate about this word, since Gordon tried to call the thing by an English word, only to resort finally to the French; nothing else would describe what he meant.  Even the word embankment, which I used above, wouldn’t suffice.

In the Mississippi River Delta, the arrival of levee, the noun and the technology, was a feature of French colonial empire.   To the French, levees were necessary to the civilizing mission.  In fact, without levees and grids, the area proved most resistant to settlement and even navigation, as evidenced by the rather gradual process of conquest occurring from 1685 (beginning with René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, who lost the mouth of the Mississippi River after first planting his flag there) to 1712, by which time a miniscule nomadic colony was moving about in search of the highest ground (Dawdy 2008:14, Giraud 1953:xi-xii, 31).  Significantly, this initial settlement happened under the reign of Louis XIV, who spent a great deal of resources expanding the arts and sciences in France, and used his “Enlightenment” image to centralize his monarchy and expand his empire.  According to Dawdy (13), Louis XIV “sponsored the training and development of a sophisticated corps of army engineers who exercised skills in mathematics, architecture, geography, urban planning, shipbuilding, navigation, astronomy, metalworking, and the development of new technologies”.  By the time New Orleans got its name — from the Duc d’Orléans, Louis XIV’s temporary successor — in 1723, the region had become an experimental colonial project in the spirit of Louis XIV’s “Enlightened absolutism”, “characterized by a drive to discover the most ‘rational’ means of operating an empire” and designating the new site a “laboratory for social, economic, and political reforms” (12).

Centered on New Orleans was the expectation that the new city would visibly extend French empire, civilizing the new country in the same way that Louis XIV had himself “civilized” the dark and raucous areas in his home country through material renovation (Dawdy 70).  Pushing an “aesthetic of order, uniformity, and clarity” (71), the French sought to fashion New Orleans after other respected imperial cities (such as Rome and Athens) that exemplified the power of the crown through the beauty and embellishment of public works.  Yet New Orleans was also supposed to transcend the efforts of former empires, as colonial period diagrams reveal a vision of a science-fiction city never yet built anywhere in the world, a gem (literally) comprised of the best elements of several previous models of civilization: “fortified towns, port cities, monumental cities, and garden cities” (71; see also illustration on cover page).  Thus the design for New Orleans was meant to accomplish the task of, all at once, enabling heavy military fortification and defense, functioning as a busy and open fort for trade and entertainment, signifying “royal presence” through monumental display, and incorporating green space or “gardens” toward the effect of an urban countryside (73-74). Though the colony was soon deemed an imperial failure resulting in what historians call a period of “abandonment” from 1731-1769, the French left lasting inscriptions on the landscape and on local populations.

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