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The Rubaiyat at New Orleans Mardi Gras

July 18, 2016

Here is a summary of Roger Paas’ presentation at the Rubaiyat Research Day on 9th July 2016 (see earlier post  https://omarkhayyamrubaiyat.wordpress.com/2016/07/15/rubaiyat-research-day-in-cambridge-9th-july-2016/).

Our thanks to Roger for introducing us all to a fascinating bit of Rubaiyat history, and providing a wonderful image, which is worth looking at closely.

It is a well-known fact that the original appearance of FitzGerald’s work in 1859 was met with virtually complete indifference by the public, yet within less than 50 years a cult focusing on Omar and his verses had developed in the Anglo-American world.  Fueled to a large extent by a number of enterprising American publishers in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia who filled the market with cheap reprints of FitzGerald’s work, wherever one looked, there were products that made explicit reference to Omar and/or The Rubaiyat:  watches, ladies’ toiletries, china, shoes, cigarettes, cigars etc.  A sterling example of the way The Rubaiyat had become part of American popular culture by the early 20th century is the appearance of Rubaiyat-themed floats in the 1905 Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans.

In anticipation of the parade on Monday evening, March 6th, the New Orleans newspaper, The Daily Picayune (Potter, no. 208), published a detailed description of the 20 floats in the parade along with a colored lithograph of all the floats and the text of the 3rd edition of FitzGerald’s poem.  The headline to the article read as follows:  “Proteus, The Changeable God, Whose Loyalty to Carnival City is Unchanging, Translates the Immortal Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam into Pictures Surpassing in Loveliness Former Glorious Tableaux he designed.”

1980.192.16i-xx, 10/6/08, 3:46 PM, 8C, 6872x10308 (655+231), 100%, Custom, 1/40 s, R37.2, G30.2, B34.2

The following day—Shrove Tuesday—the newspaper ran a very positive review of the parade, praising “…the beautiful and striking rendering of the poet’s imagery.”  By all accounts, the parade was enjoyed by all, and it is interesting to note how one reporter emphasized the familiarity of the general public with The Rubaiyat:  “The knowledge of it is not confined to the intellectual few who first recognized its merits and memorized most of the immortal verses, but it has become in America distinctly a popular work, as familiar to children in high school as to the businessman, who, as a rule, has no liking for verse.”

Roger Paas

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