Browse Reading Guides


Reading Group Guide

  1. Book ImageYellow Jack: A Novel

    Josh Russell

    "[An] erotic, disturbing novel . . . shimmers with intensity . . . irresistible."—New Orleans Times-Picayune

From the Author

A Note on 19th Century New Orleans, Yellow Fever, and Daugerrottypes

In New Orleans, the worst days of yellow fever and the heyday of the daguerreotype were contemporaneous. Between 1839, when the first daguerreotypes arrived in the city, and 1860, when other photographic processes made the technology all but obsolete, more than 26,000 New Orleanians fell victim to “Yellow Jack.” The annual epidemics became so notorious that northern newspapers often referred to New Orleans as “The Necropolis of the South.” The city, meanwhile, was thriving. Its population grew from just over 70,000 in 1839 to almost 170,000 in 1860, at which time New Orleans’s volume of trade equaled that of New York City. New Orleans’s residents proudly recorded their prosperity in daguerreotype after daguerreotype.

They also memorialized “Mister Jack’s” victims in daguerreotypes. These days, viewers often find pictures of dead people ghoulish, but during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries memorial photographs were an accepted way of remembering the dead all over the world, not just in New Orleans, a city with a unique relationship with death. Even the very poor could afford to have a memorial portrait made of a loved one; the advent of photography made portraits, once available only to the rich, available to almost everyone.

By the end of the nineteenth century, both yellow fever and the daguerreotype had all but disappeared from New Orleans. Mosquitoes were finally recognized as the disease’s carrier, and successful steps were taken to cut their numbers. Except for 1897’s mini-epidemic, which claimed 298 victims, several dozen summers passed with only one or two recorded fever deaths. The last half of the 1800s witnessed rapid progress in photographic technology. In the 1850s and 1860s the daguerreotype was gradually made outmoded by the less expensive ambrotype, which was later made obsolete by the even cheaper tintype. Daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes are a one-of-a-kind objects, like paintings or drawings. All but abandoned by 1900, these technologies were replaced by the now ubiquitous print photographic process, in which a negative is used to make unlimited reproductions of a single photograph.

An Interview with Josh Russell by Michael Sims

In the late 1830s a French physicist and artist named Louis Daguerre perfected the first practical means of recording a photographic image. Daguerreotypes were produced by coating a copper or brass plate with silver and iodide, exposing it to light focused through a camera, developing the image with mercury vapor, and fixing it with a salt solution. For the first time, human beings didn’t have to depend on painters to depict their lives.

Like the grain of sand inside a pearl, this fact nestles at the heart of Josh Russell’s extravagantly inventive novel, Yellow Jack. In Russell’s account, Daguerre has an apprentice named Claude Marchand, who not only assists in the invention but takes his expertise—and some of Daguerre’s technology—with him when he flees Europe. Soon Marchand is in New Orleans, where his story really begins. The novel’s title comes from a nickname for yellow fever, which terrorizes the Delta during the entire book.

Yellow Jack is Josh Russell’s first novel. He was born in 1968 in Illinois and received his M.F.A. in 1993. He is currently teaching at the University of Florida. In an interview shortly after the publication of Yellow Jack, Russell discussed the genesis of the novel: “I wrote it as a one-page stand-alone story—what is now, I think, the first three pages of the book—which encapsulated Claude Marchand’s entire life. And then I wrote another little stand-alone that was rolled into a larger daguerreotype section. I sent them to a magazine called Epoch, which is published at Cornell, a literary magazine that I’d admired for years.” The editor “innocently” asked for more, and over the next year Russell wrote a longer story, consisting of a Marchand photography catalog roughly as it appears interwoven throughout the book.

The fictional Claude Marchand begins his career as a painter’s apprentice. An unreliable narrator, he unwittingly reveals his method of autobiography when he admits, “I adored the way things could be left out in a painting, others made more vivid.” However, this remark could also be Josh Russell talking about the virtues of fiction over history. We think of historians as hobbled by a detective’s respect for clues. But every historian is an interpreter who makes choices, who extracts—or imagines—themes. Historians both consciously and unconsciously shape a narrative out of fragments of a vanished world.

Yellow Jack is about what historians cannot retrieve—motivations, uncertainties, passions. It is about the unacknowledged pain and hopeless confusion of everyday life. Throughout, Russell questions the need for art, the reliability of photography, and even the role of historians. Claude Marchand sums up the essential problem of the human condition: “We are a jumble of wants.” Marchand himself certainly is. He’s also a thoroughly unpleasant character—brutal, manipulative, obsessed. To spend 250 pages in his presence is to journey into an increasingly dark and disturbed mind.

Russell slyly comments on the indeterminacy of history by providing three interwoven narratives—Marchand’s own first-person account, excerpts from the diary of his octoroon lover Millicent, and a series of exhibition notes written by an art historian for a catalog of Marchand’s daguerreotypes. “My intention,” Russell explains, “was to play with the way that history, especially art history, works. If it’s art, we can forgive anything. Look at Pound, Hemingway, Picasso. The art history stuff provided me with a rough map—and also a map that I could contradict.” Russell says that Millicent, writing in her diary, strictly for herself, “is telling as near to the truth as anyone can tell. Claude’s narrative I almost think of as a monologue—defending himself, trying to explain himself.”

One role the exhibition notes perform is foreshadowing. Without giving away the story, they nonetheless spark in us the same frisson of anxiety we experience when reading a biography. Learning early on that mercury poisoning and opium addiction will steal Marchand’s health and sanity, and that he will die at the age of 25, only adds to the poignancy of his narrative. Once you reach the end of the novel, a glance back at the art historian’s notes will reveal how slyly Russell foreshadowed much of Marchand’s life. The novel ends roughly where the catalog began. It’s easy to understand how the historian’s analysis could stand alone as a short story à la Jorge Luis Borges, but readers can be grateful that Russell gave in to the invitation to flesh out the life of Claude Marchand.

Having an unreliable narrator was part of the fun, Russell says. “A third-person narrator would be able to render the truthful narrative in a way that I’m not particularly interested in. I wanted the question of who was telling the truth. I wanted the question of who even knew what the truth was. Would a man tell a different truth than a woman? Would a white character tell a different truth than a black character?”

Considering that the elusive truth of history—private and public-is the theme of the book, and that New Orleans is as much a character as any of the people, it seems appropriate that Russell can trace the germ of Yellow Jack to a particular place and subject. “New Orleans and photography,” he says flatly. “Just living in the city provided the settings. My apartment became one of the settings; where I worked became another.”

After receiving his M.F.A. in 1993, Russell took a job at a photography gallery in the French Quarter. During this employment, which Russell says mostly involved packing expensive photographs for shipping, he saw daguerreotypes for the first time. He says he “handled them and looked at them and read about them.” And he began to imagine the stories that happened before and after the photograph was taken. Slowly these imaginings grew into the brief fiction made of the art historian’s notes, and finally into the novel you hold in your hand.

Nabokov said that in Madame Bovary Flaubert transformed what he conceived as “a sordid world inhabited by frauds and Philistines and mediocrities and brutes and wayward ladies” into a work of poetic fiction. Josh Russell has performed the same sort of alchemy with Yellow Jack. He has distilled the New Orleans of the mid-1800s, the fever of the title, and the savage lives of his characters into a novel of terrible beauty.

Michael Sims is the author of Darwin’s Orchestra: An Almanac of Nature in History and the Arts. His interview with Josh Russell originally appeared, in slightly different form, in the Nashville Scene (August 5, 1999).

Discussion Questions

  1. We are first introduced to Claude Marchand by a modern-day narrator, and then Marchand himself starts to tell his story. How many different points of view does Josh Russell use in the novel? Do you think the third-person objective point of view enhances the first-person narrative?
  2. Discuss the shifts in historical time throughout the novel. How do the present-day descriptions of Marchand’s plates lend structure to the story of nineteenth-century New Orleans?
  3. Do you think Millicent’s journal entries broaden the scope of the novel? Does her perspective add any insight to Marchand’s story?
  4. Claude Marchand says, “The supreme trick of language is to say exactly and fully what you mean and have others hear only the bits you wish them to hear” (p. 85). How does this comment relate to Russell’s use of point of view in Yellow Jack?
  5. Discuss the use of the daguerreotype as a metaphor in the novel. How does Russell use the daguerreotype as a device to heighten the plot? to foreshadow events? to enhance character development?
  6. Discuss the evolution of Marchand’s art. Keep in mind Marchand’s lying and cheating, as well as his ironic reluctance to make certain moves concerning his art and his business. What is Russell trying to say about the path of art and the artist?
  7. Do you find Claude Marchand a likable or sympathetic character? Why or why not?
  8. Many artists are in constant pursuit of the impossible, whether it be creating the perfect work—or the perfect world. What are Marchand’s main pursuits? Do his professional motivations differ from his personal ones?
  9. How does Marchand hurt other people with his good intentions, artistic and otherwise?
  10. Discuss Marchand’s turbulent love life. What does he seek or find in his relationship with Millicent? With Vivian? How do you react to his affairs?
  11. How do Marchand’s romantic liaisons relate to the artist’s need for—and fear of—love or intimacy? Explore his needs as an artist and as a man. How does he fulfill these needs with different women?
  12. We learn at an early stage that Vivian will marry Marchand. How does this early revelation affect your experience in reading the book? Does Russell seem to give the plot away by revealing more about the characters’ fate?
  13. Discuss the significance of Vivian’s death after giving birth to a child who is named Daguerre.
  14. How does yellow fever function as a metaphor for Marchand’s plight?
  15. Who is the most powerful minor character in the novel? Why is this character essential to the telling of the story?
  16. How does Russell handle the subjects of sex, drugs, death, corruption, and other complex areas of human nature?
  17. If you were to make a film based on Yellow Jack, how would you incorporate the descriptions of Marchand’s plates and Millicent’s journal entries?
  18. Does Russell successfully bring to life the setting of 1840s New Orleans? Did the setting and other historical elements (the daguerreotype, the yellow fever epidemic) feel like an organic part of the novel, or merely a backdrop for the narrative?
  19. Could you imagine telling this same story but in a different historical period or setting?

About Josh Russell

Josh Russell is professor of English at Georgia State University and co-director of the Creative Writing Program. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship in Prose, he is the author of three novels.

Books by Josh Russell

  1. Book CoverYellow Jack: A Novel

    "[An] erotic, disturbing novel . . . shimmers with intensity . . . irresistible."—New Orleans Times-PicayuneMore