Dixie Bohemia: A French Quarter Circle in the 1920s
by John Shelton Reed,
LSU Press, 2012,
Hardcover, 320 pp., $38.
The popular image of the French Quarter in New Orleans often seems to be one of unrestrained debauchery—particularly around Mardi Gras when it is not difficult to find media depictions of public drunkenness, nudity, and other carryings-on. To be fair, this is not an inaccurate depiction of the current state of Bourbon Street, though it does neglect the large portions of the Vieux Carré which are not Bourbon Street. Even among locals, the French Quarter is often seen primarily as a home to institutions devoted to separating tourists from their money. Again, while this is not a completely accurate depiction—locals will frequently follow up a declaration that they never go to the Quarter with the caveat that of course avoiding the Quarter doesn’t prevent them from going to any number of fine restaurants located there—it isn’t without an element of truth.
But that is only the current image of the French Quarter. Ask an older generation of New Orleanians about the French Quarter of their youth and you may get a rather different picture. Ask a New Orleanian of a sufficient age and you may hear that the French Quarter was the furthest thing from a tourist trap or party central. Rather, it was a crumbling and dilapidated neighborhood largely inhabited by immigrants and working class Creoles. For example, my father grew up in a house on the edge of the French Quarter with his parents, siblings, and assorted maiden aunts—a family grouping that was fairly typical then but which would be rather unusual in today’s Vieux Carré. A later generation might remember a French Quarter not so given to rowdiness as today’s Bourbon Street but also not quite so much of a backwater—a restored and preserved French Quarter home to those seeking a more offbeat or artistic air than that available inmore sedate uptown neighborhoods.
John Shelton Reed’s Dixie Bohemia is both an interesting and amusing portrait of a transitional moment for this well-known neighborhood as it began its transformation from dilapidated immigrant enclave to what it is today, a fascinating exploration of another path the French Quarter might have taken, and an explanation of why this alternative did not quite take off. In the 1920s an artistic and literary circle that flourished in the French Quarter bade fair to turn the French Quarter into a Louisiana version of New York’s Greenwich Village or the Left Bank in Paris, only to see the Bohemian presence in the French Quarter ultimately falter and fade away. This Bohemian circle, which most famously included a middle-aged Sherwood Anderson and a young William Faulkner, did not always live or work in the French Quarter—several of its members were associated with Tulane University and so lived and worked uptown near Tulane’s campus—but they seem to have very actively socialized in the French Quarter.
Reed’s depiction of the circle is based on a small book privately published by William Faulkner and his apartment-mate, the illustrator William Spratling, entitled Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles. The book, notes Prof. Reed, was rather jokey—the title was a riff on a 1925 book entitled The Prince of Wales and Other Famous Americans and very few of the people chronicled by Spratling and Faulkner (least of all Ohio-native Sherwood Anderson) were Creoles as a New Orleanian would have understood that term. Moreover, as Reed also notes, Famous Creoles omitted some people who should have been included in any survey of French Quarter Bohemia and included a few people who, while active in or supportive of the local artistic community, were hardly Bohemian (most notably, the president of Tulane University and the director of Newcomb College’s art department). Indeed, the book seems to be more a compendium of local people with whom Faulkner and Spratling socialized—it does not seem that they were attempting any sort of systematic collection and that certainly does not seem to be what they produced. Nevertheless, Reed makes a convincing case that this little literary curiosity, which very likely would have faded from memory rather quickly had it not been for Faulkner’s later fame, can tell us something rather interesting about the French Quarter and the city of New Orleans on the eve of the Great Depression.
The bulk of Dixie Bohemia is taken up by Reed’s annotation of Famous Creoles—Spratling’s sketch of each of them is reproduced and Reed provides a brief description of what the subject was doing at the time Famous Creoles was published, what he or she had done before that time, and the highlights of that person’s subsequent career. It is all very interesting and amusing and the biographical sketches are well done. Faulkner and Spratling’s social circle did not lack for personality and those personalities come through vividly. Indeed, in some ways the portraits of the famous members of the circle with whom readers are somewhat familiar are less interesting than the portraits of less well-known local figures.
For example, while it can be interesting to read what some of Faulkner’s New Orleans friends thought of his frequent recourse to the bottle, most readers familiar with Faulkner’s life will hardly be surprised to learn that he was a heavy drinker when he lived there. Rather, it is through the portraits of these lesser known figures—from the 56-year-old Helen Pritkin Schertz, a prominent clubwoman and society figure dedicated to the preservation of the Vieux Carré’s architectural history to Marian Draper, the 20-year-old “girl cheerleader of Tulane”—that the social and cultural world of the French Quarter in the 1920s (and to a lesser extent uptown New Orleans) is most vividlyillustrated. Reed’s biographical sketches make it easy to understand not only why the French Quarter Bohemians thought they were starting something lasting and influential, but also why their parties seem to have been an awful lot of fun.
But this portrait of the social and cultural life of New Orleans almost ninety years ago, while interesting and amusing, may not be the really valuable part of the story. That comes in the first third of Dixie Bohemia, where Reed sets the scene for the creation of a Bohemian circle in the Vieux Carré, lays out some of the elements which made up the circle, and offers some thoughts to explain why the French Quarter was unable to support a sustained Bohemian presence. While a number of well-known writers beyond Faulkner and Anderson lived in the French Quarter at various points in their careers (Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote come most quickly to mind), only Faulkner and Anderson seem to have been part of a self-conscious artistic community. And as Reed points out, Anderson’s best work was behind him when he arrived in the Vieux Carré while Faulkner’s was still to come when he left New Orleans to return to Oxford. Indeed, of the major writers to live in New Orleans, it is only with respect to one of them—Williams—that it makes sense to say that his best work was done in and associated with the French Quarter. Otherwise, “‘New Orleans seems to have been no great shakes as a mother of the arts.’”
Reed suggests several plausible explanations for this in the first third of Dixie Bohemia. The first is simply geography—though “Bohemian New Orleanians saw themselves as creating a sort of vest-pocket facsimile of Greenwich Village and the Left Bank,” the Deep South was simply too far away from the cultural and artistic centers of American life for such a thing to happen. It appears that a number of the artists in Faulkner and Spratling’s circle were recognized as having talent during their forays into the midwest and northeast, only to find themselves forgotten when they returned to New Orleans. As Reed notes, “as far as New York was concerned, artists who moved to Louisiana might as well have died.” It makes a great deal of sense to think that in the decades before interstate highways, convenient air travel, and electronic communications, New Orleans was simply too far away, too isolated, to attract the kind of critical mass of universities, museums, galleries, publishing houses, and other patrons of the arts that could help an artist develop a national reputation. With such supporting institutions so far away, New Orleans’ artists simply fell off the map. The provincial attitudes of northeast critics and others did not help either; to the extent they expected anything out of Louisiana’s artists and writers, they seem to have expected paintings of cypress swamps and caricatured stories of former slaves. That is largely what they saw, and they thus ignored the attempts of French Quarter Bohemians to produce more serious, innovative, and modernist works.
Geography may also have played a role in restricting the French Quarter Bohemians to a more local influence because of the excess of local color in the Vieux Carré. It must have been quite difficult for artists and writers to get beneath the surface of the French Quarter. Much easier to “write local color . . . or to paint courtyard after courtyard, swamp after swamp.” This is especially true in that Northern reading audiencesseemed to ask local color stories from Southern writers, especially stories largely featuring comically drawn African-American characters. To the extent that some writers in the French Quarter attempted to write serious novels, the market made it clear that they should go back to local color. A similar process very likely took place in the visual arts—courtyard and swamp scenes were what the public wanted, and attempts to do something else were rebuffed commercially. So in many ways, geographic distance and provincialism played a role in the failure of the French Quarter Bohemian circle to reproduce Greenwich Village in the Deep South.
Another possible explanation lay in what, in some way, replaced the patrons of New York or Paris—wealthy socialites living in the uptown neighborhoods of New Orleans. As Reed illuminates in the chapter entitled “Uptown, Downtown,” Bohemian artists living in the French Quarter often enjoyed surprisingly good relationships with more moneyed and conventional residents of uptown neighborhoods. It is hard to imagine an analogue of Famous Creoles written in Greenwich Village or the Left Bank including establishment figures such as Grace King (74 years old at the time Famous Creoles was published and the kind of “‘lady fictioneer from the sodden marshes of Southern Literature’” Bohemians might have been expected to mock), Ellsworth Woodward (65 years old, a self-described “old fogey” who lived an “exemplary bourgeois life uptown” where he directed Newcomb College’s School of Art), and Albert Dinwiddie (55 years old, the president of Tulane University and “a man of extreme respectability and sobriety”). The younger Bohemians may have been abstractly opposed to the artistic and cultural notions represented by this elder generation, but on a personal level they seem to have gotten along quite well. This seems to have been due at least in part to a shared interest in the preservation of the French Quarter’s architectural heritage. For instance, it doesn’t require a great stretch of the imagination to see that Grace King’s status as a pioneer in preserving the neighborhood where those who would have otherwise mocked her lived and worked had a great deal to do with her getting a pass from the French Quarter Bohemians which she would not have gotten from New York or Paris Bohemians.
This “easy familiarity between Society and Bohemia” certainly had its uses (for example, if you don’t have universities and museums to fund arts organizations, you need someone else to do so, and uptown society types are rather more likely to have that sort of money), but in Reed’s view it was also part of the reason the Bohemian circle of the Vieux Carré never grew large enough or long-lasting enough to be a real rival to the Bohemias of Greenwich Village or the Left Bank. Bohemians, almost by definition, need to be opposed to genteel, establishment society—the Bohemian’s role is épater le bourgeois, to go too far, to create a space in which accepted norms can be challenged, and in so doing to keep art and culture fresh and vital rather than staid and dull. A Bohemian who pulls his punches, who doesn’t want to offend uptown sensibilities too much because doing so may make his friends from the architectural preservation society uncomfortable, has hamstrung himself from the start. And from there it is a small step to these others thinking that the artistic aims of self-professed Bohemians may not be all that different from those of their elder colleagues, no matter how many manifestos the Bohemians write.
Indeed, in many ways the French Quarter Bohemians shared those sensibilities. As Reed notes, this was particularly true with respect to racial and political attitudes. As far as race is concerned, French Quarter Bohemians, like nearly every other white New Orleanian of that time (and quite some time afterwards, of course), had “serious vision problems when it came to seeing the African-American life thatsurrounded them.” This vision defect, shared with the establishment figures with whom the Bohemians might normally be expected to be contrasted, would have had real artistic as well as political implications. One might imagine that it is difficult to be an artistic radical while hewing to conventional lines in political and racial ideology. Reed notes that the Double Dealer, a magazine that employed and featured a number of the more Bohemian of the Famous Creoles and that was financially supported by the uptown contingent, ended its run “mainly because its work was done” and because “the crusade for liberty of expression, against puritanism and complacency, had quickly succeeded.” But perhaps it was not so much that the crusade had succeeded as it was that the crusaders, unwilling to challenge the racial and political orthodoxy of their neighbors and friends, could only challenge artistic and cultural orthodoxy in a relatively superficial manner. It is surely not a coincidence that one of the founders of the Double Dealer said later that he and his colleagues “‘were nearly ignorant of politics and entirely scornful of it.’” Where Bohemians in New York and Paris were much given to radical politics, Bohemians in New Orleans tended to avoid the topic entirely. This deliberate avoidance of a topic that so animated Bohemians elsewhere almost has to be a large part of the reason that Bohemia in New Orleans didn’t last very long.
Dixie Bohemia is not, it should be emphasized, a dry tome of interest only to New Orleans obsessives or theoreticians of Bohemia. It is an engaging, fluent, and informative illustration of an interesting period in the history of New Orleans, and a window into the world of people with whom the reader is happy to have become better acquainted. If the characters who populated Famous Creoles were unable to create the sustained Bohemian enclave they hoped to found in the French Quarter, they were at least colorful and vibrant while they tried. And in New Orleans, then as much as now, being colorful is perhaps the more important thing.
New Orleans-born Charles Jeanfreau is a lawyer in New York.