Annals of the avant-garde in the Vieux Carré.
Jun 10, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 37 • By BARTON SWAIM
At the height of its brief life, the Double Dealer reached a circulation of 3,000. It ceased publication in May 1926, and is now forgotten even by Wikipedia. These days, such a thing would never be allowed to happen. A literary magazine like the Double Dealer, with claims to cultural significance and inevitably faced with financial doom, would seek the aid of a university. If granted, the magazine would then operate under the auspices of a department of comparative literature; it would be edited by older academics, written by younger ones, and read by almost no one.
The French Quarter of the 1920s, by contrast, existed before universities came to dominate cultural life in America. Some of the Famous Creoles were on the faculty at Tulane—Ellsworth Woodward was a professor at the Newcomb school for 40 years—but the university was not its center or its animating force. Most, or all, of the Famous Creoles’ institutions, Reed tells us, “were founded and paid for by moneyed, ‘uptown’ folk.” What gave vitality to this essentially bohemian movement was the mostly happy relationship existing between itself and wealthy society. Occasionally, we learn, society and Bohemia grew impatient with each other—as when the wealthy preservationist Elizabeth Werlein banned Faulkner from her house after he showed up barefoot—but by and large the relationship was an approving one.
Reed does not sidestep the fact that the Famous Creoles were all white and that neither the Northerners nor the Southerners among them showed any visceral opposition to the marginalization of black men and women in Southern society. That unhappy fact aside, the sheer number and diversity of remarkable characters in Dixie Bohemia is staggering.
There is, taking an example almost at random, Natalie Scott. Scott was a gossip columnist and Faulkner and Spratling’s landlady. She served with the Red Cross in France during the First World War, explored Mexico on horseback in 1929, established a sanitation system and founded a nursery for the Mexican town of Taxco—and, after Pearl Harbor, served with the Red Cross again in North Africa, France, Italy, and Germany.
There is also Meigs Frost, aged 44 in 1926, who had already “covered six revolutions in Latin America, fought in the campaign against Pancho Villa, lost an eye to ‘a jungle fever,’ and took some shrapnel that put a silver plate in his leg for the rest of his life.”
There is Frans Blom, who wrote his Harvard master’s thesis on Mayan ruins, taught at Tulane, was fluent in five languages, and made at least one major discovery: “that a group of buildings at the Uaxactun site are aligned with seasonal changes in the position of the sunrise.”
And there is Oliver La Farge. In 1929, aged 28, he wrote the novel Laughing Boy, about the lives and culture of American Indians. It is the only novel from the period still worth reading (very much including, it has to be said, Faulkner’s Mosquitoes). La Farge’s book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1930. The list of dramatis personae goes on and on, and doesn’t even include the strange walk-ons—like Colonel Charles Glenn Collins, a “Scottish confidence man with a knack for marrying heiresses.”
John Shelton Reed, widely known as a scholar of the American South, makes much of the fact that he is a sociologist rather than a historian. Maybe. But he’s also a fine essayist and knows how to tell a story—and he’s at his considerable best here.
Barton Swaim is the author of Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere: 1802-1834.