The great thing about this account of the artists and intellectuals in and around New Orleans’s French Quarter during the 1920s is that it upends nearly every assumption commonly made about the American South—even the true ones. The early-20th-century South may have produced the odd isolated genius, but it did not generate anything of cultural distinction. True enough. And yet for a decade, New Orleans—by far the largest city in the South with 400,000 people—became a hothouse of young, or mostly young, playwrights, novelists, musicians, painters, archaeologists, poets, and journalists.
In 1926, two of them—an artist and a writer both in their 20s—compiled a lighthearted satirical collection of 42 sketches of their friends called Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles. William Spratling, the artist, drew the sketches, and his roommate, William Faulkner, wrote the introduction. Anderson, then at the height of his literary fame, had moved to New Orleans two years before, but he did not think much of the book (“I don’t think it’s very funny”), Faulkner having parodied the older man’s over-earnest style.
Many of these Famous Creoles, as John Shelton Reed calls them, were neither famous nor Creole. Most
were Southerners, although a substantial minority came from elsewhere. A few either were already famous or would become famous later; but most were, as one of them put it, “internationally famous locally.” Reed introduces Spratling and Faulkner’s self-published lark with a detailed and sprightly analysis of the loosely connected group itself, then annotates the sketches with 42 short biographies concentrating on the decade of the 1920s. Each biography is titled with the subject’s name and his or her age in 1926, giving you a better idea of what the group looked like in its heyday—a nice touch that brings attention to its generational diversity: In 1926, the youngest was 20, the oldest 76.
The Famous Creoles had nothing like the cultural influence of, say, the Fugitives in Nashville or the New York Intellectuals; the Creoles were more of a social circle than an intellectually coherent coterie. Nor did they produce many works of art or literature to which one could ascribe the word “great.” Faulkner wrote his best novels after leaving New Orleans; Anderson had written his best work long before arriving; and, despite the group including talented painters, none achieved lasting fame outside the region. One reason for this, in the opinion of Reed and others, is that living in New Orleans lent itself too easily to atmospheric “local color” that comes off as charming—interesting, maybe—but unmemorable. It was just too easy, evidently, to paint swamps and old brick slaves’ quarters and write about jazz trumpeters and Cajun voodoo priestesses.
Still, taken as a whole, the French Quarter of the 1920s was the center of a remarkable cultural effusion, one that either created or enriched several institutions, among them a now iconic revitalized amateur theater, Le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Carré, as well as the equally iconic Arts and Crafts Club; the Newcomb College School of Art at Tulane; the Double Dealer, a briefly famous literary magazine; and several fiercely competitive newspapers, including the Times-Picayune and the Morning Tribune.
Of all these, the Double Dealer is the least remembered, the most significant in literary history, and the most fun to read about. “A national magazine from the South,” as the cover rather too self-consciously claimed, it was founded in 1921 by two young littérateurs from prominent Jewish families. The magazine’s office—“a filthy place . . . with some overstuffed furniture, a set of dueling pistols, and two human skulls”—was a kind of lounge for the Quarter’s intellectuals, a bohemian version of John Murray’s London bookshop a century before.
The Double Dealer was heavily influenced by H. L. Mencken, and it shows; its editorials took a delightfully perverse attitude to nearly everything, especially important people. F. Scott Fitzgerald, for instance, was “the flapper philosopher . . . a modern young man lately come up from Rutgers or some such institution.” Anderson, though not on the masthead, was a guiding presence; its contributors included Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, Edmund Wilson, Thornton Wilder, Malcolm Cowley, Hart Crane, and even (Reed tells us) “unknowns like William Faulkner and ‘a young American living in Paris’ named ‘Ernest M. Hemingway.’ ”