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.’ ”
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.