John Shelton Reed’s new book about a circle of bohemians in the 1920s French Quarter belongs on the bookshelves of fans of New Orleans and its history.
by Erin Z. Bass
Based around William Faulkner and William Spratling’s published homage to their fellow bohemians, “Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles,” “Dixie Bohemia” paints a picture of the development of the New Orleans French Quarter into the tourist mecca that it is today. The two Bills’ 1926 book contained 43 sketches of New Orleans artists and writers who helped turn the city into a literary, theatrical and artistic breeding ground – if only for a short-lived frame of time.
As Reed explains in the book’s preface, it began as a lecture for the Fleming Lectures at Louisiana State University in 2011. While looking for a topic to speak about, his wife, Dale, suggested the French Quarter in the 1920s. “Neither of us can remember why she suggested it, but it surely has something to do with the fact that she and I have collected Mexican silver for years,” he writes.
The second Bill – Spratling – is best remembered as the designer of some of the best of that silver. A fan of his work, Reed didn’t realize Spratling had shared an apartment with William Faulkner in the Quarter before going on to fame.
Reed’s “lightbulb” moment for a topic resulted in a couple months of research in New Orleans, much of it spent at the Historic New Orleans Collection, Tulane and Galatoire’s. A retired professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, he’d only been to the city as a tourist and hadn’t spent an extended amount of time there. Staying on Burgundy Street, “I learned how to make groceries,” he says. “You sort of get the flavor of it.”
The result is an important history and documentation of how the French Quarter developed, was revitalized and restored thanks to a group of “famous Creoles,” as the Bills referred to them.
In the fall of 1926, the two Bills were sharing a fourth-floor apartment on St. Peter Street. Spratling pursuaded Faulkner that it would be fun to publish a sort of caricature of their local celebrity friends. A New Orleans “who’s who” of the time, the book included such notable figures as Sherwood Anderson, Grace King and Lyle Saxon. The Pelican Bookshop Press was conjured up to publish the book, which today has become a collector’s item.
Reed is careful to explain that the “Famous Creoles” weren’t really Creole, nor were they really a group. Anderson was the most notable, already at the height of his fame, but all did their part in helping to cement the arts as a viable part of New Orleans culture. Reed goes on to describe in detail how this culture developed and how it manifested itself in the form of dinner parties, balls, Le Petit Theatre and The Double Dealer magazine. (The first to publish both Faulkner and Hemingway, The Double Dealer‘s story could be a book unto itself.)
Each person in the circle had their cause, and all seemed to develop simultaneously as a way for New Orleans to establish “a sort of Creole version of the Left Bank” or Greenwich Village. Spratling’s sketches are interspersed throughout the book, making for a playful reading experience, and profiles of each of the Famous Creoles, including what they were doing during the Jazz Age and what they went on to do, at the end of the book are invaluable.
We all know that all good things must come to an end, and as so often happens, once the bohemians helped to revitalize the French Quarter and bring in the tourist trade, they were forced out. Sherwood Anderson wrote in Vanity Fair: “I’m going to tell you it won’t last long … The end of New Orleans-the old town, the sweet town, is already in sight.”
But the Creoles had made their mark. We can thank them for the vibrancy of the Quarter today, and, with “Dixie Bohemia,” Reed has helped to preserve and document their contributions for years to come.
“Dixie Bohemia” is available from LSU Press, in independent bookstores and on Amazon. John Shelton Reed is William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor Emeritus of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a co-founder of the Center for the Study of the American South and the quarterly Southern Cultures. He has written or edited 19 books, most of them about the American South, and was recently Chancellor of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. He’s currently working on a book about Southern BBQ. View his signing scheduled for “Dixie Bohemia” here, starting with the Southern Festival of Books this weekend.