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Dixie Bohemia

A French Quarter Circle in the 1920s

John Shelton Reed

Publication Year: 2012

In the years following World War I, the New Orleans French Quarter attracted artists and writers with its low rents, faded charm, and colorful street life. By the 1920s Jackson Square had become the center of a vibrant if short-lived bohemia. A young William Faulkner and his roommate William Spratling, an artist who taught at Tulane University, resided among the “artful and crafty ones of the French Quarter.” In Dixie Bohemia John Shelton Reed introduces Faulkner’s circle of friends—ranging from the distinguished Sherwood Anderson to a gender-bending Mardi Gras costume designer—and brings to life the people and places of New Orleans in the Jazz Age. Reed begins with Faulkner and Spratling’s self-published homage to their fellow bohemians, “Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles.” The book contained 43 sketches of New Orleans artists, by Spratling, with captions and a short introduction by Faulkner. The title served as a rather obscure joke: Sherwood was not a Creole and neither were most of the people featured. But with Reed’s commentary, these profiles serve as an entry into the world of artists and writers that dined on Decatur Street, attended masked balls, and blatantly ignored the Prohibition Act. These men and women also helped to establish New Orleans institutions such as the Double Dealer literary magazine, the Arts and Crafts Club, and Le Petit Theatre. But unlike most bohemias, the one in New Orleans existed as a whites-only affair. Though some of the bohemians were relatively progressive, and many employed African American material in their own work, few of them knew or cared about what was going on across town among the city’s black intellectuals and artists. The positive developments from this French Quarter renaissance, however, attracted attention and visitors, inspiring the historic preservation and commercial revitalization that turned the area into a tourist destination. Predictably, this gentrification drove out many of the working artists and writers who had helped revive the area. As Reed points out, one resident who identified herself as an “artist” on the 1920 federal census gave her occupation in 1930 as “saleslady, real estate,” reflecting the decline of an active artistic class. A charming and insightful glimpse into an era, Dixie Bohemia describes the writers, artists, poseurs, and hangers-on in the New Orleans art scene of the 1920s and illuminates how this dazzling world faded as quickly as it began.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Copyright

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Contents

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pp. v-

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Preface

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pp. vii-viii

This book began its life as the Fleming Lectures at Louisiana State University in April 2011. I was both delighted and intimidated to be invited to give those lectures—delighted because of the distinguished company of Fleming lecturers I would be joining, but intimidated . . . for the same reason. No doubt many other lecturers...

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Introduction: Two Bills and a Book

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pp. 1-6

In October 1926 two young men named Bill, an artist and a writer who shared an apartment in the French Quarter of New Orleans, decided to publish a little book. It was to be “a sort of private joke,” the artist said later, just his sketches of some of their friends and themselves, with captions and the writer’s introduction. They’d get it out in time...

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Dramatis Personae

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pp. 7-10

In what follows, I have usually referred to the players by name. Most were colorful and memorable characters who deserve better than the anonymity of “one member of the circle,” or “a young artist.” But it may be hard to keep this cast of dozens straight, so let me briefly introduce them before I turn to the set and the drama. (You may want to dog...

The World of the Famous Creoles

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Life in the Quarter

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pp. 13-29

Hamilton Basso wrote that “if I never much hankered after Paris during the expatriate years, it was because, in the New Orleans of that era, I had Paris in my own back yard.” The Vieux Carré of his youth, he said, was “a sort of Creole version of the Left Bank,” and in six blocks or so, clustered around the cathedral of St. Louis, les bons temps did...

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Making a Scene

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pp. 30-55

Future Famous Creoles and others like them began to gather in New Orleans in the years during and just after World War I. Writers and artists and architects and anthropologists came to work at Tulane University or for the city’s newspapers, and they encountered likeminded natives, some just back from military...

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The Difference Dixie Made

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pp. 56-67

But there was no real risk of confusion. Being in the Deep South rather than New York or Paris had consequences. One, justly or unjustly, was that little of the French Quarter’s literature was respected and little of its art even widely known outside its region. Another, not surprisingly, was that its Bohemia...

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Three Populations

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pp. 68-76

Artists found material aplenty in the Quarter’s picturesque architecture and the nearby waterfronts and cypress swamps, while writers were taken with Louisiana’s fascinating cultural gumbo, but the presence of subject matter is not sufficient to explain why a Bohemian community was created in New Orleans, or why one was not...

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Uptown, Downtown

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pp. 77-85

For anyone familiar with other Bohemian scenes, one striking aspect of this one is the relative absence of rivalries, jealousies, backbiting, factions, and conspiracies. Cicero Odiorne was struck by the contrast with Paris, where, “underneath the brilliance, the spirit is that of the jungle.” Elizabeth Anderson and Lillian Marcus were...

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The End of an Interlude

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pp. 86-96

It may seem odd to attribute transformation and decline to a successful campaign for preservation. But in fact that’s a large part of what changed the French Quarter in ways that largely snuffed out its Bohemian aspirations. The common effort to preserve the Quarter papered over a cultural fault line. Just as Le Petit Salon’s desire to bring back...

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The Annotated Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles

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pp. 97-249

Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles is a good starting point for exploring the social circle around Spratling and Faulkner, but it is far from an exhaustive catalog. I kept running across people who could well have been in the book, including a few who seemed more suitable than some of those who made the cut. But no doubt Spratling and Faulkner...

Notes

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pp. 251-321

Illustration Credits

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pp. 323-326

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Acknowledgments

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pp. 327-328

I am grateful to Gaines Foster and the Louisiana State University Department of History for the lecture invitation that began this whole business, and for their hospitality in Baton Rouge. I also thank the staff of the LSU Press, who have been a delight to work with. Particular thanks to Rand Dotson, who was involved in this almost from...

Index

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pp. 329-334


E-ISBN-13: 9780807147658
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807147641

Page Count: 344
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures in Southern History

Research Areas

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Subject Headings

  • Vieux Carré (New Orleans, La.) -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
  • Vieux Carré (New Orleans, La.) -- Social life and customs -- 20th century.
  • Vieux Carré (New Orleans, La.) -- Biography.
  • New Orleans (La.) -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
  • New Orleans (La.) -- Social life and customs -- 20th century.
  • New Orleans (La.) -- Biography.
  • Spratling, William, 1900-1967. Sherwood Anderson and other famous creoles.
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