- The Artist and the Intellectual:Cultural Ambiguities in the American South
Slightly over half a square mile, the French Quarter of New Orleans has long been an iconic destination for Americans. In 1718, it was New Orleans. France, Spain, and (again) France governed until 1803 when the Louisiana Purchase brought streams of Americans to the key port near the mouth of the Mississippi River. These newcomers, finding the inhabitants of Vieux Carré resistant to invasion of their terrain, quickly expanded the city in new directions. Uptown fitted their ambitions. In Vieux Carré the descendants of the French and Spanish settlers, known as Creoles, strove to retain their languages, architecture, and customs. After 1898, nearly one hundred thousand Italian immigrants began arriving, many settling in the now decaying Quarter, sometimes called "Little Sicily." New Orleans possessed an international flavor not to be matched elsewhere in the South. [End Page 136]
That John Shelton Reed, author of numerous books about the American South, would take interest in the dynamics of New Orleans does not surprise. In "retirement" the distinguished sociologist has turned historian. His precise focus is the French Quarter in the first half of the 1920s, when talented writers and artists found the Quarter desirable for inexpensive accommodations and a relaxed lifestyle. Sherwood Anderson, then at the height of his literary reputation, had arrived, planning to make the Quarter his permanent home. He served as Pied Piper to this Dixie Bohemia.
Young William Faulkner and young William Spratling so recognized him when the two apartment mates (one aspiring writer, the other aspiring visual artist) collaborated in 1926 on a little book intended to honor and amuse their friends: Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles. A local printer produced 250 copies in time for Christmas. As the title indicates, light-hearted play pervades. Anderson was not a Creole; only two of the forty-three other featured "eminents" were. The subtitle of the work more aptly describes its contents: A Gallery of Contemporary New Orleans. The title page credits Spratling with the portraits (he also provides scenes of Quarter life) and Faulkner with the arrangement of the gallery. Anderson alone received a portrait in words, and Faulkner came to regret his written description of Anderson, convinced that his words had proved hurtful.
The little book reveals a larger story than the playful celebration of one Christmas season. Reed obliges with the biographical sketches implied in the original choices, creating that sense of a circle of purpose and geniality (a circle without the bitter rivalries of most Bohemias). Reed sets the stage for the individual portraits with description of life in the Quarter. That life was greatly enhanced by energies produced by the emphasis on art and writing at Tulane and Newcomb; the birth of Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré; the lively New Orleans newspaper scene created by three, then four competitors; the birth of The Double Dealer, the little magazine that received national attention; and the Arts and Crafts Club founded in 1919 that enlisted uptown money for various art initiatives. Allies from Uptown proved numerous, including the president of Tulane University. The Famous Creoles were also instrumental in establishing institutions outside New Orleans. Among them, Natchitoches Art Colony lasted for several years, and just outside Natchitoches, Melrose Plantation became a center for artists and writers.
Reed emphasizes the importance of the Jewish community in these and other educational and artistic efforts. In addition, roughly a third [End Page 137] of the artists, writers, and musicians of the Famous Creoles were gay men, and Reed observes that the Quarter would have been very different without them, "indeed, might not have existed at all" (70). Tolerant about gender norms, the circle did not, however, challenge the racial orthodoxy of white New Orleans.
As preservationists succeeded in saving the Spanish and French architectures, real estate values climbed; new populations...