I just received a review copy of a wonderful new book, “Dixie Bohemia: A French Quarter Circle in the 1920s” by John Shelton Reed (Louisiana State University Press, $30). It’ s officially to be released Monday, Sept. 17, but a lot of writers I know, including Bland Simpson, have already been raving about it.
Reed, of course, is a Kenan professor emeritus of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and one of the experts on Southern regionalism. He’s also one of the few sociologists who writes well in standard English. (Disclsoure: He was one of my favorite teachers at Chapel Hill.)
A co-founder of UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South and of Southern Cultures magazine, Reed was recently chancellor of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, the elite outfit launched by Eudora Welty, Shelby Foote, Ralph Ellison and Robert Penn Warren, among others. He’s written 19 books including “Holy Smoke” (about the history of Southern barbecue, with his wife, Dale), “The Enduring South,” “Southerners,” “Southern Folk: Plain and Fancy,” “Kicking Back” and “My Tears Spoiled My Aim.”
He was UNCW’s commencement speaker a few years back — a wise and learned fellow, and funny to boot.
As a gourmet and regionalist, Reed has long been an aficionado of life and culture in New Orleans. “Dixie Bohemia” has its start as an “explication du texte” of a little book published in 1926 in New Orleans called “Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles.”
The authors were two young guys living in a tiny apartment on Pirate Alley in the French Quarter, not too far from St. Louis Cathedral. Faulkner, taking one of his breaks from Mississippi, was trying to become a poet; Spratling — who would later gain fame as a jewelry designer and “the Father of Mexican Silver” — was teaching architecture at Tulane University.
The two of them authored a little satirical album, with text by Faulkner and sketches and caricatures by Spratling, of the writers, artists and musicians — at least, the white ones — currently active in the French Quarter. There were more than a few jokes involved. Anderson, the author of “Winesburg, Ohio,” was living in New Orleans at the time, but he was a consummate Buckeye and about as Creole as Queen Elizabeth II. Many of the others were expats like Faulkner, gently soaking in the local atmosphere and other fluids.
From their account, Reed spins a portrait of the NOLA literary and artistic scene of the 1920s — and what a scene it was. The good times were rolling, and a lot of artsy folk were heading for the French Quarter for an escape from American middle-class provincialism.
What a cast they were: Writers like Hamilton Basso (“The View from Pompey’s Head”), Lyle Saxon (“Children of Strangers”), Oliver La Farge (who’d win the 1930 Pulitzer Prize for “Laughing Boy” and become a prominent anthropologist), Roark Bradford (whose short stories would inspire Mark Connelly’s “The Green Pastures”), and many more. Anderson, past his prime, reigned as a gray eminence, aiding younger writers (including Faulker). A number of other characters would flit through, from John Dos Passos to Edmund Wilson.
And oh, what a time they had. Faulkner’s early novel “Mosquitoes” was apparently inspired by one of their boat parties that went on and on and on (and yes, lots of people got bitten). Reed notes that a lot more drinking than sex was going on (this was the Prohibition era, after all), and while the scene was tame compared, say, with Hemingway’s Paris or Evelyn Waugh’s London of the Bright Young Things, it certainly was wilder than most of Coolidge’s America, and keeping pace with Manhattan.
And if the crowd didn’t quite match the Algonquin Circle, well, they played the trump ace — Faulkner himself, who would find his way, go home and gradually write some of the greatest novels of world literature in the 20th century.
Reed’s academic prose bubbles like freshly uncorked champagne and leaves no hangover. Poet and former NPR pundit Andrei Codrescu writes: “This book is an informed and delightful addition for anyone who has ever lived in the French Quarter of New Orleans or has felt the thrill of brushing against bohemia in any of its other hatcheries …”
Simpson, by the way, mentions that he and some of his other Red Clay Ramblers cohorts have been going over some of Reed’s materials as possible fodder for yet another musical. For those who remember “Diamond Studs” and “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” ’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.