In assessing John Shelton Reed’s exhumation of a short-lived bohemian community set in the French Quarter of New Orleans in the 1920s, it is tempting to trot out a tart, indeed, arch formulation and say that the book fills a “much needed gap” in the literature on the 20th-century South.
After all, few of the participants were memorable in artistic terms, and those who were – Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner, most notably – were either past their primes, as in the case of Anderson, or, in the case of Faulkner, just starting off. To be sure, a number of other members of the community carved out perfectly respectable, if minor, careers in writing and the fine arts, but even Reed, a distinguished sociologist of the American South who taught at UNC-Chapel Hill for many years, admits that: “(w)ith only a very few exceptions, the interest lies less in their artistic achievements than in their larger-than-life personalities and the scene they created.” Whether or not the latter considerations sufficiently pique the interest of an individual reader (or reviewer) will in large part determine one’s response to Reed’s book.
The author employs a clever narrative conceit to establish both the basic boundaries of the bohemian set and the structure of the book. In 1926 two members of the set, artist William Spratling and Faulkner, self-published a little book for their confrères as a kind of inside joke. The work, consisting of 43 sketches by Spratling of artists, writers, society types and assorted hangers-on, coupled with captions and an intro by Faulkner, was called “Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles,” a wry, if somewhat opaque joke, since few of the people were creoles, certainly not the Midwesterner Anderson.
Reed accepts those sketched as the principal “dramatis personae” of the bohemian group in the French Quarter, then draws upon his formidable skills as a sociologist to flesh out this “social circle” by bringing into focus other bohemian friends as well as important contacts and acquaintances who were for some reason left out of the Spratling-Faulkner book.
In so doing, Reed devotes attention to life in the French Quarter in the 1920s, as well as the cultural institutions – universities (Tulane and Newcomb), clubs, newspapers, theaters and literary magazines that energized the bohemian scene. He includes expert discussions of the artists featured by Spratling and Faulkner, and to three populations that helped make the scene a go in the 1920s – gay men and Jews, who were overrepresented in the creative community, and the many Italians in the Quarter, whose easy-going, live-and-let-live values made the district so appealing to artistes.
Reed doesn’t flinch from the fact that the scene in the Quarter was almost exclusively white – in fact, he devotes a chapter to its “Lily-White” nature – and he examines certain ironies relating to the Quarter’s demise as a center of bohemian life, to wit: The artists who had been attracted to the once-decrepit district because of cheap rents were soon repelled by or priced out of the district as it became an acceptable, even trendy alternative for more establishment types.
Reed is a sparkling writer, and “Dixie Bohemia” is brimming with insights that both scholars and general readers will appreciate.
So why do I still have reservations about the book? Bluntly put, I found most of the principals to be inane or vapid. More to the point, I found almost all of them inconsequential in cultural terms, particularly in comparison to the African-American musicians who were developing an incredibly rich and brilliant music scene in the same city at much the same time.
Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.