Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Bohemians and Shenanigans in the 1920s French Quarter

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Bohemians and Shenanigans in the 1920s French Quarter

Article excerpt

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 for Christmas, amuse their friends, and maybe make a little money. Sure enough, by mid-December they had the manuscript in hand and paid a local printer to run off 250 copies. The artist signed and hand-tinted fifty or so, mostly for the friends who were included. The rest of the copies sold within a week at $2.00 apiece, so after Christmas the printer ran off another 150 copies, and they sold, too. (1)

Ordinarily, that would have been the end of it. The book was a strictly amateur production. It was full of allusions that were unintelligible to anyone not in the circle, some of the sketches were not especially well done, and the authors even misspelled a half-dozen of their friends' names. But two facts turned this little jeu d'esprit into what The Booklovers Guide to New Orleans calls "one of the great literary curiosities in the city's history." One of the Bills was named Faulkner. And the friend featured most prominently was the novelist Sherwood Anderson.

Let's go back and start over.

When William Faulkner arrived in New Orleans in 1925, he moved in with William Spratling, an artist who taught at Tulane's architecture school. When the two assembled their book, they were living in a fourth-floor garret on St. Peter Street. The year before, Miguel Covarrubias, a New York-based Mexican artist, had published The Prince of Wales and Other Famous Americans, a compilation of his caricatures of celebrities; Spratling, who had met and admired Covarrubias, persuaded Faulkner that it might be fun to do a New Orleans version of the same thing. Soon their friend (and landlady) Natalie Scott was writing breathlessly in her social column for the States newspaper that "Bill Spratling is working on a series of caricatures to be called Sherwood Anderson and Other Eminent Creoles" and "everybody is wondering who is going to be who in this new New Orleans Who's Who." The fact that Scott got the title almost right suggests that Spratling, who had a gift for self-promotion, wasn't exactly keeping the project a secret. (2)

The Pelican Bookshop on Royal Street was a favorite hangout of the French Quarter's literary crowd, and the "Pelican Bookshop Press" seems to have been conjured into being for the sole purpose of publishing Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles: A Gallery of Contemporary New Orleans. The book was printed by the Robt. H. True Company, practically around the corner on Bienville Street, and it was for sale by December 19, when Natalie Scott wrote in her column that it was "really a delight" (without mentioning that she was in it). Bound in green boards, it opened "With Respectful Deference to Miguel Covarrubias," followed by a dedication "To All the Artful and Crafty Ones of the French Quarter" and the dog Latin epigraph, "Ave et Cave/per Ars ad Artis." (A classicist friend shudders at the grammar but suspects this may be a lame attempt to say something like, "Look out--we're using art to portray the artist." He suggests that it might make more sense after a few drinks, which is probably how it was written.')

Sherwood Anderson took pride of place in the title not only because he was far and away the most famous of those included, but also because he and his wife Elizabeth were at the center of the French Quarter's social life, their apartment on Jackson Square abuzz with the comings and goings of writers and artists, practicing and would-be. Anderson's was the first portrait in the book, and Faulkner's introduction is an unmistakable parody of the older man's sometimes pompous style. ("When this young man, Spratling, came to see me, I did not remember him. …

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