John Shelton Reed. Dixie Bohemia: A French Quarter Circle in the 1920s. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2012. Illustrations. viii + 334 pp. $38.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-4764-1.
Reviewed by Caroline Peyton (University of South Carolina)
Published on H-South (May, 2013)
Commissioned by Matthew L. Downs
Inspired by Old South plantation mythology, southern culture was long adrift in a sea of “treacly sentimentalities,” until islands of modernist literary and artistic activity emerged during the early 1920s. As John Shelton Reed argues in Dixie Bohemia, New Orleans became home to an array of “artists, writers, journalists, musicians, poseurs and hangers-on” during this creative period (p. 3). As his entry point, Reed uses William Faulkner and William Spratling’s Sherwood Anderson and the Famous Creoles (1926), a self-published collection of illustrations depicting the eclectic characters who inhabited the sprawling bohemian circle in New Orleans. The idiosyncratic publication includes caricatures of Faulkner and Spratling’s many friends, associates, and acquaintances at the time. Although it begins with a brief foreword by Faulkner, the book contains scant biographical information on its subjects. Expanding on the original, therefore, Reed offers readers an “annotated edition” of the work, providing biographical details of forty-three of the “Famous Creoles” (only two of whom were Creole by birth). For each of the Famous Creoles, Reed briefly sketches their lives to 1926 and concisely summarizes what “became of them” after publication of the original work (p. 102). Coupled with these captivating portraits, Reed deftly analyzes the larger historical significance of the French Quarter circle, exploring the institutions and spaces that accommodated, supported, and contributed to this southern slice of bohemia.
Reed’s Dixie Bohemia captures a moment of artistic and literary production, otherwise known as the “southern renaissance,” as it began to reach its critically lauded bloom. Since modernism did not break the shackles of southern nostalgia and tradition with any rapidity, the “southern renaissance” inched along like kudzu in a slow and steady growth, one that has received minimal scholarly attention beyond literary studies. The bohemian communities of Paris, London, and New York City have garnered the bulk of analysis and perhaps rightly so. As Reed admits, some members of the New Orleans bohemian circle, Faulkner most notably, achieved critical success after their stint in the French Quarter, while others never accomplished or produced anything of historical significance. Despite this, however, Reed convincingly underscores the value of studying the lesser-known members of the group, even if such attention was merited only by their strange and fascinating lives.
Reed devotes most of the first half of the book to examining the larger context of the French Quarter circle, albeit within local and regional bounds, particularly the institutions and locations that supported “Dixie Bohemia.” Additionally, Reed analyzes issues of race, religion, and sexuality, and how those affected the formation of the social circle. Thankfully, this anatomical dissection of southern bohemia rarely strikes a clinical tone, as Reed’s prose impressively remains jargon free, consistently witty, and easily readable for those outside the academic fold. Moreover, Reed smartly illustrates the ways in which social circles, specifically artistic ones, have geographical and institutional anchors. In the case of the French Quarter, these spaces gave way, or at least directly contributed to, the process of gentrification and preservation of the district. And of course, this process of spatial transformation changed the character and appeal of the district into an eventual tourist destination, as the throngs of beaded, Hurricane-swilling masses demonstrate today.
For the French Quarter circle, several institutional bases significantly contributed to the formation and livelihood of the group in the twenties. According to Reed, Tulane University, Newcomb College Art School, and local newspapers provided a number of opportunities for Famous Creoles, particularly education and employment. From these institutions, networks of similarly minded individuals coalesced and created other notable meccas of modernist art, theater, dance, and literature: for example, the literary publication The Double Dealer, the Arts and Crafts Club, and Le Petit Theare du Vieux Carre. Funded by wealthy widows, the unmarried female elite, and the Junior League set, New Orleans’s bohemia became closely intertwined with some of the city’s elite--arguably those more inclined to enhance its cosmopolitan reputation.
Finally, the successful campaign for historic preservation of the French Quarter is arguably the most significant collective contribution of the bohemian circle and its backers. Regarding this topic, Reed nicely complements Anthony Stanonis’s work, Creating the Big Easy: New Orleans and the Emergence of Modern Tourism, 1918-1945 (2006). As Reed notes, New Orleans, like other cities, was affected by the boosterism of the New South, and the support from local businessmen for preservation predated the efforts of the French Quarter circle. In addition, many of the Famous Creoles, such as Flo Field and Lyle Saxon, gave tours and restored homes in the French Quarter, undoubtedly adding cultural cachet. In his discussion of the district’s preservation, Reed highlights the great irony of gentrification: the communities that often ignite interest in an area typically leave once it gains widespread interest and infiltration from curious outsiders. The life cycle of bohemian communities and the spaces that encourage their germination are deeply entwined, and yet, rather fragile--easily torn apart by external forces.
Reed’s major historiographical contribution, beyond highlighting some of the lesser-known Famous Creoles, is that the book provides readers with a compelling glimpse into how southerners, and southern transplants, responded to modernism. Resistant to arguments over the definitional parameters of bohemia, which Reed equates with “theoretical ruffles,” the book demonstrates why the French Quarter circle was unique and also limited by its position within the South, rather than other bohemian hot spots. Perhaps not surprisingly, the bohemia of New Orleans did not have the same permeability in terms of race. As Reed observes, this bohemia was for “whites only.” To his credit, Reed briefly underscores why southern bohemia enforced the color line, attributing it to a byproduct of Jim Crow society. Because Reed suggests this aspect of Dixie Bohemia to be one of its defining features, readers may have also benefited from a brief discussion of the larger regional and national context of the 1920s. In a modernist, experimental community in the South frequented by women, gay men, and Jewish Famous Creoles during an era of the heightened popularity of the Ku Klux Klan, the ever-present threat of lynchings, anti-Semitism, and the Scopes trial, one can see why southern bohemians aligned themselves with “good society” and obeyed the customs and laws of Jim Crow. While by no means heroic, southern bohemians walked a fine line and apparently chose self-preservation over a challenge to race relations. To some extent, Dixie Bohemia’s survival suggests that southern society was willing, even tolerant, of some eccentricities, so long as they left the social order intact.
While Reed adroitly illustrates the Famous Creoles within a local framework, Dixie Bohemia’s heart is composed of the miniature individual portraits based on Reed’s archival and secondary research. Reed discusses each of the original Famous Creoles, along with the addition of Elizabeth Sherwood Anderson, Sherwood Anderson’s third of four wives. Reed’s treatment of Sherwood Anderson and Faulkner, by far the most well known of the group, may cover familiar territory for scholars acquainted with the writers; however, even for those readers, the collective portrait may further inform their understanding of both. Like many fashionable circles, the southern bohemian hangers-on initially received far more attention than their authentically talented peers, only to descend into obscurity later. Reed’s study of these flamboyant, now-forgotten figures, who by all commonly accepted rubrics were historically insignificant, does more than reveal aspects of Faulkner’s early years. Reed demonstrates the vibrancy and richness of Dixie’s Bohemia, showing how great minds rarely exist apart from those whose contributions are harder to define or quantify. Even the most hapless southern flâneurs are worthy of attention when viewed within the collective framework of their social circle.
Surprisingly, many of the most fascinating figures discussed in Reed’s Dixie Bohemia have received little or no scholarly attention, despite their rich lives and occasionally tragic ends. For instance, Natalie Scott, a journalist, equestrian, and the “only American woman to receive the Croix de Guerre,” was an active participant in the bohemian circle. Eventually settling in Mexico, Scott wrote a series of cookbooks about Mexican cuisine, predating current food trends by nearly half a century. Weeks Hall, another captivating Famous Creole, embodied southern eccentricity. Living in a plantation home built by his great-grandfather (c. 1834), Hall frequently entertained an assortment of famous visitors, including Cecil B. DeMille and Walt Disney, as well as many of the New Orleans’s circle. He was a closeted gay man who nonetheless kept his wedding announcement to Fanny Craig until his death. Hall’s life and eerie obsessions, which novelist Henry Miller described as “impossible to describe in print,” seem ripped out of the pages of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” Finally, other bohemians, such as Keith Temple, were southern transplants who readily immersed themselves in New Orleans culture and society. Hailing from Australia, Temple arrived in New Orleans in 1919, and by 1926, was the Times-Picayune’s editorial cartoonist, but also a fixture in the bohemian circuit. Notably, Temple also appears on Dixie Bohemia’s cover, a striking photo that encapsulates the spirit of the Famous Creoles. And, of course, Reed’s Dixie Bohemia includes a number of other similarly enthralling, lesser-known figures, types that often “make” a social scene, but only live on in the memories of those who knew them personally, or in the scattered ephemera of such groups.
In highlighting lesser-known figures, Reed largely succeeds in his aim. The only minor criticism the book warrants is that while Reed offers many of the female members of the circle individual praise, the collective contribution of women to Dixie Bohemia deserves a separate discussion. Reed does this with the gay male community, as well as with the Jewish and Sicilian communities of New Orleans. To be sure, Reed notes that these communities were “smaller and more marginalized in every other Southern city,” and their presence in New Orleans was unique (p. 68). Moreover, Reed’s admirably detailed accounts of the female members’ lives implicitly suggest this, and because Reed’s style eschews heavy-handedness, avoiding lengthy explanations of historical contexts may have been purposeful. Nevertheless, readers would benefit from Reed’s focused, directed commentary on the subject. These were not isolated figures after all, but a fleet of modernist women, sporting Louise Brooks hairstyles, actively contributing to their communities with their art, writing, historic preservation, and financial wealth. One woman, Sarah Henderson, a “sugar refinery heiress,” financially backed the Arts and Crafts Club until her death in 1944. Others, such as Genevieve Pitot, a concert pianist who wore Jean Patou’s French modernist fashion, ran in the avant-garde circles in New York and eventually composed a number of arrangements for Broadway musicals. This, of course, happened in other bohemian circles, in the Northeast and abroad, but more credit is due to these southern women who supported experimental and modernist artistic expression, particularly because it so often challenged deeply engrained forms of southern womanhood.
Like the motley crew depicted with their enviable joie de vivre, Reed’s Dixie Bohemia ebulliently illustrates a pivotal, historical moment in not only New Orleans but also the U.S. South. Reed’s latest work and career further demonstrates that he possesses the elusive but essential characteristics of a great observer of history and of the South. A sociologist by training but a historian at heart, Reed rewards both his historical subjects and readers with intriguing stories and subtle analysis, without dour prescriptions or theoretical abstractions intelligible only to the few so-called enlightened. With Dixie Bohemia, Reed, yet again, reaches across the wide spectrum of both academics and lay readers and provides a fine model for other historians. If nothing else, Dixie Bohemia serves as an endlessly enjoyable read, perhaps best consumed with café au lait and beignets, or maybe even a Hurricane cocktail, the absinthe of a decidedly non-modernist New Orleans. The Famous Creoles would approve.
. Basil Thompson, The Double Dealer 1 (1921): 2, quoted in George Brown Tindall, The Emergence of the New South, 1913-1945 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967), 293.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl.
Caroline Peyton. Review of Reed, John Shelton, Dixie Bohemia: A French Quarter Circle in the 1920s.
H-South, H-Net Reviews.
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