1921: The French Quarter becomes a literary bohemia
In response to H.L. Mencken’s withering criticism of the South as a culturally arid “Sahara of the Bozart,” four young New Orleanians – Julius Friend, Albert Goldstein, John McClure and Basil Thompson – founded a literary magazine called The Double Dealer in 1921 to show what a Southern city could produce. Sherwood Anderson, a famous writer who lived in the city, praised New Orleans in an article that helped attract other scribes to the city – and the magazine – and a great era in New Orleans letters was born, with such contributors as William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, both of whom went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, as well as Mark Van Doren, Ezra Pound, Robert Penn Warren, Thornton Wilder and William Alexander Percy.
The Double Dealer lasted only 5 1/2 years, but New Orleans continues to thrive as a city that celebrates writers and their work. Faulkner House Books, in the Pirate Alley building where Faulkner lived while writing some of his earliest work, celebrates his birthday (Sept. 25) and stages “Words and Music: A Literary Feast in New Orleans” in the fall. To celebrate Tennessee Williams, the city’s most famous playwright, who came to town after The Double Dealer’s heyday, a festival bearing his name is staged every spring.
- The Double Dealer was launched during a decade that has become synonymous with radical social change, madcap flappers and an eagerness to ditch old, outmoded customs. The magazine’s founders played into this mood when they launched their publication in a city accustomed to the Romantic tradition of literature. In their first issue, they declared: “We mean to deal double, to show the other side, to throw open the back windows stuck in their sills from misuse, smutted over long since against even a dim beam’s penetration.”
- The Double Dealer was devoted almost entirely to fiction, poetry and literary criticism, and it examined radical and conservative movements.
- Faulkner’s and Hemingway’s first published works appeared in The Double Dealer, Susan Larson wrote in “The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans.”
- Faulkner, who roomed for a while with Anderson, wrote his first novel, “Soldiers’ Pay,” in New Orleans.
- After leaving Anderson’s Pontalba apartment, Faulkner shared a house on Pirate Alley with the artist William Spratling. That four-story building has become Faulkner House Books, which Rosemary James and Joseph DeSalvo established after buying the building in 1990.
- Spratling and Faulkner didn’t devote all their time to creating great literature, Larson wrote. They also fired BB guns at passersby, stirred up pitchers of Pernod and bathtub gin, and collaborated on “Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles,” a spoof of the local literary scene.
- The Pulitzer Prizes in 1930 recognized two works that began in New Orleans. Oliver La Farge, a French Quarter resident, won for his novel “Laughing Boy,” and Marc Connelly received the prize for his play “The Green Pastures,” which was based on “Ol’ Man Adam an’ His Chillun” by Roark Bradford, a New Orleanian who turned to fiction after working as a newspaper reporter.
- The magazine’s founders managed to convince Mencken that they were “delivering Southerners from what he called their cultural swamp,” Goldstein said in an interview Susan Larson quoted in her book.
- The Double Dealer never was financially successful, but Goldstein said it was not a failure when it published its last issue. “It had been a constructive force in the postwar movement, which sought to kick over the traces of a decayed literary tradition,” he said. “It bowed out mainly because its work was done.”
Writers who came to live and work in New Orleans during the 1920s found fertile — and relatively inexpensive — ground, and their output and the city itself lured more writers to the city in the literary equivalent of a chain reaction. Although the 1920s have achieved the patina of a golden age of New Orleans literature, the city has boasted notable writers ever since, including Tennessee Williams, Richard Ford, Shirley Ann Grau, Michael Tisserand, Christine Wiltz and Tom Piazza.