By W. Kenneth Holditch
SEPTEMBER 22, 1997:
"Everyone here is grand to me -- painters and writers; In the evening we gather somewhere and discuss the world and politics and art and death." -- William Faulkner, describing the French Quarter in a 1925 letter to his mother
Sept. 25, 1997, marks the centenary of the birth of William Faulkner, a man considered by many to be America's greatest novelist. Known for his mythic novels about the American South, Faulkner has influenced generations of writers and become a part of the literary canon at universities around the world. His stories set in fictional Yoknapatawpha County capture a region in transition, as the ways of the Old South succumb to the nouveau riche and the modern era.
Scholars and fans of literature the world over are familiar with the Faulkner legacy. They may not, however, be familiar with the role that New Orleans played in the novelist's development.
They can't say we didn't tell them.
`The Best Spot'In December 1924, William Faulkner first visited Sherwood Anderson and his wife, Elizabeth, in the French Quarter. The aspiring writer had worked for Elizabeth in a New York bookstore and was anxious to meet her husband, then a major American novelist. According to Anderson's account, Faulkner arrived wearing a large great coat, into the lining of which he had sewn pockets for storing bottles of moonshine whiskey made, he said, on "his father's Mississippi plantation." Because of wounds he supposedly had sustained in France during the First World War, Faulkner walked with a decided limp and claimed to have a silver plate in his head. He insisted that only large quantities of liquor could ease the pain.
When Faulkner returned to the city a month later, Sherwood Anderson was away on a speaking tour. The young writer moved into the Andersons' Upper Pontalba apartment and shared a room with the couple's young son, Robert. When Anderson returned in early March, Faulkner moved to 624 Pirate's Alley to live in rooms now occupied by Faulkner House Books. William Spratling, an artist and professor of architecture at Tulane, resided on the second floor.
Faulkner boasted that the house was "the best spot in New Orleans in which to live," with its view of the St. Louis Cathedral garden and the large building across the way in Pere Antoine Alley that housed the priests in one wing and a convent of nuns in the other. It was "quiet and peaceful" and only a brief walk from Canal Street.
For the young man who had grown up in Protestant north Mississippi, the priests, nuns and worshipers coming and going were a source of continuing fascination. Catholics, he informed his mother, had masses "all day," and the altar boys played leap frog in the cathedral garden, "yelling and cursing each other," then returned to the church to "sing like angels." During Easter week, he observed the "archbishop in his scarlet nightie" and priests like a "nest of crows" going to and fro at the "rookery" across the way.
Going NativeFaulkner adapted quickly to the Quarter's Bohemian life, and wherever he went he soaked up impressions of a place and people new to him. He witnessed Carnival's "floats and masques and colored fire" and, not surprisingly, "got caught on the wrong side" of Canal Street "and thought I'd never get home." He wrote to his parents of "meeting strange people" and of the abundance of beggars from whom he gathered material for the The Times-Picayune articles he wrote under the general title "Mirrors of Chartres Street."
He began his days drinking black coffee at French Market coffee stands, usually the Morning Call, then spent the mornings writing, "afternoons walking and the evenings in visiting people." Another favorite diversion for Faulkner and his friends was drinking: the Prohibition that had inhibited alcohol consumption in the rest of the country phased New Orleans very little. Not only was there bathtub gin in quantities, but also liquor brought in through the gulf by rumrunners and sold in the rear of Italian grocery stores in the Vieux Carre.
Sherwood Anderson served as Faulkner's guide and introduced him to a seemingly endless array of fascinating Quarterites, including Aunt Rose Arnold, a prosperous brothel operator, now retired, who held open house for struggling writers and artists. Anderson wrote a short story, A Meeting South, about the three of them -- the elderly madame, the older writer and a young poet with a metal plate in his head who drank too much and fell asleep on the flagstones of the patio.
Marc Antony, one of the "Famous Creoles" in the book, recalled in the 1970s that Faulkner's "clothes always looked as if he had slept in them" and that whenever the spirit moved him, he would go barefoot. On one memorable occasion, Anderson invited Faulkner to accompany him to dinner at the home of Elizebeth Werlein, an early French Quarter preservationist and the mother of Mrs. Betty Carter. Anderson arrived with a shoeless Faulkner, and, late in the evening as the two men were leaving, Mrs. Werlein pulled the older writer aside and told him never to bring that uncouth man to her home again.
Writers among the "Famous Creoles" -- Faulkner called them "my New Orleans gang"-- included Oliver LaFarge, later a Pulitzer Prize winner; Hamilton Basso, a young New Orleanian beginning his career as a novelist; Roark Bradford, one of whose books was adapted into the long-running Broadway hit Green Pastures; and Lyle Saxon, "Mr. French Quarter," a journalist and author who would become editor of the WPA Writers' Project.
Artists and musicians in the circle included Caroline Durieux, whose satirical etchings later illustrated the New Orleans Guide; the distinguished photographer Pops Whitesell; Ellsworth Woodward of the Tulane art department; and Genevieve Pitot, later a composer of dance music for major Broadway musicals. Other literary celebrities attracted to New Orleans by the presence of Sherwood Anderson included novelist John Dos Passos, critic Edmund Wilson and poet Carl Sandburg. A frequent visitor was Anita Loos, already famous for Gentleman Prefer Blondes, who impressed Faulkner and his companions with the enormous sums she commanded for writing screenplays. Loos and her husband would sometimes rent a car and drive Faulkner and his "gang" around the city.
In addition to all this creative activity, a group of young New Orleanians had a few years earlier established The Double-Dealer, a nationally acclaimed literary journal to which Faulkner frequently contributed. This mini-renaissance of art, music and literature in the city gave the lie to H.L. Mencken's earlier condemnation of the South as "the Sahara of the Bozart."
The First NovelsWith the money he received from his newspaper articles and sketches for The Double-Dealer -- supplemented by the generosity of his mother, the Andersons and other new friends -- Faulkner managed to live a comfortable and satisfying life in the Quarter. He wrote his mother that at "the French and Italian lower-class restaurants you get a whale of a dinner for seventy five cents. So I can live on a dollar a day easily." At Victor's, a cafe on Chartres Street owned at that time by "an Italian named Guido," Faulkner paid 50 cents for meals: "Soup, fish, meat, salad, fruit and coffee." Later, with the advance he would receive from his second novel, he took a number of his friends for a celebratory dinner at Galatoire's.
On May 11, 1925, Faulkner finished his novel and almost at once began another, but, on July 7, he and Bill Spratling sailed for Europe, where they would stay for five months. The next February, they were back in New Orleans and had moved into a fourth-floor apartment at 632 St. Peter St., around the corner from the Pirate's Alley house.
In the next few months, Faulkner wrote much of his second novel, Mosquitoes, which was a satiric look at the life of the artists and writers in the Quarter. The story grew out of a yacht cruise on Lake Pontchartrain attended by several members of the creative community the year before. Although the humor is hardly cruel, Anderson was not amused, and many of the others portrayed were still angry 50 years later, feeling that the writer they had befriended had betrayed their trust. Besides Mosquitoes, Faulkner was already at work on his first novel set in his mythical Yoknapatawpha County, Flags in the Dust, and on Father Abraham, a manuscript that would ultimately become the Snopes trilogy.
Endless InspirationGiven the fact that Faulkner lived in New Orleans for only 15 or 16 months, the city's influence upon his work was astounding. When he arrived in early 1925, he had written nothing to indicate what lay ahead, but by the time he left at the end of 1926, he had produced two novels, begun work on three others and published a sizable number of newspapers and magazines pieces. He would return to New Orleans on several occasions -- in 1934 for the opening of Shushan airport, about which he wrote the novel Pylon, and again in 1951 when he was awarded the French Legion of Honor.
Looking back on Faulkner's life from the perspective of his 100th birthday, it seems appropriate to ask what sources of inspiration in New Orleans were so powerful as to transform a novice into a novelist of great promise. The city, especially the French Quarter -- with its unique cast of characters, its brooding air of history and the fading vestiges of Creole culture -- caught him up in its warm embrace. In addition, the presence of Sherwood Anderson and his advice to his protege -- go home and write about your own region -- redirected Faulkner's career from less promising paths. During the New Orleans period, Faulkner also met and fell in love with Helen Baird, a talented young artist whose striking personality continued to inspire him even after she rejected his marriage proposal and married another man. Each of these factors had its share in the development of one of America's greatest novelists, but who is to say what other subtle influences may have gone into that remarkable conversion of a fledgling poet into the master he became?
During those early days in the city, Faulkner sometimes missed his home ground, writing to his mother on one occasion, "Gosh, I'm homesick for the hills today." But his devotion to this city remained as strong through the years as when he wrote, early in his stay, "New Orleans is quite a place."
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