The Last Frontier of Bohemia

“There you go: disparaging our Latin Quarter again. Where’s your civic pride? Where’s your common courtesy, even? Even the dog won’t bite the hand that holds the bread.”
— William Faulkner - 'Mosquitoes'

I’m feeling told off, and I need to make amends.

I was just in a gallery in Royal Street, chatting to the assistant, a nice young woman called Hallie, and I was talking about the course I lead here in New Orleans, and the novels my students read as we explore the city, and she said, “No Faulkner?”.

And I trotted off my pat reply, about how strangely enough, I don’t really love Faulkner, how I find him opaque, as if Faulkner is setting out to exclude me, the reader, rather than bringing me into the fold of the narrative experience. And how I think sometimes he’s loved by people who want to appear clever, because who could get pleasure from something so willfully frustrating?

Usually, people like it when I spin this anti-Faulkner line, because it’s reassuring when someone vaguely professorial offers you a license to skip the hard stuff. But Hallie wasn’t having any of it. She just looked at me with her head slightly at an angle, a half smile on her face, a smile that said, “I love Faulkner, Faulkner’s the best.” A smile that said, “You’re missing out on something, and you don’t know the half of it.” And I left the gallery with my conscience tweaking, aware that my pat line masked a rather lazy disinclination to revisit an author whom, truth be told, I’ve not read since my twenties. Clearly, it’s time to give Faulkner another go.

So I walked a couple of blocks down Royal Street to buy a copy of ‘Mosquitoes’.

‘Mosquitoes’ is early Faulkner, published in 1927. He lived here in New Orleans for six months in the mid 1920s, and ‘Mosquitoes’ is based on that experience. It describes the literary and creative world of New Orleans in those years - the bohemians of the French Quarter. I figured, this would be the perfect novel to read in the week ahead, as my students dutifully ‘bookpacked’ their way through Anne Rice and Walker Percy.

Faulkner House Books

Faulkner House Books

Left at the Cathedral, tucked into Pirate Alley, is New Orleans’s loveliest bookshop: Faulkner House Books. I trace my finger across the assorted Faulkners on the shelf - but ‘Mosquitoes’ isn’t there. Peter, the charming man who works in the bookshop, says: “Oh, that’s because we keep it on the front table. That’s where we display the ones he wrote in this very room.”

Killer line, no?

Faulkner House Books is so called because it’s situated in the very building - 624 Pirate Alley - where Faulkner lived in 1925. An artist called William Spratling worked upstairs, and Faulkner sublet the ground floor. And so yes, this tiny bookstore with its green shelves and gorgeously curated selection of books is the very space where Faulkner hammered away on his typewriter the best part of a century ago. A wonderful thought.

But that’s the thing about the French Quarter - everywhere you turn you’re haunted by the clattering of typewriters. It’s a self-consciously literary place. Second only to Greenwich Village, the French Quarter has offered wannabe American writers a place in which to realize their self-perceptions, where writers can ‘be’ writers in a way they can’t in Cleveland. As Tennessee Williams put it, it’s ‘the last frontier of Bohemia.’

Clutching ‘Mosquitoes’, I head to the Cafe Amelie for a late lunch - and I pass a street poet tapping on a deliciously old-school typewriter.

I had a poem written for me by a street poet in Jackson Square a couple of years ago. She was called Shannon, and she wrote me a lovely poem about taking time out for pleasure (a satisfyingly New Orleans sentiment). I remember thinking at the time how her typewriter, so self-consciously analogue, was a nod to Tennessee Williams, to the idea of something lost, an imagined Bohemia.

Shannon the Street Poet, 2017

Shannon the Street Poet, 2017

It’s a fundamental part of the New Orleans mystique - the starving artist in the garret. Picture Williams in the top floor flat at 632 Peter Street, living with his lover Pancho Rodriguez, dreaming up Blanche du Bois whilst listening to “that rattletrap streetcar that bangs through the Quarter.” Or Truman Capote - 811 Royal Street - just 23 years old, working on his precociously brilliant first novel, ‘Other Voices, Other Rooms’, trying hard not to be too distracted by the drag queens across the road at the Gunga Din. Or Faulkner. Different decade, same story - the struggling writer, pouring a glass of the hard stuff though it’s still mid morning, hitting the keys too hard, scrunching up a page, pouring another glass…

‘Mosquitoes’ is Faulkner’s take on this fabled Bohemia.

I sip my coffee in the Cafe Amelie and start to read - my first Faulkner in the best part of thirty years. And I rather enjoy it.

It starts in Jackson Square. The effete Mr. Talliaferro is accosted by the rich and gaudy Mrs. Maurier, who thinks of herself as a patron of the arts. Together, they make an unscheduled nocturnal visit to the studio of a famous sculptor. Gordon is the apogee of the tortured artist; he wears just an undershirt and drinks liquor and carves brutal expressions of feminine beauty in cold marble. Mrs. Maurier attempts to persuade Gordon to join a yachting party she’s organizing for the days ahead, and Gordon succumbs, because he fancies Mrs. Maurier’s lithe and boyish niece, Patricia.

The prose is light, thankfully, and it’s all perfectly accessible, except for a few purple paragraphs and clunking similes (‘Twilight ran in like a quiet violet dog’). There’s little of the contrived obscurity of ‘The Sound and the Fury’, which Faulkner wrote just two years later. The humour is subtle and unexpected, and I loved the ‘20s argot used by the niece (“Haul in your sheet, Aunt Pat! - You’re jibbing”).

Character by character, the yachting party is introduced: Dawson Fairchild, a novelist; Julius Kauffman, a critic (referred to throughout as ‘the Semitic man’); Mark Frost, an unpublished young poet who is ‘nurturing a reputation for cleverness’. Plus assorted acolytes and a bevy of bright young things. And then day by day, hour by hour, Faulkner describes the yachting trip, across Lake Pontchartrain to the Tchefuncte River west of Mandeville. Mrs. Maurier tries to organize bridge and dancing, but Fairchild leads a rebellious splinter group of creatives who gather in his cabin and drink illicit booze and talk. And talk. About the nature of art, the purpose of art, the futility of art.

Talk, talk, talk: the utter and heartbreaking stupidity of words. It seemed endless, as though it might go on forever. Ideas, thoughts, became mere sounds to be bandied about until they were dead.
— William Faulkner - 'Mosquitoes'

The party runs aground - a metaphor there, surely. Patricia elopes with David, the ship’s steward, and the pair almost die in the swamps, but back on board their absence is barely noticed. The interminable conversations continue.

The novel is soggy and overlong, but funny at its best, and some of the descriptions are terrific - especially later in the book, of the swamps and river inlets on the north shore of the Lake: ‘Pendants of rusty green moss were beards of contemplative goats ruminating among the trees’.

Did I enjoy it? I’m not sure. There’s lots I didn’t enjoy. The characters are mostly unpleasant. It’s laced through with a rather nasty provincialism, and the casual misogyny is horrid.

But yes. It’s a curious, caustic, catty book. It’s fun.

And it interested me, because - clearly - it’s based on people Faulkner knew. The pleasure comes in working out who he’s savaging, and why. Because - here’s the point: ‘Mosquitoes’ is a literary bitch-fest, a French Quarter catfight par excellence, and it’s the story behind the story that makes it worthwhile.

So here’s the meta-story, as best I understand it - although like all pieces of literary folklore, versions contradict, chronologies clash, memoirs lie - so take this with a pinch of salt…

It begins, as I said, in 1925. A 27-year old Mississippian, five-foot-nothing in an oversized coat, rings the doorbell of an apartment in the Pontalba in Jackson Square.

The Pontalba Apartments in Jackson Square

The Pontalba Apartments in Jackson Square

The apartment is home to Sherwood Anderson and his third wife, Elizabeth.

Anderson is a feted novelist, the author of ‘Winesburg, Ohio’ (1919), an interconnected story cycle of Midwestern life. He has been in New Orleans for three years, and he and Elizabeth are the focus of a burgeoning literary set who publish in ‘The Double Dealer’, established by Julius Weis Friend in 1921.

In ‘Mosquitoes’, Sherwood Anderson is Dawson Fairchild. And Julius Weis Friend is Julius Kauffman, ‘the Semitic man’.

The young Mississippian arrives in New Orleans full of anger and self-deceit. He’s unpublished and unrecognized. He has failed at a number of part-time jobs, as postmaster, as scoutmaster. In New York, he has worked as a Christmas sales assistant at the Doubledays bookstore, under Elizabeth Prall - now the third Mrs. Anderson. He has written to ‘Miss Elizabeth’ reminding her of this acquaintance, and now he’s on the Andersons’ doorstep in the Quarter.

Sherwood and Elizabeth let him stay in their spare room. He’s an odd fish. His overlarge coat hides six or so half-gallon flagons of moon liquor. He affects a limp, which he says he received as a pilot in the First World War (although he never actually saw combat). After a couple of weeks, Sherwood suggests this crosspatch young writer move in with their artist friend William Spratling, who has ground floor rooms vacant. Spratling and Faulkner get on well. They like to fire Spratling’s BB gun at passers by from an upper window, and have an elaborate scoring system, with nuns and priests scoring highest. But the house in Pirate Alley is just a stone’s throw from the Pontalba, and Anderson and young ‘Bill’ Faulkner remain close.

We’re in the midst of Prohibition, but Anderson has contacts with a family of Italian bootleggers in the Irish Channel, and life is a confusion of alcohol-fueled soirées attended by literary luminaries, either local or passing through - John Dos Passos, Lyle Saxon, Gertrude Stein, Anita Loos, Carl van Doren, Horace Liverlight. The tipple of choice is whiskey, and sometimes absinthe. At these gatherings, Anderson and Faulkner keep up a stream of banter, spinning an on-going ‘tall tale’ in the Southern style about a fantastical character called Al Jackson, a web-footed fish herder living north of the the Lake. (In ‘Mosquitoes’, Dawson Fairchild entertains the yachting party with Al Jackson anecdotes).

But from the start, there are tensions between mentor and protégé. They differ in temperament. There are jealousies between them and, on Faulkner’s part, a frisson of sexual inadequacy. Anderson writes a short story, A Meeting South, in which Faulkner features as David, a drunken air force veteran. The narrator (Anderson) takes David to meet Aunt Rose Arnold, an ex-Storyville madam, who lives at 625 Chartres Street (which will later become the patisserie La Marquise, which sadly closed last year). The story ends with David curled up in the shade of a chinaberry tree in the courtyard, sleeping off the booze. It’s not an unpleasant portrait, but it’s hardly benign.

In early ’26, Faulkner ups the ante. He and Spratling publish a squib, ‘Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles.’ Faulkner writes the words, lampooning Anderson’s style, and Spratling provides the illustrations. Anderson doesn’t think it’s funny. Elizabeth tries to keep the peace, asking Anderson’s help to get Faulkner’s first novel, ‘Soldier’s Pay’ published. Anderson agrees on the condition that he doesn’t have to read it.

Anderson tells Faulkner, “go home and write about what you know” - which Faulkner does. He returns to Mississippi (via France, Italy and New York), and writes ‘Mosquitoes’, satirizing the New Orleans crowd, and biting the hand of his erstwhile mentor.

Sherwood Anderson in 1933

Sherwood Anderson in 1933

The portrait of Sherwood Anderson in Mosquitoes starts positively enough. Dawson Fairchild is clever and witty, and holds the respect of the company. He’s entertaining.

But as the yachting trip hits the doldrums, the portrait sours. Swimming, Fairchild ‘looked more like a walrus than ever: a deceptively sedate walrus of middle age suddenly evincing a streak of demonic puerility. He wallowed and splashed, heavily playful.’ His alcoholism becomes more pronounced (a case of pot calling kettle black, this); Fairchild is ‘unsteady as to gait’.

Worse, his creative credibility is questioned. Julius, the critic, calls him a ‘poor emotional eunuch,’ and as a writer, merely ‘a bewildered stenographer with a gift for people.’ Ouch. Unlike Gordon, who carries the persona of ‘artist’ with him with wherever he goes, Fairchild ‘might be anything’. He and his circle discuss sex obsessively. They’re aware that the bohemian life ought to be one of free love and happy debauchery (art as a ‘camouflage for rutting’) but they’re not getting any, and their masculine bluster is downright unpleasant. Fairchild at one point defines women as “merely articulated genital organs with a kind of aptitude for spending whatever money you have.”

It’s all rather pathetic, frankly. By the end of the novel, this: ‘Fairchild raised his tumbler, gulping, and a great part of the liquor ran over thinly and trickled from both corners of his mouth down his chin.’ Julius tells him, “You are the most disappointing artist I know”.

Personally, I love Sherwood Anderson. Or did. I read ‘Winesburg, Ohio’ a couple of years ago and found it delicate and affecting, and I’ve always hoped one day to go bookpacking in Ohio, and visit Clyde, his hometown, and watch the people there, and re-read Anderson’s masterpiece.

So it’s a strange feeling now, to have Faulkner pull back the curtain, and see revealed - through Faulkner’s eyes - this misogynist, second-rate hack.

Fairchild laughed. “Now, you lay off our New Orleans bohemian life; stay away from us if you don’t like it. I like it, myself: there is a kind of charming futility about it, like - “
“Like a country club where they play croquet instead of golf,” the other supplied for him.
— William Faulkner - 'Mosquitoes'

And equally, to have the mystique of a New Orleans bohemia blown asunder. Because that’s what Faulkner is doing: he’s popping the boho bubble. Forget the romance of the Quarter, he’s saying. These weren’t tortured geniuses, free-thinking, progressive. Rather, for the most part, they’re a sorry bunch of middle-aged, provincial, constipated scribblers, swapping barbs and downing liquor and fussing about art.

Which is all, of course, highly disappointing. Because if New Orleans isn’t a boho paradise, then, really, what’s the point?

For Anderson, the physical reality of the Quarter was enough. He declared, famously, “At any rate, there is the fact of the ‘Vieux Carré’ - the physical fact. The beautiful old town still exists. Just why it isn’t the winter home of every sensitive artist in America, who can raise enough money to get here, I do not know…”.

But that’s not enough, really, is it? There are beautiful old towns across America. Santa Fe, Charleston, Boston. None of these have New Orleans’ literary mystique, none have drawn such stellar literary talent, decade after decade, a rolling feast of dreamers writing freehand in moleskins or two-fingered on clunking Coronas.

They come for more than the buildings. They come for the lush fecundity. They come for the heat and the rainstorms, the ever-present electric energy of the weather. They come for the heady cocktail of cultures, the hint of Haiti, and the immigrant Babel that’s reminiscent of some distant Mediterranean port. They come for the music and the libido and the license.

All the stuff, essentially, that Faulkner and his knitting circle seems to have missed entirely.

Faulkner’s shrine in the lobby of the Hotel Monteleone

Faulkner’s shrine in the lobby of the Hotel Monteleone

Which is why I’m not adding ‘Mosquitoes’ to my New Orleans curriculum anytime soon. Because there’s more to bohemia than mere bookishness, and more to literature than the narrow gaze of the literati.

But next time I’m in Faulkner House Books, I will picture Faulkner’s self-portrait in the novel, and smile. Because - didn’t I mention? - he’s in it too: fleeting cameos that show a devilish sense of humour, and a willingness to laugh at himself, as much as he laughs at others.

We find him first, in a boat off Mandeville, ‘awful sunburned and kind of shabby dressed.’ He approaches Jenny, one of the bright young things, and says ‘some funny things’. “He said he was a liar by profession, and he made good money at it, enough to own a Ford as soon as he got it paid out. I think he was crazy. Not dangerous: just crazy.”

And then, at the end of the novel, we find him in the room that’s now Faulkner House Books. Mr. Talliaferro has come looking for Fairchild, and encounters a ‘frenzied man’ hammering away at a typewriter, a ‘huge collarless man’ with a ‘sweating leonine head.’ Faulkner shouts, “Come in, damn you - do you think this is a bathroom?”. Mr. Talliaferro sidles past, and the typing resumes, and ’the whole small room trembled to the man’s heavy hands and the typewriter leaped an chattered like a mad thing…’.

Priceless: a parody of the Bohemian cliché - the quintessence of the Quarter.