Chopin, Hemingway, Faulkner, and the French Quarter: Literary Tourism & Cultural Capital

Canal Street, Edge of the Vieux Carre or French Quarter, New Orleans

In 1917, when H.L. Mencken published his damning “Sahara of the Bozart,” a pair of New Orleanians, Julius Weis Friend and Albert Goldstein, were stimulated into action, launching their now sadly long forgotten literary journal, The DoubleDealer, to counter Mencken’s criticisms of the South as a Wasteland. William Faulkner temporarily relocated to New Orleans after WWI, and soon afterwards published his piece “Portrait,” in The Double Dealer, with a poem by Ernest Hemingway under it. 

Sherwood Anderson moved to New Orleans in 1922, quickly enough publishing his essay “New Orleans, The Double Dealer, and the Modern Movement in America.” At the time, the Vieux Carre, or French Quarter, where Anderson and Faulkner lived, was colorful and curious, unique and unusual. It was haunt to demimonde and artist. The area was to be notable for decades as a writer’s haven, embracing Anderson, Kate Chopin, Tennessee Williams, and others.

William Faulkner, photo by Carl Van Vechten. After the war Faulkner, a young man adrift, read voraciously, began writing poems, and published his first book, The Marble Faun, at his own expense. Away from home in bohemian New Orleans, his literary ambitions were buoyed by his friendship with Sherwood Anderson. His work went well, including publication of his first Novel, Soldier’s Pay, in 1926. That was followed a year later by Mosquitoes, a satire. 

Today, the narrow streets of the Vieux Carre are guarded by plain-clothes police, protecting the valuable tourist trade, French Quarter real estate become some of the most pricey in the city. Literary legend provides enduring “cultural capital,” cashed in as tourism dollars. Many visitors have been introduced, or re-introduced, to this rich legacy of American writers. 

In the New Orleans’ French Quarter, an extraordinary literary heritage is comodified as tourist grist for the daily grind. The “commodification” process helps to guarantee the preservation of important artifacts, it employs local folks in roles other than the most conventional (in Louisiana, that’s often petroleum industry related jobs), it imbues familiarity with the literary history of the neighborhoods with prestige, and it makes “continuing education” a viable option amid the strip clubs and casinos of a remorselessly commercial setting. 

Jackson Square – reputedly one of the most photographed objects in the world. The French Quarter.

Enduring Significance – Human Zoos

Andre Malraux pointed out back in 1953 that for an extended period of time “a great Egyptian work of art was admired in proportion to its congruity, subtle as this might be, with the Mediterranean tradition . . . “ discussed the idea that we compare our lived experience to the “new.”  Still speaking narrowly to the arts, but for us generally talking about culture, Malraux wrote that “ . . . the museum without walls, thanks to the mass of works it sets before us, frees us from the necessity of this tentative approach to the past.”  Cultural and what might be said to be a special sub species of the type, literary tourism, similarly, allows us to shed the narrow confides of home circumstances.  We don’t set out to compare the Egyptian art to the familiar model before we decide it a success, indeed, in a search for authenticity, we very much want the culture to be at variance to our own, and representative of that of the host. For many travelers, it is the lack of congruence that is sought, the gaze behind the stage front, or a chance to see the real life of the “other.”

Cultural and Literary Tourism

For some uses of inquiry travel may justifiably be seen to embrace all movement with the exception of commuting to work, as C. A. Gunn defines the domain. But as for me, I am focusing on cultural tourism, and I mean a much narrower group of travelers. Cultural tourism implies a kind of “comodification” or conceptualizing as a marketable resourcethe work of the human species.  This is not to say at these “rainbow” times that the tourist or traveler is only experiencing cultural tourism, because its likely that other features may also be in play: one can easily engage ecological and cultural & heritage tourism at essentially the same time and in the same setting as perhaps any number of increasingly well defined “nitch” areas of tourism interest.

Kate Chopin. Her novel The Awakening and her short stories are read today in countries around the world, and she is widely recognized as one of America’s essential authors.

 Moreover, while there may be some relatively firm agreement about what the centers of these domains mean, that is, what “culture” and what “ecology” means, there is a good deal of debate about where the edges of meanings or interpretations lie. The bulls may be black and white, but the concentric rings blend off into shades of gray as they overlap with their neighbors.

Culture is said to be created by human beings; cultural tourism implies an attraction to the “authentic,” not just the invented or manufactured. Literary tourism exists as part of this orbit because human beings have been made a part of the author’s world. Not necessarily a part of the fictive world. For here, it’s possible to discuss the consumer’s desire to visit the haunts of Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson in boho New Orleans’s French Quarter (a traveler who could as easily have decided to investigate Hemingway’sFeastableParis). 

Very importantly, regardless of the particularity of any choice about a literary figure and a location made attractive because of such associations, are the oppositions to cultural tourism values.  The so-called “tourism bubble,” which is not necessarily responsive to wants, needs, or desires of consumers.  If the impulse of cultural & heritage tourism as a theoretical concern is to authenticity, the motivation of the “tourism bubble” is entirely profit and administrative convenience.

Cultural Tourism – Tourism Bubble

“Blessed be these people,” Sherwood Anderson wrote in 1922 from his third-floor apartment in the Vieux Carré. “They know how to play. They are truly a people of culture.” Anderson, riding the crest of literary fame following his novel Winesburg, Ohio, was in search of an American city free from the “speeding up and the standardization of thought” produced by industrialization. In New Orleans he found the leisure and charm that he felt the nation had lost . . .

Ironically, the tourism reservation or bubble is likely to be an “authentic” or at least legitimate response, and perhaps even a part of the living mainstream of the community. Domains defined chiefly by cultural tourism very often remain in existence largely by the specialized process of “commoditization” mentioned above, raising the tantalizing approximation of a human zoo. In some places, building codes and zoning regulations, such as “historic districts,” further calcify this with the force of law. 

At bubble sites, as Dennis Judd puts it in his study,Constructing the tourist bubble, “tourist and entertainment facilities coexist in a symbiotic relationship with downtown corporate towers, often with substantial special overlap: shopping malls, restaurants, and bars cater to tourists a well as to daytime professionals who work downtown . . .”. This places the phenomena in a context which acknowledges that these settings emerged as responses to several factors, including changes in the pattern of Federal government support under Ronald Reagan. “Where crime, poverty, and urban decay make parts of a city inhospitable to visitors, specialized areas are established as virtual reservations” Judd goes on to explain. No doubt other urban pressures were at play, too. 

Although these segments of the urban landscape are constructed, or manufactured, once brought into being they exist in a special state. They are not “representative” one could say, but a species of “reservation.” Moreover, “these [sections] become the public parts of town, leaving visitors shielded from and unaware of the private spaces where people live and work” Judd remarks; as a result, questions of authenticity become very, very murky.

The Sahara of the Bozart

Back when H.L. Mencken published his “The Sahara of the Bozart,” even intentionally misspelling beaus artsto further gall Evening Mailreaders on November 13, 1917, he reflected on the mid-1800s south, when the “Ur-Confederate had leisure. He liked to toy with ideas. He was hospitable and tolerant. He had the vague thing that was called culture.” With the aftermath of moral war, which invited a “Baptist and Methodist barbarism that reigns down there now.” Mencken claimed that “It was as if the Civil War stamped out ever last bearer of the torch, and left only a mob of peasants on the field. One thinks of Asia Minor, resigned to the Armenians, Greeks and wild swine, of Poland abandoned to the Poles. “ As Alex Zwerdling points, out, this was a time when emigration demographics were shifting, and he wasn’t listing nation groups as much as troping non Ango-Saxon treats to Boston Brahmanism. Regardless, his point was economically made. [Madison Grant’s ThePassing of the Great Racewas published in 1916, one year prior to this essay].

“Called by journalist Walter Lippman in the 1920s “the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people,” H. L. Mencken reigned as national literary arbiter during that decade as well as the most famous social and cultural commentator of his day. From the early days of the twentieth century he led the attack on the genteel tradition in American letters . . . “

            Reading as Mencken wrote that the South was, “almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert,” Julius Weis Friend and Albert Goldstein launched their literary journal, The DoubleDealer, in very large part to counter Mencken’s criticisms of the South as a Wasteland – although he certainly made valid points, particulars about Armenians, Greeks, and wild swine aside.  

The Modernists in New Orleans

William Faulkner relocated to New Orleans after WWI, and soon afterwards published “Portrait,” in The Double Dealer; Ernest Hemingway submitted and published work in the short lived but important journal, as did an array of noteworthy modernists of the period. Indeed, Sherwood Anderson moved to New Orleans in 1922, soon publishing his essay “New Orleans, The Double Dealer, and the Modern Movement in America.” 

The Vieux Carre, or French Quarter, where Anderson and Faulkner lived, was colorful and curious, unique and unusual. It was haunt to demimonde and artist. was to be notable for as a writer’s and artist’s neighborhood, after the fashion of New York’s Greenwich Village, Anderson, Kate Chopin, Tennessee Williams, and others. Very much like Greenwich Village, a process of “gentrification” first excluded emigrant groups such as Greek and Italian neighborhood components, then real estate became too expensive to support the creative class. As the section become important as a commodified unit, and isolated for its value as a “cultural tourism” resource, it was to a large degree set aside, and other development stymied, saving its classic style of Spanish architecture. However, the traditional services, especially prostitution, were extinguished – New Orleans is a port city and the French Quarter long a port call. 

In the New Orleans’ French Quarter, the literary heritage has been commoditized as tourist grist for the daily grind. The “commodification” process helps to guarantee the preservation of important artifacts, it employs local folks in roles other than the most conventional (petroleum industry related jobs), it imbues familiarity with the literary history of the neighborhoods with prestige, and it makes “continuing education” a viable option amid the strip clubs and casinos of a remorselessly commercial setting.  For the most part, the real estate is far too expensive for young writers to afford, and the place is certainly not much of a bohemian center now – throwing water balloons would quite literally dampen the tourist trade and be frowned upon. Yet the architecture and the narrow alleys are essentially protected from “urban renewal” by virtue of being more valuable being representative of days gone by.

“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.” Hemingway.

Thus, the French Quarter in New Orleans serves as a wonderful exemplar of the discussion circulating around authenticity of tourism experience, Cultural Tourism (and its sub-set, literary tourism) as well as notions of the tourist “bubble.” Yet, it’s fatuous to claim that the “tourism bubble” necessarily provides an inauthentic experience because it’s a legitimate quotidian response to daily life. 

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