A Heart’s Love For New Orleans

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From about the age of ten, I was convinced that this New Orleans, the city of Cable and Hearn, was my New Orleans, the city I was growing up in during the 1960s. When I lived in Texas during my twenties, I was amazed to find that my contemporaries there, who had grown up in the Houston suburbs, imagined themselves to be part of an unbroken continuum of Texas frontier culture—it seemed so obviously self-deluding. But I was just the same way. To a kid at least, myths suggest an orderly way to process reality, and so they become reality. I had a small nuclear, but large extended, family, of the kind that was always at the center of nineteenth-century New Orleans fiction; I remember the Sundays of my childhood as having been entirely devoted to social calls on an endless procession of great-aunts. Some of my cousins lived (and still live) in a plantation house in the country that we all regarded as the seat of the family. I was raised with the expectation that I’d join one of the family businesses, a law firm in New Orleans whose clients, some of them at least, were exotically Southern. My father used to take me to a coffee importer’s office where men sat at a round table taking large sips of samples in demitasse cups and then spitting them vigorously into spittoons. We ate the storied New Orleans diet. The society page of the Times-Picayune was full of descriptions of “demoiselles” being presented at fanciful balls. The one not purely local event that affected us, the civil rights movement, was entirely consistent with the old New Orleanian view that race relations is the only political issue that really matters.

When I was seventeen, I began working for a weekly newspaper in the French Quarter called the Vieux Carré Courier. I recently referred to it in print as an underground paper and was severely reprimanded by another of its former writers, so let’s call it “alternative.” Its office was in a second-story loft right near the French Market, in a part of the Quarter where there were lots of hippies, aging bohemians, gays, and bars catering to sailors at port, but few tourists. Just at the time when it might have begun to occur to me that perhaps the New Orleans I was growing up in was not as exotic as I thought, I was plunged into an environment that was truly exotic, at least by the standards of a bourgeois teenager. I remember experiencing a joy of discovery not just when I was interviewing colorfully seedy characters but even when I was filling the Courier's coin boxes with the week’s new edition, which was one of my duties. Every corner where I stopped seemed to contain the quality of Orleansness: there would be a bar too weird to exist anywhere else or a crumbling pastel-plastered building from the 1700s. After work I would roam the city endlessly like Alfred Kazin’s Walker in the City, in a literature-induced fervor.

 

At one point I was working for the Courier and holding down a part-time second job as a researcher on a project to study Double Dealer, a short-lived literary magazine that was New Orleans’s entry in the Southern literary renaissance of the 1920s. My work consisted of reading on microfilm every issue of the Times-Picayune for a ten-year period when William Faulkner was writing for it (he also wrote a tiny bit for the Double Dealer), to see whether there was anything that the Faulkner scholar Carvel Collins had missed (there was, but it wasn’t very good). I also checked old city directories to determine the comings and goings of literary figures like Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson, and Ernest Hemingway and interviewed aged members of the Double Dealer’s staff.

Somehow I contrived to fit all the disparate elements of my life into a continuum. My grandmother claimed to have known Faulkner in the twenties, as a bothersome drunk at parties. This was hardly incredible, because for fifty years her mother and sister had lived in the Upper Pontalba Building on Jackson Square, considered the oldest apartment building in America. It was right around the corner from the building where Faulkner lived, on Pirates Alley. The managing editor of the Courier, a man so bohemian that he used to give nude dinner parties, lived on Pirates Alley and was named William Faulkner Rushton.

Once, working on the Double Dealer project, I interviewed a man named William B. Wisdom, who wore a long white mustache, a white goatee, and a white suit and reminisced about the famous Southern writers he had known. A couple of days later he called me to say he had been shocked to see my byline in the Courier. “Son, I knew your grandfather, and I know your father,” he said, “and you are a traitor to your class!”