Saturday, September 5, 2009

William Faulkner’s New Orleans Sketches

Mirrors of Chartres Street:

William Faulkner’s New Orleans Sketches

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

In the 1920s, when so many of the most exciting new American writers had expatriated to Paris to make their names, New Orleans was often known as the “poor man’s Paris,” because the easily affordable Louisiana city offered writers and artists many of the French mecca’s cultural advantages while allowing them to keep their feet safely grounded on American soil, where home was often just a quick trainride away. As anyone who’s had the pleasure of living in Paris knows, there’s no substitute for the City of Lights, but even though New Orleans has nothing on the scale of the Louvre or Notre Dame or Saint Chapelle, or any of the amazing crush of the Île-de-France’s artistic and historical landmarks, it has a profoundly rich and deep-rooted cultural heritage that’s almost as Francophone as it is diversely American. And while France had the Russian Stravinsky in residence in the 1920s, along with so many other foreign pilgrims and exiles, New Orleans was the home of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, and Kid Ory, who at the time were virtually inventing America’s national music.

In January of 1925, William Faulkner, a twenty-seven-year-old writer from Oxford, Mississippi who was to so mold many of his country’s motley varieties of civilization into a mythic literary universe, arrived in New Orleans, ostensibly to book passage and leave for England right away. In the six months that he ended up staying in the city before embarking for Europe—Italy at first, and then Paris—he began writing the stories that lay the foundation for the vast body of work that would eventually garner him the Nobel Prize for literature.

Faulkner had been a poet in Mississippi, and as he was planning his exodus he deliberately made the decision to begin writing fiction, and when he arrived in New Orleans he found a thriving literary community that boasted a handful of leading publications for new writers, particularly The Double Dealer, which had published a poem of Faulkner’s in 1922 and which regularly featured the work of such American literary pioneers as Hart Crane, Djuna Barnes, Robert Penn Warren, Ezra Pound, Malcolm Cowley, Thornton Wilder, Allen Tate, and Edmund Wilson. Presiding over the New Orleans literary scene was ex-Ohioan Sherwood Anderson, author of the wonderful and enormously influential story-cycle Winesburg, Ohio, and Anderson and his wife were extremely hospitable to the young Faulkner, who they allowed to stay at their house for a while in January of 1925 and who they often took out for walks and boatrides when Anderson wasn’t off on his frequent lecture tours.

After what was supposed to be a last visit home to Mississippi in February of 1925, Faulkner returned to New Orleans once again to embark for Europe, but rather than leaving immediately he took rooms at 624 Orleans Alley (now called Pirates Alley), near the rear of St. Louis Cathedral. His apartment is now a bookstore called Faulkner House Books, which is where a friend recently bought me a copy of New Orleans Sketches, the collection of Faulkner’s first published prose works, which he largely wrote in the five months that he lived at this prime French Quarter location.

Chartres Street, New Orleans, c. 1906
In January and February of that year he wrote a series of very short sketches entitled “New Orleans,” which he sold to The Double Dealer for a small fee. These sketches comprise eleven reflections on the city, written in the voices of a variety of the denizens that Faulkner observed in his nightly perambulations (and imaginings/intuitions). The most affecting of these are the last three—“The Artist,” “Magdalen,” and “The Tourist”—which delve not just into what Faulkner saw on the street, but what he saw inside the mirrors of his own growing creativity, and as the months passed he expanded upon several of these sketches’ themes and scenarios to create the rest of the pieces now collected in New Orleans Sketches. As the collection’s editor, Carvel Collins, points out with great acuity in his exceptionally useful and well-researched introduction, Faulkner would later expand even further upon many of these sketches’ themes and concerns in several of his greatest novels.

Interior shot of New Orleans’ St. Louis Cathedral
Faulkner soon found that he could support himself by selling sketches to the New Orleans newspaper the Times-Picayune, and the title of his first sketch, “Mirrors of Chartres Street,” became the subtitle of many of the other pieces for the newspaper, which began publishing one of his sketches every few weeks, from February until a few months after he’d left for Europe. What’s fascinating to watch, however, is that even though the city of New Orleans fills these mirrors with Chartres-like color, as the series progresses the reflections themselves are more often of exiles and transients and misfits whose ties, if they exist at all, are to the back-country that Faulkner was himself trying to leave behind.

Perhaps the most illuminating of these sketches is “Sunset,” a story about an inland black man who arrives in New Orleans trying to book passage to Africa in order to find a real home. The man is wholly confused about the nature of the world, and his series of mishaps ends in deep tragedy, illustrating the vast divide between both black and white and reality and dream. Even more, though, “Sunset” is a warped reflection of Faulkner’s own yearnings, colored in the darkest of hues.

Giotto’s Ecstasy of Saint Francis, 1300
One of the other most affecting stories is “The Kid Learns,” which concerns an up-and-coming pimp who decides to muscle in on a much more powerful and experienced man’s territory, knowing that he’s still years away from being able to pull off such a coup. The story seems at first to be just a hardboiled sketch of lowlife machinations, but it’s not just the kid who learns in “The Kid Learns.” It’s also Faulkner who learns, his imagination taking the story into the beyond as the kid meets “Little sister Death” at the tale’s end—a reference to Saint Francis of Assisi’s deathbed addition to his “Canticle of the Sun” that shows Faulkner expanding his creative palette to include the penetrations of mystery into his character’s lives and deaths. Cormac McCarthy was to learn a lot from this transcendent approach.

By the time Faulkner wrote “Yo Ho and Two Bottles of Rum,” the last story that the Times-Picayune was to publish, he was already in Europe, and his boat trip seems to have influenced his wide-ranging observations and given his scope a touch of the Melville and Conrad that he was already surely familiar with but that until then was beyond his personal experience. The anti-colonial sentiments of “Heart of Darkness” also seem to echo through this profound tale of the Chinese crewmembers’ collective reaction to the senseless murder of a cargo ship’s messboy by a belligerent English officer. Even beyond this broadened horizon is Faulkner’s broadened narrative and imaginative power, which by this point was becoming piercingly acute.

Not every piece in New Orleans Sketches is entirely successful, however—many are little more than character studies or explorations of particular situations, and sometimes they can be superficial or hackneyed and can often have facile endings tying their meandering episodes together—but as the work of an apprentice story writer, this collection is as fascinating in itself as it is auspicious. The greatest fascination, of course, is that these intriguing pieces sketch out a blueprint for one of the most fertile American literary careers of the twentieth century. Faulkner wrote all these sketches in 1925 while also working on his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay, and by the end of the decade he would publish two of the greatest works of American—and world—literature: The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying (1930). He would be back in Mississippi by this time, unearthing in his works the native genius of the American south, but as with so many other great writers, his exodus was a necessary step in his true reflections of home. In a very short time Faulkner would develop a voice as singular and as American as that of New Orleans’ musical patron saint, Louis Armstrong, and his time teaching himself how to write in “poor man’s Paris” was surely one of the seminal experiences that afforded his work such extraordinarily deep and resonant reflectiveness.

—David Wiley

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