A Visitor's Guide to the Literary South
How the Big Easy Inspired Famous Authors
Excerpt from “A Visitor’s Guide to The Literary South,”
By Trish Foxwell
Behind every great work of literature is a great author, and behind many great authors are the places and people that inspired them. In "A Visitor's Guide to the Literary South," Trish Foxwell recounts the unique Southern locations wher esome authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edgard Allen Poe and Tennessee Williams lived, visited and drew inspiration.
This book will take you from Louisville Kentucky to New Orleans, Louisiana and a number of other iconic locales to tell the stories of these famous literary icons and how fascinating places helped them pen their most successful works.
At Twilight the Cobblestones in the French Quarter shimmer following an afternoon rain. Streetlamps cast an amber glow as you walk around the South’s most alluring and romantic destination. It’s as if time has stood still in the European-infused port with its rainbow-colored architecture. “New Orleans,” Stella comments in Tennessee William’s famous play, “isn’t like other cities.”
Many literary luminaries have lingered in the steamy, sultry port at the southernmost point of the Mississippi River. It’s easy to imagine Mark Twain-who immortalized the Mississippi in so many of his stories-arriving by steamboat to wander the city.
New Orleans perhaps more than any other city in the South has proven a magnet for a host of writers. Anne Rice, John Kennedy Toole, Walker Percy, and Lillian Hellman spring to mind. William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson also came to New Orleans seeking literary inspiration, as did Frances Parkinson Keyes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, and Eudora Welty.
But no writer is more closely associated with New Orleans than Tennessee Williams, who penned most of his most important works while living here. Summer and Smoke, The Rose Tattoo, Vieux Carre, and A streetcar Named Desire all reveal his affection for-if not obsession with-the city. “If I can be said to have a home,” Williams wrote, “it is in New Orleans, where I’ve lived off and on since 1938 and which has provided me with more material than any other part of the country.
Tennessee Williams Born in Mississippi and raised in St. Louis, Williams arrived in New Orleans in 1939 to escape an unhappy past. He once said that he came to the city “as a migratory bird going in search of a more congenial climate.” In a letter to his mother, Williams wrote, “I’m crazy about the city. I walk continually, there is so much to see. The weather is balmy, today like early summer.
The [French] Quarter is really quainter than anything I’ve seen abroad-in many homes the original atmosphere is completely preserved.” He worked at a succession of odd jobs by day to support himself while writing by night. The city’s inherent artistic atmosphere provided Williams a wealth of material for his plays.
Several key Williams landmarks are located in the French Quarter and marked with bronze plaques. His first residence was 722 Toulouse. He was reputed to have written A Streetcar Named Desire at 632 St. Peters Street after hearing “that rattletrap of a streetcar that bangs up one old street and down another.” His final residence in New Orleans is found at 1014 Dumaine, a pale pink stucco building where he lived from 1965 until his death in 1983. The Dumaine home was dedicated as a literary landmark in 2006 by the Friends of the New Orleans Public Library. All these sites are private; please respect the current tenants and enjoy seeing the exteriors and bronze plaques.
A Continual See-saw
Williams was a committed writer throughout his career. “Writing for me,” he said, “is a continual see-saw between rapture and despair which leaves me so exhausted, nervously and physically, that I actually believe each play reduces my life expectancy by several years.”
When not working, Williams enjoyed and soaked up the exciting atmosphere of the French Quarter, often dining at his favorite restaurant, Galatoire’s, where he requested the corner window table downstairs.
All of the waiters knew his name and wht cocktail he preferred to accompany his dinner. The historic St. Louis Cathedral that frames Jackson Square was another prime haunt for the playwright. A memorial service was held in the church following his death. Still, the largest tribute to the city’s favorite writer is the five-day Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, where readings, walking tours, seminars and a “Stella”-shouting contest are staged to honor him-along with theatrical performances, of course.
Exploring New Orleans
If you really want to see the city in the Williams spirit, then a streetcar ride on the St. Charles Streetcar-the oldest continuously running streetcar in the country-is a must.
The Desire Line he immortalized has long since been retired, but you can board the historic green trolleys in the French Quarter and ride to the Garden District, where an array of antebellum architecture lines the streets. This will likely prove your most memorable jaunt in New Orleans.
A highly recommended dining spot and favorite for the college crowd is the Camellia Grill, a New Orleans landmark. The best pecan pie this side of the Mississippi and stacked-high burgers are worth the long lines on weekends. Pecan waffles are an added treat-not to mention the white-jacketed waiters, who know more about the city than most guides. Serving guests since 1946, this eatery will serve up a taste of genuine New Orleans.
The French Quarter
William Faulkner embraced New Orleans with as much passion as Tennessee Williams. The city was where he became inspired to write his first novel, Soldier’s Pay.
Arriving by train in 1925, Faulkner wrote for The Double Dealer, a literary journal based in the city, as well as the New Orleans Times-Picayune where he put together stories titled “New Orleans Sketches.” He befriended Sherwood Anderson while living in New Orleans and subleased a ground-floor apartment at 624 Pirates Alley. Faulkner’s roommate was artist and architect WiliamSpratling, with whom he collaborated on the book Sherwood Anderson and other Famous Creoles. But Faulkner’s time in the city was brief.
It was Anderson who persuaded him to head home to Oxford and write about the region he knew and loved so much. In effect, the Yoknaptawpha stories began in New Orleans. He wrote of the city, “New Orleans: A courtesan, not old and yet no longer young, who shuns the sunlight that the illusion of her former glory be preserved. The mirrors in her house are dim and the frames are tarnished; all her house is dim and beautiful with age.”
Faulkner’s former address is now Faulkner House books, an independent bookstore that specializes in rare books and works by major southern writers. Past book signing events have included William Styron, Willie Morris, Barry Hannah, and Roy Blout Jr. A plaque outside the building pays tribute to Faulkner. This is also where you can opt to take a literary walking tour with W. Kenneth Holditch, a resident scholar and literary fan. Each October the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society pays tribute to Faulkner by hosting Words & Music, a five-day event that celebrates Faulkner’s birthday with readings, events, and concerts.
Although the Faulkner House is open to the public, most of the French Quarter literary sites are privately owned, with the exception of the former home of Frances Parkinson Keyes, the Beauregard-Keyes House, located at 113 Chartres Street and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This is where the writer completed Dinner at Atoine’s and The Blue Camellia. Keyes set up a foundation to ensure that the property would be protected as a historic landmark. On a more contemporary note, a life-sized bronze statue of Ignatius Reilly from John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces stands at 800 Iberville Street.
Trish Foxwell is a journalist who has written for The Christian Science Monitor, the LA Times, the Washington Times, the Boston Globe and other publications. She is also the author of Historic Hotels and Hideaways, and has spent a lot of her life traveling the South.
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