By: Jeff Weddle
Reviewed by: David Wyman
The University Press of Mississippi, 2007
The book’s title says it all, daddy-o. Bohemian New Orleans: The Story of the Outsider and Loujon Press is a muted trumpet-moan, a woeful but quietly triumphant wail about a now-forgotten literary mag (the Outsider) and its struggling mimeograph-era publisher, Loujon Press. Get your kicks with Jon and Louise ("Gypsy Lou") Webb—bohemians themselves, outsiders both—as they dream, shock, and heroically toil for Art through "Beat-generation" New Orleans in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.
These two hipsters—Lou & Jon—lived the sad-but-beautiful truth of literati on a mission, in the French Quarter of New Orleans. They domiciled in the walk-ups and cold-water flats around North Rampart Street (then-as-now referred to by residents as "What they used to call ’Storyville,’ until the Navy shut it down after that World War-and-One."). They dodged and juggled creditors to keep the operation going. They ate a lot of beans and rice, when they ate. They missed a lot of meals.
Neither of them could hold down a "real" job; neither of them much wanted to. What they wanted—and what they managed to achieve against all odds—was to be a voice and a force in the literary avant-garde of the day, the counter-culture and counter-academic New Fiction espoused by poet Walter Lowenfels and his peers.
Lowenfels, by the way, was their mentor and staunch supporter. He wasn’t the only one. Loujon Press enjoyed the backing and literary contributions of every cutting-edge author in the 50s and early 60s, from Charles Bukowski and Henry Miller to Diane di Prima and LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka. The Webbs knew William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway. They hung out with them, went to pot-parties and benny-sessions with them, and allegedly slept with more than one of them.
Their commitment to quality—in design, production, and content—apparently made Loujon internationally famous. The Outsider became the Deep South voice of "Beat": beat down/beat out; beat shoes/beat hat; the Beat of Jack Kerouac, his "eternal meat-wheel" of Life—transcendent and be-bopped.
Author Jeff Weddle, winner of the Eudora Welty Prize for this book, is a professor of Library and Information Studies, with a strong background in historiography—the tools and methods of historical research. What he has given us in Bohemian New Orleans is a true piece of original scholarship: a report, if you will, on the database he assembled from disparate and previously undocumented sources in the obscure subfield of The Beat Generation in New Orleans.
Still, the discipline of history is more than raw research, so a couple of caveats are in order:
Bohemian New Orleans, both its text and its illustration, lacks a sense of historical intimacy. The book often fails to evoke the emotional, visual, and tactile sensation of actually "being there" in Beat-old New Orleans.
The good news is that these shortcomings (if that’s what they really are) should be amply addressed by a documentary filmed as a companion to the book. The Outsiders of New Orleans: Loujon Press, by long-time Weddle colleagues Curtis and Wayne Ewing, offers interviews with Lou Webb and others, along with full-color visions of a small press in its unique natural habitat—the Crescent City, the City that Care Forgot.
The even better good news is that Jeff Weddle has, on our behalf, gone where no literary historiographer has gone before. Don’t like his conclusions? Use the resources he has assembled for us and draw your own conclusions. Want more evocative bang for your buck? Go read (or re-read) the authors and other sources in Weddle’s excellent bibliography.
It’s worth the effort, and the reward is tangible. Bohemian New Orleans is a dandy tonic for anybody who’s been feeling a little jaded lately about things like Art and Beauty and Truth in that post-Katrina but still-comfortable old city, New Orleans.
Blow your top, daddy-o. Sept 2008
David Wyman is a writer, actor, and historian in Shelby County. He is a self-described "amateur scholar" (i.e., a well-informed fan) of the Beat movement and a former resident of the French Quarter.