Dixie, ‘Baby Dolls’ explore New Orleans subjects

DIXIE BOHEMIA

By John Shelton Reed

LSU Press, $38; 352 pp. hardcover

THE “BABY DOLLS”

By Kim Marie Vaz

LSU Press, $22.95; 216 pp. softcover

Reed is a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, but he is also a longtime commentator on Southern culture and all things associated with it. In the past, he’s written very funny essays about the region with titles like “My Tears Spoiled My Aim” and “Kicking Back.” He writes in the voice of that smart-aleck cousin who always gets your goat but you love anyway. Reed bothers to be accurate and cites his research in an academically acceptable fashion.

Opening Dixie Bohemia, you will find the barb in his tone somewhat blunted for this work. Maybe he respects his subject too much — the Bohemian writers who lived in the French Quarter in the 1920s, a group that included William Faulkner, William Spratling, Sherwood Anderson and many other famous writers.

The book is really an examination of another book, Famous Creoles, which was written by Spratling and Faulkner in 1926 and featured portraits of 43 writers and artists who made up a circle of friends and acquaintances who lived in and around the Quarter. It was not an impressive book, Shelton notes.

“The book was a strictly amateur production, it was full of allusions that were unintelligible to anyone not in the circle, some the sketches were decidedly amateurish, and the authors even misspelled a half-dozen of their friends’ names.” But it was who it was about and who wrote it that made the little book a “literary curiosity.”

Reed deconstructs Famous Creoles, writes about what it meant, what it reveals about race, literature, newspapers and society at the time. That takes up about 96 of Dixie Bohemia’s pages. The rest of the book, delightfully, is devoted to a reprinting of the annotated version of the original Famous Creoles. Drawings and artwork from the original book are supplemented with period photographs.

Dixie Bohemia is a wonderful asset for students of American literature and for anyone interested in this seminal period in the history of the French Quarter.

Vaz’s book is a history of “the popular New Orleans tradition of dressing up like a baby doll on Carnival Day.” It’s a tradition that has been revived in recent years. Vaz writes that the practice began in about 1912. Today, Baby Dolls are mostly black women but not always. Vaz chronicles the origin of the Baby Dolls among the black prostitutes of the city’s red light district, Storyville.

“The women from the Perdido and Gravier area who decided to mask one Mardi Gras, imitating little girls with short skirts and bonnets, were playing with conventional, paradoxical notions of gender. These wise, worldly women dressed as innocents, embodying the girlish disguise of the New Woman of the Progressive Era seeking independence and self-fulfillment,” Vaz writes.

As integration brought African Americans more opportunities to participate in Carnival activities, the Baby Doll groups died out, Vaz writes, but have been revived in recent years. The book contains many black and white photographs documenting Baby Doll groups, some the photographs from the ’30s and ’40s and later.

The story of the Baby Dolls is fascinating and something unique to New Orleans. Vaz tells it well.

Both Reed and Vaz will be at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival discussing their books and participating in panels.