New Orleans' French Quarter: A novel place, still
William Faulkner's home during the 1920s is now a bookshop. (Jay Jones)
Reporting from New Orleans —Despite its name, Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" isn't a play so much about a geographic destination — Desire Street — as a place in the heart. In the Crescent City, both perspiration and sensuality still ooze from the pores, despite the scars from 2005's Hurricane Katrina.
The curious mix is as palpable for today's visitors as it was for the various famous writers who once lived and worked in the Vieux Carré. The character — and characters — who inspired literary greats such as Williams and William Faulkner remain, as do the houses in which the men toiled amid the city's sounds, smells and — of course — oppressive heat.
The charming, now-famous neighborhood would be unrecognizable to its earlier residents. Before a pricey transformation into a tourist district after World War II, the French Quarter was an urban slum not much different from other poor areas of New Orleans.
"This was a dump. The whole French Quarter was a dump," notes Joanne Sealy, the literary expert who runs the appropriately named Faulkner House Books, a tiny shop on the ground floor of the narrow house in which the author lived during the 1920s.
Places to visit
Faulkner House Books: 624 Pirates Alley, between Royal and Chartres streets in the French Quarter; (504) 524-2940, http://www.wordsandmusic.org
Williams' apartment: 632 St. Peter St. A plaque marks the home in which Tennessee Williams wrote "A Streetcar Named Desire" in 1946.
The French Quarter: best savored on foot. Besides walking tours, horse-drawn carriage rides also provide informative journeys through the narrow streets.
The St. Charles streetcar: a good way for visitors to rest their weary feet while enjoying a trip from Canal Street to Uptown, past stately homes and Loyola and Tulane universities.
New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau: (800) 672-6124, neworleanscvb.com
"It was a small boarding house, four stories, a rabbit's warren," Sealy adds.
In a letter to his mother, Faulkner wrote, "I have a whole floor. Two rooms, a court [yard], and a kitchen." The shared bathroom was — and still is — up a steep flight of stairs.
"This really was the place to be in the '20s if you couldn't go to Paris," Sealy says of the French Quarter. "Prohibition didn't mean boo."
From the front of his flat in Orleans Alley — city fathers renamed it Pirates Alley in the '40s to add what Sealy calls "pizazz" — Faulkner could look out onto what remains the city's most famous landmark: the towering St. Louis Cathedral. Jackson Square was only steps away. The park remains the bohemian gathering spot it was in Faulkner's day, although the surrounding streets now are home to trendy boutiques and restaurants instead of bleak warehouses.
Sure, visitors can buy the latest bestseller at the bookshop. But it's better known as a repository for exhaustive collections of the works of Faulkner and Williams, who during the 1940s lived just one block away on St. Peter Street. Some of their first editions are under lock and key in an adjoining hallway.
"The only [Faulkner] first edition I don't currently have is 'Absalom, Absalom!'" Sealy tells a potential customer over the phone. "That runs about $3,500."
The well-read bookseller says Faulkner's works often convey an indomitable human spirit — not unlike that of the people who have rebuilt in the wake of the hurricane and the events that followed.
"He points out the mistakes we've made," she observes. "His characters face unimaginable trials and tribulations but keep getting up again."
If Faulkner's novels are analogous to man's basic goodness, Williams' plays reflect a grittier reality. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Streetcar," a modern tragedy unfolds through the often-bleak existences of Stanley, his wife, Stella, and her older sister, the libidinous and, alas, mentally ill Blanche.
"What you are talking about is brutal desire — just — Desire! — the name of that rattle-trap street-car that bangs through the Quarter," Blanche DuBois intones in "Streetcar."
Three lines still clatter through New Orleans, but the streetcars no longer run to Desire Street, with its gaily painted small homes. Desire Street is in the 9th Ward, but it escaped the worst of Katrina's fury. Nonetheless, at the height of a muggy and oh-so-real modern tragedy, muddy floodwaters rose over the sidewalks at some intersections, obscuring the aging ceramic tiles that spell D-E-S-I-R-E. And like a character in a Faulkner novel, this city keeps getting back up again.