Bohemian New Orleans by Jeff Weddle is compact book that offers a great depth of perception about writing, publishing, and reading. The book chronicles the romance of a couple, Jon and Louise Webb, and it covers both their life together and their mutual love of good poetry and art; their story is also the story of their literary magazine, “The Outsider” and their struggle to keep it alive. The book unfolds in the intricate relationships between the couple, the publication and their contributors. It is a unicorn of a book, rare in its paradoxical ability to be both narrative and academic. It is dense both with lively anecdotes and scholarly detail.
First, read this book for the story of Jon and Louise Webb, a couple who should be better remembered for their literary contributions and their life together. Jon’s stint in prison, his surprising early life with Louise, Lou’s flamboyant personality, this love story stands on its own. Jon and Louise had a movie- worthy love affair. But the added drama of their efforts to establish a literary magazine means that their personal story is intertwined with the larger history of poetry and literature. This is not just the story of a hard luck couple who kept their love alive through struggles with illness, exhaustion and poverty…this is the story of two people who wanted their lives to matter in some way outside of themselves. And it is the story of the literature produced in spite of and maybe even because of that cycle of poverty and exhaustion.
Second, read it for a look into the history of publishing. Launched in the 1960s, “The Outsider” was an answer to the more traditional publishing outlets of the time. What had once been avante garde in the twenties and thirties had hardened into tradition and the new iconoclasts were being shut out. The advent of cheap and easy copying and printing techniques (plus the sixties zeitgeist of questioning traditional social structures) made the sixties a prime time for the creation for small publishing endeavors. Weddle explains the circumstances under which “The Outsider” was created:
By the early 1960s, little magazine operations were springing up in garages, apartments, and living rooms across America. There was a genuine excitement about new writers
and new kinds of literature. The Beats and other countercultural poets caught the
public’s attention, and, with things moving so quickly, it was a good time for people
involved in the movement to step back and take account of what they were doing – to
determine what importance, if any, it had. It made sense for such accounting to take
place within the pages of a little magazine. (loc. 95)
Jon Webb was a moderately successful writer. He had published a novel called Four Steps to the Wall, and he wrote and published short stories but he wanted to make a larger contribution. The little magazine project must have seemed important to him and Louise in spite of the sacrifices they had to make because they plowed ahead. (Weddle notes that they actually gave up drinking for year to save the money to get started – which may be some sort of first in American literature). With the help and support of his friend Walter Lowenfels – a remarkable poet and anthologist in his own right – Jon Webb undertook the task of finding the right poets from the emerging poetry scene and publishing their best works.
“The Outsider” was among the first magazines to publish poetry by Charles Bukowski. Loujon press also published several stand alone books featuring Bukowski and Henry Miller. Among the other “outsider” poets they published a few were: Jack Kerouac; Walter Lowenfels; Leslie Woolf Hedley; Hugh Selby, Jr; William Corrington; Kay Johnson; and Barbara Moraff. The book contains stories about the Webbs and their interactions with their contributors as well. (My personal favorite is Louise Webb sitting in the kitchen and matching Bukowski beer for beer).
The publishing considerations – the relationships, the hardships of getting material out to the people who want to read it, the money invested – are a compelling part of the narrative. Good literature doesn’t simply appear without exertion, and writers are not the only ones who labor to create it. The Webbs pushed writers to perfect their best work and published a brilliant magazine that was well made in every aspect from the paper and art to the poetry. In our world of instant text, it would be hard to replicate.
But this book is more than a trip down nostalgia lane. The answers might be slightly different but the same questions posed by the book are operative now, even in this world awash in text where a reader is as likely to drown as to go thirsty. How do we find the best writers? How do they find the people who want to read them? Who decides? I found myself asking these questions about the current state of publishing while reading about “The Outsider”. Though it’s a history, the dilemmas posed remain timeless.
The book is a recommended read, especially for writers. Just be warned – you might find yourself sitting at your kitchen table with a beer wondering if you should start a literary magazine.
*You can find this book on Amazon -