Last month, Rosemary James returned to a silent French Quarter, trees either stripped of branches or uprooted. Even an oak that had stood for three centuries in the garden of St. Louis Cathedral was not spared; the very tone of light through Pirate’s Alley shifted in the absence of its shade. Jackson Square, normally full of life, stood empty.
But there were signs of reawakening. Scrawled across the front door of the Faulkner House, in the historic and literary heart of New Orleans, a message read: Rosemary and Joe, please come back. The Faulkner Society will rise again.
“When I went inside, it seemed as though someone were in there,” James says. “Very lonesome and glad to see us.” It wasn’t the first time that she sensed William Faulkner’s ghost in passing. Fifteen years before, when she, along with husband Joe DeSalvo, Jr. and W. Kenneth Holditch, founded The Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society, she found herself one day surrounded by the distinct aroma of pipe tobacco. The house is where Faulkner wrote his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay. It is not unexpected that a trace of his spirit might linger there.
“People are returning to the area, reopening businesses, and checking in on one another,” she says. “It gets a little better every day. Areas along the river are on high ground, so we had no high water. We were lucky in that we sustained very little damage. Those parts that were flooded will be years in coming back.”
They were lucky as well in that they were able to take refuge from Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath in Rosemary’s home city of Charleston, where she and husband DeSalvo are living at the moment.
“I have a condo in Ansonborough,” she says. “It’s small but very Charleston in feeling. I still consider this to be home even though I’ve spent three-quarters of my life in New Orleans.”
A graduate of the College of Charleston, Jones first traveled to New Orleans “way back in the Dark Ages” to visit friends. “I liked the city so much that, on a lark, I put in an application with the States-Item, which was the afternoon newspaper for the Times-Picayune Corporation,” she says. Much to her surprise, when she returned home to Charleston, she learned that she had a job waiting for her back in New Orleans.
It was there that she and DeSalvo purchased the Faulkner House, fulfilling his dream of owning a bookstore specializing in the rare and literary. “Given the history of the house, it made sense to not only found a bookstore but also a literary society,” she says. The Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society, today a nationally recognized nonprofit arts organization, sponsors the annual “Words & Music: A Literary Feast in New Orleans” literary conference as well as writing competitions, a literary journal, and numerous other events honoring and assisting writers.
“New Orleans attracts writers,” she says. “And it attracts people who later become writers.”
The Gulf Coast disaster put Words & Music on indefinite hold, but Rosemary and Joe made the best of their unexpected stay in Charleston, contributing their expertise and insight to local literary groups such as the nascent Lowcountry Initiative for the Literary Arts (LILA) and the South Carolina Writers Workshop (SCWW) through most of September and October. “We love Charleston and plan to eventually retire here once Joe is ready to give up his bookstore,” she adds. “It is wonderful to see writers working together here.”
But for now, their first love remains the Big Easy. “I went back to assess the damage when they said they were turning power back on in the French Quarter,” Rosemary says. “Most of ours was roof, chimney, and firewall damage.”
Others, including many in the writing community, were harder hit.
True to form, Jones and DeSalvo are doing what they can to help. A forthcoming release from Simon & Schuster, My New Orleans: Ballads to the Big Easy, edited by Jones, will benefit writers who were displaced by the storm.
“I have an introductory essay,” she says. “And then there are essays by well-known writers like Roy Blount Jr., Rick Bragg, Walter Isaacson, and Andrei Codrescu, as well as chef Paul Prudhomme and the musician Wynton Marsalis. Every one of the essays has something special about it.”
The tentative date for re-opening the bookstore is December 5, with Words & Music hopefully returning to its home in the Hotel Monteleone in Spring 2006.
In the meantime, there will be plenty of cleanup and a lot of assistance needed before New Orleans — and the Faulkner House — returns to its former glory.
“The city, for the foreseeable future,” she says, “will be a lot smaller.”
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