Webb pages — writing outside the lines
A new book explores the small publishing empire of Jon and Louise Webb
Bohemian New Orleans: The Story of the Outsider and Loujon Press By Jeff Weddle. 220 pages, illustrated, hardcover. $28.00. University Press of Mississippi. Order from Amazon
Book review by Ray Young
Loujon Press was a small independent book and periodical publisher named after its owners, Louise and Jon Edgar Webb. Operating out of cramped apartments, they were nomads who set up shop wherever they happened to be, a printing press carted along with their cats, clothing and cookware. They lived in different parts of the country, but New Orleans kept calling them back. Author Jeff Weddle has traced their erratic steps in a new book, Bohemian New Orleans
. Animated and well researched, it digs into a remote, forgotten pocket of writing and publishing to examine the spirit of artistic endeavor wafting far outside the boundaries of corporate America.
In the wake of two world wars, the Great Depression and the atomic bomb, Mr. Webb was something of a rebel searching for a cause, a writer apparently incapable of hacking out words on demand for a system operating on structure and deadline. A period when the arts, popular culture, politics and mores were facing irreparable change and revolution, his creative passions and desires—a poet and novelist, he once had aspirations of becoming a Hollywood screenwriter—were too scattered to pigeonhole him with any one group or movement.
He drank at different times with Ernest Hemingway and Charles Bukowski, but his art landed somewhere in the wide gulf separating their disparate styles. He eventually found his voice in publishing, handling important works by Bukowski (Crucifix in a Deathhand
; It Catches My Heart in its Hands
) and Henry Miller (Order and Chaos Chez Hans Reichel
; Insomnia, or the Devil at Large
), and edited and published The Outsider
, a literary review with a life span of four issues between 1963 and 1968. Its title reflected both the content of the periodical as well as the state of its publisher: The Outsider
offered poetry and a limited amount of prose by Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, Walter Lowenfels, and others commonly associated with the Beats.
An assistant professor of library and information studies at the University of Alabama, Jeff Weddle shapes a smooth portrait of this prickly subject without sidestepping the darker moments. Indeed, one of Webb’s first professional gigs was editing a prison newspaper while serving time for a jewelry store robbery. The rest of his early life unfolds as a hodgepodge of mostly sour personal and creative milestones: a failed first marriage, a distant relationship with his son, vagabond living in fleapit hotels, the frequent inability to concentrate on his writing, a disastrous screenplay collaboration with David Goodis.
There is then the bright spot that detoured Webb from probable self destruction. His second marriage gave him a friend, lover and confidant in Louise. A self-taught painter, “Gypsy Lou” as she’d eventually be known thanks to her bohemian couture, supported Jon emotionally, intellectually and monetarily by working a variety of odd jobs. Between the lines of Bohemian New Orleans
unfolds their very basic and old fashioned love story.
Living beyond middleclass norms, fueled by creative impulse, they were nonconformists by nature, and took book publishing to a level of high art. Some of their special editions of Henry Miller’s Insomnia, or the Devil at Large
, for example, were packaged in hand crafted wooden boxes, a limited supply signed by the author, including original watercolors and supplemental 12”x18” photographs. Webb printed the text on a variety of exotic papers and often used staggered deckle-edge stock. Miller might have found the presentation a bit ostentatious, but he, like so many others, recognized the heart and craftsmanship of the endeavor.
The accounts of Webb’s entry into the fold of likeminded authors, poets and artists, first through correspondence and later publishing The Outsider
, are realized with fervor and obvious admiration by Weddle. Piecing together the highs and lows, the false leads diminished by uplifting triumphs, Weddle endows this hitherto obscure subject thoroughness, respect…with perhaps a touch of envy for the Webbs having thrived (artistically if not financially) in a lost and romanticized era. The book percolates when recounting the construction of The Outsider
and Jon Webb’s meetings with Bukowski, chapters which grasp the artist’s need for expression. More significantly, though, it’s a sober, compelling acknowledgement of creative systems that flourished, no matter how briefly, independent from corporate influence with love and enrichment as both a means and an end.