Lyle Saxon was 28 in 1919 and a reporter for The Times-Picayune newspaper when fire destroyed New Orleans’ French Opera House. In his helpful introduction to this compendium of early Saxon writings never before published in a book, editor and historian James Michael Warner describes the fire as forging Saxon’s advocacy for preservation of the French Quarter. Warner notes that Saxon became an unofficial publicist for the French Quarter through reportage and guidebooks that often crossed the border into fiction, such as a 1920s news story about the area becoming a “fashionable place to live” at a time when it was troubled with crime and deterioration. Conversely, readers sometimes perceived Saxon’s fiction about creole culture as history.
Saxon’s life began like a soap opera. Warner asserts that the writer honed his gift for fiction early in life by fictionalizing accounts of his own childhood. Although surrounded by loving extended family, Saxon’s early years were painful due to his father abandoning his mother, Kitty Chambers Saxon, four months after marriage in Baton Rouge and just before Saxon’s birth in Washington state. Kitty raised Lyle in Baton Rouge where gossips labeled his birth illegitimate. So, Warner writes, Saxon spun fact into fiction, creating a personal history of Southern gentility with summers spent on a Mississippi River plantation. Saxon’s revisionist history persists in surprising sites, including the archives of Tulane University’s Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, which states the writer was born in Baton Rouge.
A LYLE SAXON READER divides its “lost stories” into three categories:
- Short pulp fiction from the author’s early years including a story about treasure hunting that ends with a dying man’s overlong, nonsensical diary
- News reports mostly about the history of French Quarter architecture and culture, but including a lengthy piece about Alabama’s eccentric and impoverished potter George Ohr (his pieces now sell for thousands of dollars), and
- Character sketches of locals, excluding people “of color” whom Saxon brushed off as not being part of Spanish-French creole lineage.
Racism, as Warner indicates in the introduction, was obvious in much of Saxon’s writings but not unusual for the times. This book may lead readers on a treasure hunt of their own, stopping at places like northwest Louisiana’s historic Melrose Plantation on the Cane River where Saxon developed a mixed-race, extended family of writers and artists. Whether fact or fiction, new or old, works by regional writers can illuminate understanding of our nation.
~Alicia Rudnicki for IndieReader