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Southern Spaces
A journal about real and imagined spaces and places of the US South and their global connections

Lyle Saxon and the WPA Guide to New Orleans

Tulane University
Published July 29, 2009


Lawrence Powell rediscovers Lyle Saxon, editor of the WPA Guide to New Orleans, and finds his urban scene startlingly recognizable.


Canal Street, Separating the Old from the New City, from the WPA Guide to New Orleans.
Canal Street, Separating the Old from the New City, from the WPA Guide to New Orleans.

Reminders of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal are hard to miss in many American cities and towns. They are visible in Georgian-style post offices, and in huge train station murals splashed with the autumnal colors of rustic America bringing in the crop. The Great Depression did more than spur the rise of the modern American regulatory state; it also saw the federal government take some ownership of the country's historical and cultural memory. After years of squabbling that its melody was beyond the register of ordinary people, for example, Congress in the 1930s finally made "The Star-Spangled Banner" the national anthem. A few years later Washington established the National Archives as the final resting place for federal records. And from 1935 to 1941 the WPA (Works Progress Administration), that most storied of New Deal alphabet agencies, brought forth the American Guide Series. Its roughly 400 volumes encompassed every state as well as the territories of Alaska and Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. There were thematic and regional volumes, too, such as The Oregon Trail. Produced by an agency of the WPA called the Federal Writers' Project (FWP), the guides were widely praised. The critic Alfred Kazin extolled them as a symbol of the "reawakened American sense of its own history." Lewis Mumford, another cultural mandarin and a historian of cities, described the collected volumes as "his generation's 'finest contribution to American patriotism.'"

And then there were the guides to major cities: New York and San Francisco, Chicago and Atlanta, to name but a few, which also appeared in the American Guide Series. The WPA Guide To New Orleans, first published in 1938 and reissued in 1952 and 1983, was one of the marquee productions. A writer in a highbrow New York review described it as "perhaps the masterpiece of the whole [guide] series." You need only thumb through the New Orleans volume to understand the critical acclaim. Its pages crackle with the nervous energy of good writing. No tour guide, before or since—and there have been several good ones—has done a better job mapping the Crescent City's fabled enjoyment culture. It surveys most of the music and art scene from that period, paints vivid pictures of carnival pageantry, and evokes New Orleans' love of fun and whimsy. The city's storied restaurants, several of them still in business, get proper billing; so do legendary recipes. Even the history it serves up is entertaining, although some chapters have to be taken cum grano salis (of which, more later).

Everyone Drinks Cafe Au Lait at the French Market
Everyone Drinks Cafe Au Lait at the French Market, from the WPA Guide to New Orleans.

There have been a lot of changes in the cityscape since the New Orleans guide was first released. Upriver from the French Quarter the skyline has become mini-Manhattanized, anchored by that trademark blister on Poydras Street that Saints fans call the Superdome. Canal Street has seen its shopping emporiums shut down or decamp for the suburbs, while several Royal Street antique shops have fled to Magazine Street. Interstate highways have disfigured if not destroyed too many New Orleans neighborhoods, the bulk of them traditionally black. In the Warehouse District, where the clangor of drays and aroma of roasting coffee had once filled the air, locals and out-of-towners now stroll past art galleries, trendy eateries, and boutique hotels and condos.

One change was long overdue: the uprooting of segregation (though not the racial face of poverty), with its "colored only" drinking fountains, restrooms, streetcar seating, and other vestiges of separate-but-hardly-equal affronts to dignity. Yet despite the onslaught of urban renewal; the rise of the suburbs; the collapse of the oil patch; the constant churning and turnover of restaurants, bars, and nightclubs; despite all this and more, including the decline in population and the shrinkage of New Orleans' footprint, the urban community surveyed in these pages a lifetime ago remains startlingly recognizable. Change in these latitudes has often been more of the same. Which is why this WPA guidebook deserves placement in the ranks of the permanently useful. You can still follow one of its recommended automobile tours and not feel so much as three minutes behind the times.

Antique Shops, Royal Street, from the WPA Guide to New Orleans.
Antique Shops, Royal Street, from the WPA Guide to New Orleans.

Nationwide the American Guide Series was a collective enterprise. Copy flowed from local researchers to state scribes thence upward to national editors, who wrestled the clichés into acceptable prose and sent the text back down the pipeline to state directors. But in Louisiana, and particularly on the New Orleans volume, one man alone, Lyle Saxon (1891–1946), did most of the writing and editing. (He also did most of the heavy lifting for the other book-length volumes produced by the Louisiana Writers' Project: Louisiana: A Guide to the State and Gumbo Ya-Ya, a collection of Louisiana folklore.) For a program ostensibly aimed at helping professional writers weather the economic turbulence of the 1930s, few from those ranks were put in charge of state offices. Several alumni, such as Ralph Ellison, who worked on the New York City guide, and Saul Bellow and Studs Terkel went on to distinguished literary careers. But you can count on one hand the number of writers given high administrative responsibility. Saxon was one of them, and maybe the most highly regarded of the lot. On several occasions Washington called for his assistance to troubleshoot guide work in nearby states where bottlenecks were choking off progress. The central office brought him to DC to work on the national desk. They even kept him on the payroll after the Federal Writers' Project began winding down in the 1940s, one of only four state directors so honored.

A Baton Rouge native who had been a reporter for various New Orleans newspapers before cutting loose to write popular histories, short stories, and one novel, Saxon hosted the literary bohemians who descended on the Vieux Carré in the 1920s, turning it into a "poor man's Paris." He himself had moved to the French Quarter just before World War One, when most of its denizens were people of color, first and second-generation Italian immigrants, or the occasional white Creole. His reportage on the Vieux Carré, its colorful personalities, and particularly the artist colony that soon congregated there helped spur the preservation movement largely responsible for sparing this historic district from the bulldozer revolution soon to scar many American cities. Saxon's appreciative writing also drew to the Quarter in the early 1920s such major American writers as Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, and John Dos Passos, even Edmund Wilson breezing through on a busman's holiday. John Steinbeck was married in a French Quarter townhouse owned by Saxon. Tall and thin, with grayish blue eyes, Saxon looked off-kilter among these raffish, often scrubby literary men. He inclined toward tailored suits, was polished and fastidious in his manners. Anderson and Faulkner liked to make fun of his affectations, even as they appreciated his friendship and generosity. Faulkner stayed at Saxon's New York apartment when he traveled to Gotham seeking a publisher for The Sound and the Fury. Yet Saxon always stood apart, in but never of the crowd. A masterful raconteur and an exceptional listener, gracious even toward admiring strangers who shoved their way into his privacy, he concealed a basic unhappiness behind a self-effacement that discouraged intimacy. "He was a very strange person," George Healy, Jr., his former editor of the Times-Picayune remembered. "Bill Faulkner was an oddball, but once you knew him, you knew him. I never did know Lyle Saxon."

The King of Comus Greets the Royal Family of Rex, from the WPA Guide to New Orleans.
The King of Comus Greets the Royal Family of Rex, from the WPA Guide to New Orleans.

Some of Saxon's oddness was that of a frustrated novelist who could never find comfort in his own skin—except in a Mardi Gras costume, the more absurd, the better. His adult life seemed a never-ending battle against depression, self-loathing, and alcoholism. Permanent scars had been left by a journalist father's abandonment shortly after Saxon's birth. Most of all, there was his bisexual orientation, which he tried to hide even from bohemian associates. Nearly everyone who has written about Saxon agrees that he sought inner peace and a new identity by writing his life story into the cultural heritage of the plantation South. His romantic histories, beginning with Fabulous New Orleans, and followed quickly by Father Mississippi and Old Louisiana, all authored during a literary sojourn in New York City in the late Twenties, were more anecdotal reinvention than anything else. It is impossible to read them without concluding that Saxon had spent an idyllic childhood on this or that plantation riding horses and swimming with black playmates, helping hand out gifts to cane cutters every Christmas. Critics from the national media who didn't know better hailed him as "the new chronicler of the South." But it was all myth and magnolias. Saxon hadn't even been born in Dixie, but Washington State. His family background was Baton Rouge shopkeeping. His single mother pinched pennies by scribbling reviews for the local paper. Even his grandmother—an early suffragist in New Orleans known for her outspoken antislavery opinions—belied the plantation myth. But the more that Saxon's self-fashioning diverged from reality, the harder he strove to cultivate the image of having been to the manor born.

St. Louis Cathedral, Seen from the Pontalba Apartments, from the WPA Guide to New Orleans.
St. Louis Cathedral, Seen from the Pontalba Apartments, from the WPA Guide to New Orleans.

Beginning in 1924, Saxon made long sojourns at Melrose plantation in the Cane River region of Natchitoches parish. The invitation came from Cammie Henry, the chatelaine who turned this famed former property of Afro-Creole slaveowners into an artists' retreat. Here he took up, at intervals, writerly residence in an old slave cabin, installing the de rigueur four-poster bed and lining the study with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves crammed with his collection of "pre-Civil War Portraits of Negroes." He'd write for a spell, amble down sun-latticed paths shaded by live oaks and crape myrtle, maybe visit the Negro quarters, and then drink alone at night. Late in life he sank a small fortune into a sixteen-room French Quarter townhouse, donning the mask of urban sophisticate. It was as if he were striving to recreate the lifestyle of planter patriarchs who used to divide their time between big houses in the country and Creole mansions in town, or perhaps to relive the days when French chevaliers and Spanish dons lorded it over Louisiana. After Saxon shifted his lodgings to the grand old St. Charles Hotel, where he lived the last dozen years of his life, he hired a black valet and chauffeur named Joe Gilmore. The move to the St. Charles came during Saxon's stint as director of the Federal Writers' Project in Louisiana. Part major-domo, part Rochester to Saxon's Jack Benny, Gilmore's principal tasks seem to have been preparing strong coffee in the morning, mixing absinthe frappés at night, and remaining on standby for jovial companionship. He became known as the "Black Saxon."

Mother Carrie. Caroline Durieux From WPA Guide to New Orleans, 1938 Courtesy of the State Library of Louisiana
Detail of Mother Carrie, a line drawing by Caroline Durieux.

Saxon's infatuation with the romance of the Old South found plenty of scope for expression in the New Orleans guide. The history he really cared about were the glamour decades prior to the Civil War, when New Orleans blossomed overnight from a backwater of empire into a veritable Calcutta of cotton and slavery. Other periods in the city's past seemed squalid in comparison, especially Reconstruction. Saxon dismissed it as "the blackest [time] in the history of New Orleans," a judgment sharply at variance with modern scholarship or sensibility. Moreover, it's hard to stifle winces when he slips into black dialect and other expressions of "affectionate paternalism." They are hard to miss in "local color" passages on voodoo and black spiritual churches, here dubbed "Negro cults." But these sacred institutions, rooted as they were in the culture of West Africa and the Caribbean, were part of a significant religious movement, a fact that a cursory check of the local black press would have revealed. Readers need to approach these sections of the New Orleans volume with a healthy dose of skepticism. And yet, this can't be the whole story. For what stands out about the WPA Guide to New Orleans are not the traces of racial condescension, but the willingness of a southern white man to devote serious attention to black subjects during the 1930s.

Some of Saxon's openness was owing to pressure from the Washington headquarters on local and state offices to be culturally inclusive in their coverage. It led to a constant tug of war between the metropole and the Jim Crow provinces, with the latter often refusing to budge. The Mississippi guide described the typical black inhabitant as "a genial mass of remarkable qualities…carefree and shrewd....As for the Negro question—that, too, is just another problem he has left for the white man to cope with." Other southern volumes in the series were not much better. Saxon was never this crude. The New Orleans staff took seriously the charge to be of help to the "Negro traveler" by delineating African American entertainment venues and institutions, and by taking note of black cultural and artistic contributions. They brushed aside complaints from university music department heads that "too much credit was being given to the colored people and their type of music and too little to musical culture among white people." The New Orleans group were not afraid to take risks. The talented visual artist Caroline Durieux, who did many of the line drawings for the guide, palmed herself off as a pickpocket in order to gain entry to a black demimonde otherwise closed to average whites. Apparently, so did Saxon himself—but under the cover of a mask during carnival season.

Spasm Band, from the WPA Guide to New Orleans.
Spasm Band, from the WPA Guide to New Orleans.

In one area Saxon needed little nudging from northern liberals: the expectation that local FWPA directors would seek out folk material. The populism of the 1930s brimmed with optimism about bridging the divide between high culture and popular folkways. That zeitgeist brought literary expatriates home from Europe, spurred the new regionalism in the visual arts, encouraged the folk craft movement, inspired appreciation for vernacular music, and galvanized the documentary photography of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. Collecting African American folk material was nothing new in Louisiana. White New Orleanians, many of them academics and society matrons, had been gathering up trickster tales and work song lyrics since before the turn of the twentieth century. But the motivation was elitist, even reactionary, a kind of anthropology for scoring deeper the line of color. They used African American folk material to mark off their identities from that of "superstitious" field hands, while indulging nostalgia for plantation yesteryears. Saxon descended from this tradition.

The discoverer of black folk painter Clementine Hunter, he too used the vast storehouse of vernacular lore and lyric amassed over a lifetime to validate his bona fides as a white person. But he went further, doubtless due to his own keenly felt marginality. He comes close to identifying with his African American informants. His sole novel, Children of Strangers, about the tragic circumstances of "mulattos" in the Cane River area, evinced this sensitivity. So did a racist self-characterization in a letter to a friend that he regarded himself "a poor but honest nigger." It was a revelatory slip that gave away more than Saxon probably intended.

Administration Building, Dillard University , from the WPA Guide to New Orleans.
Administration Building, Dillard University , from the WPA Guide to New Orleans.

And then there was his peculiar posthumously published autobiography, The Friends of Joe Gilmore: a memoir wherein the white Saxon completes himself through his relationship with his alter ego, the black Saxon. Where the writer is meek, Joe is imperious, a veritable "Emperor Jones" toward black servants and market vendors. He learns to mimic Saxon's voice on the phone, recites Saxon's poems to dinner guests, manages his wardrobe, announces when it's time to drive to the country. "Boss, I think we both needs some air." And always Joe stands ready to pour a drink: brandied coffee, mint juleps, Ramos gin fizzes, high balls, and of course absinthe frappés. On weekend trips to "Shadows on the Teche" in New Iberia, a plantation owned by the bachelor painter Weeks Hall, white bosses and black valets and yardmen lounged before the fireplace sharing drinks, acting out an interracial bonhomie that bent but never breached the barriers of racial custom.

The final verdict on Saxon's racial sensibilities should probably rest with the black intellectuals with whom he came into frequent contact. From all accounts, their interaction was of the unself-conscious variety. Marcus Christian, who directed the Negro Division of the New Orleans Writers' Project based at Dillard University, long remembered the handshake on the evening Saxon offered him the job: "that impulsive outward swing of his hand that nearly described an arc, but an arc that in its downward swing, hesitated just long enough to give your hand time enough to rise slightly and meet his in a gesture of genuine fellowship…a clasping of hands in an expansive, mellow, hail-fellow mood." The poet Langston Hughes and the renowned sculptor Richmond Barthes likewise respected the genial head of the Louisiana FWPA. The Louisiana Weekly, New Orleans' only black newspaper, published a glowing obituary when Saxon died in 1946. This is hardly the sort of recognition run-of-the-mill racial paternalists receive from men quick to pick up on white condescension. In Saxon's troubled soul, black intellectuals obviously saw something out of the ordinary.

The Crescent City from the WPA Guide to New Orleans
The Crescent City, from the WPA Guide to New Orleans.

It is a melancholy fact that Saxon, the frustrated novelist, never relaxed into his achievements in non-fiction. He was scornful of the popular histories authored at the height of his career, even after they garnered critical acclaim. He was even more dismissive about his work for the WPA. "I'm right back where I started from six and a half years ago," he complained in 1942. "And all I've got to show for those years is the sad fact that I'm much older, and my eyes are bad now, and I've published some guidebooks…What the hell?" In his declining years, as he grew fatter, struggled with the aftermath of a ruptured appendix, and descended ever more deeply into the haze of alcoholism, he morphed into a tourist attraction for out-of-towners who had prepped for their visit by reading his romantic glosses on state and city history, and it intensified his ruefulness: "I started out as a writer, and I end as a souvenir," went another of his laments. But of all of Saxon's contributions to Louisiana literature, the WPA Guide to New Orleans may end up enjoying the longest shelf life of all.

Saxon was a person of his time and place, and his guidebook to the Crescent City must be read bearing that fact in mind. But readers would do well to remember that what separates us from him is not superior enlightenment but time and circumstances. It's a gap worth bridging, if only to appreciate arguably the most serviceable guide to the city's culture and history that has yet appeared. 

About the Author

Lawrence N. Powell is a professor of history at Tulane University. This essay is the introduction to the republished New Orleans City Guide 1938 by Federal Writers' Project of the Works Project Administration, Garrett County Press, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2009.