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Old Louisiana by Lyle Saxon
I love old books. It matters not what the topic of the book is about, I just love “old” books. The smell, the way they feel, the feeling you get when you hold them knowing others have held them too. Like I said, I love old books.
When I first started playing around with the internet and found eBay, I was heavy into doing genealogy. So of course I searched eBay for any genealogical materials I could find that would help me in my research. To my surprise some “Yankee” had a 1929 first printing of “Old Louisiana” by Lyle Saxon. I don’t remember what I paid for it, but it was less than $20 including shipping, for a 70 year old book that had little meaning to anyone but someone like me.
The book is now out of print in the hardback version, but can still be obtained in paperback for less than $20 at Amazon.com. The illustrations by E. H. Suydam are fantastic, but I would like to share with you some of the intriguing writing of Lyle Saxon about Old Louisiana.
First, picture in your mind the year of 1929 and the time period in which Saxon would be compiling and writing this book. He spent a lot of time in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, at the Melrose Plantation pounding away on an old, very old manual typewriter like you see now only in museums. Most of his notes would be in pencil on rough paper. He went about in an early Model-T or on horseback or on trains or boats talking to people in Louisiana, studying their collections of family stories and putting together the book he named “Old Louisiana.” It only took him five years to compile and type and retype and retype...; much of the last years were spent at the Melrose Plantation as a guest of Mrs. Cammie Garrett Henry, so it was only fitting he dedicated the book to her.
“This is the chronicle of two centuries of Louisiana plantation life, a book of footnotes to history. It is a life which began when Louisiana was a colony of France, continued through the Spanish domination and emerged in the early nineteenth century as a development peculiarly American. Louisiana plantation life and Mississippi Riversteamboating are closely allied, developing, succeeding, and declining together.”
“It has been harder to get at the truth than one might suppose, despite the many books of remininiscences which have been published. Most of these books have a tendency to cloud the picture rather than to illuminate it. They are unsatisfactory in the same way that family portraits are unsatisfactory. Our ancestors posed for their portraits dressed in their best, and they were careful to see that the artist eliminated their defects. Nowadays the paintings hand upon our walls, as remote and as magnificent as the gods on Olympus. If we had snapshots of our great-grandfathers they might not inspire us with so much awe and reverence, but we might love them more. The same quality of pretense and evasion of truth is present in much of the writing of the period; only when the writers are off-guard do they become human beings; usually they are busy being gods.”
And with that introduction, Lyle Saxon begins his story of Old Louisiana and its people. If you are researching Louisiana, this is the place to start. There is no way that you can understand your ancestors without reading the stories told in Old Louisiana. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but a thousand words can weave a picture in your mind that you can see and feel, when you would walk right by a painting, never seeing what is in front of you. Lyle Saxon was one writer that could put the flesh on the bones of the names and dates genealogist seeks out.
The “good old times”
“Behind him, in the shadow of the vine on the veranda, two old gentlemen sit. The boy hears ice tinkling in their glasses as they talk on and on in their eternal condemnation of modern life. The phrase “the good old times” is repeated over and over like a refrain. The boy listens idly as his grandfather speaks: “...We are getting old and the younger generation cares nothing for us or for our traditions. They don’t care for anything. The poetry has gone out of their lives. They don’t even know how to have a good time...”
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Remember Lyle Saxon wrote this in 1929, and he was speaking of a conversation he had heard thirty years prior. I can remember my grandparents saying the same thing. Unfortunately, now it is my turn to utter those words, but I am not so sure things are still the same as they were a hundred or two hundred years ago. It would be hard for my children and grandchildren to step back to those days of yesteryear.
Families mentioned in the book
Some of the families mentioned in the book were both famous as well as the forgotten. To name a few: Archinard, Barrow, Blake, Breazeale, Caffrey, Campbell, Chopin, Cloutier, Dangerfield, Deblieux, Fluker, Foster, Glasscock, Bambre, Matthews, Meadows, Metoyer, Nicholls, Pellerine, Porter, Prudhomme, Pugh, Scott, Smith, Ternant, and Ware families.
Many plantations were scoured for information of early stories, including the plantations of Auburn, Belle Chase, Bermuda, Colomb, Devall, Ellerslie,Greenwood, Melrose, Payne, Oakley, Prudhomme,Richland, River-Lake, Rosalie, Rosedown, Shades, Southdown, St. Francisville, Trepagnier, and the Welham Plantation, to name a few.
Harriet Beecher Stowe was quizzed on her rendention of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and Louisiana social life was freely investigated. Mark Twain’s comments on plantation life were also included.
Required Reading for College
This is a book that should be required reading for all southern history students, though I would think it should be saved for college level as some of the subject matter related bears maturity to understand “this is not a movie but real life.” Making sure to remember that one fact is critical. Old Louisiana was not just gentle plantations and genteel living. Life was hard and people were harder. There were no televisions, paved roads, department stores, or credit cards. You worked or you starved. You banded together for safety or you died. Yet enough survived to make Louisiana and America what it is today.
Lyle Saxon ended his book with the story of a New Year’s Eve party. He told about the drinking and the dancing and the... well, you need to read the book. But...
“Time for innocent onlookers to go home.”
“Back in your cabin, you can still hear the zoom! zoom! of the double-bass and the banging of the tin pan. A dog is howling at the moon. Owls call in the trees. The moon, white and silvery now, hands high in the heavens, dragging a train of stars behind her.”
“The cabin is chilly, and you kindle a blaze with fat pine-splinters to have light enough to undress and creep into bed. Lying there with the patchwork quilt tucked under your chin, you listen sleepily to that irregular zoom! zoom! of the distant music.”