Louisiana in Your Palm

March 17, 2010
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Next week marks the publication anniversary of the WPA guide to Louisiana, a statewide scavenger hunt that New Orleanian Lyle Saxon guided from fieldwork to bookstore. Saxon was an unlikely choice to manage such an undertaking. In 1935 he was a used-up journalist moping around a plantation house in the sticks, teaching his hens to perform stupid tricks.
    But Saxon loved storytelling. In the 1920s he’d befriended some of the best American writers of the decade, including Sherwood Anderson, Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner. Saxon wanted to do for Louisiana what Faulkner was doing for Mississippi: capture all its vitality in big, hearty novels. He started a novel with great hopes but by the mid-1930s, his youthful energy was spent.
    “I’m getting ready to die through sheer lack of interest in life,” Saxon confided in his diary in 1933. His love of fiction showed itself mainly in compulsive book-buying sprees. “What insanity,” he wrote after spending nearly $400 on books. He often got drunk alone. One day he looked in the mirror and wrote, “Where is that man that I used to be? Have I lost him completely?”
    He needed a challenge to shake him out of himself. When he received a letter from Washington in 1935 asking him to be state director of the Louisiana Writers’ Project, he accepted.

    The job proved a bureaucratic headache, but he kept with it and documented Louisiana life in two well-praised guidebooks (Louisiana and New Orleans) and a boisterous book of state folklore titled Gumbo Ya-Ya.
    All three books are among the growing number now available as pdfs from the Prelinger Library’s digital collection. (All the guides are in the public domain; thanks, Uncle Sam.) The Prelinger list includes Arizona, California, Here’s New England, Idaho, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York City, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, U.S. One: Maine to Florida, and Virginia.
    They’re all searchable, adaptable to your handheld on your next trip, and more portable than the 1,000-plus-page WPA guide to Washington, D.C., which FDR joked should come with its own steamer trunk.

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