Friday, September 26, 2014

A MELROSE PLANTATION "WRITER IN RESIDENCE"

This morning I received an email from my good friend, Dr. Mary Ann Wilson, English professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Mary Ann told me that she's presently teaching a class in Louisiana History in which students are studying Children of Strangers by the Louisiana author Lyle Saxon. I was prompted to rummage in a cardboard box that contains the books I've published, searching for the volume entitled Their Adventurous Will, Profiles of Memorable Louisiana Women. This volume contains an essay featuring Miss Cammie Henry, former owner of Melrose Plantation in Natchitoches, Louisiana, that tells of her friendship with Lyle Saxon. After re-reading the essay, I was inspired to write a few lines about Saxon, based on excerpts from Their Adventurous Will.

Lyle Saxon was a "writer in residence" at Melrose Plantation for many years in the first half of the 20th century when Miss Cammie Henry invited writers and artists to live on the premises of her plantation, issuing one requirement for permanent residence: they must produce works of art. In appreciation for Miss Cammie's patronage, which lasted many years, Saxon donated his personal library, manuscripts, and papers to her. This treasure trove comprised one tenth of the library at Melrose!

Miss Cammie had confessed to Saxon during his first visit to Melrose that she "always had her nose in a book," handing him book after book for his inspection. "So few people are interested in these old things," she said. "Why man alive, they are the most interesting things in the world to me. I love them all!" In the ensuing years following that first visit from Saxon, the books that he wrote gained a place on the Melrose Plantation bookshelves among volumes by Roark Bradford, Rachel Field, Kate Chopin, Caroline Dormon, and many others. Actually, historians believe that books by Lyle Saxon and Kate Chopin were pilfered from Miss Cammie's extensive personal library.

Miss Cammie invited Saxon to live at Melrose Plantation in 1927, and he readily gave up his New Orleans apartment to establish residence at Yucca House on the grounds of Melrose. Yucca House was one of several structures built by Augustin Metoyer, descendant of Marie Therese Coin-Coin, an African slave woman who gained her freedom because of her connection with the Frenchman Thomas Pierre Metoyer. Metoyer and Marie Therese Coin-Coin had 14 children, and several of her sons received land grants after they and their mother were freed. In 1796, Marie Therese's son Louis obtained a large grant for the property that is now Melrose Plantation, and later Augustin built three houses of simple African design, constructed of bousillage (mud and deer hair) placed between massive timbers, on the property then called Yucca Plantation. After Miss Cammie's husband, John Henry, acquired Yucca Plantation he renamed it Melrose after Melrose Abbey in Scotland, home of Sr. Walter Scott, his favorite author.

When Miss Cammie restored the distinctive buildings and showed them to Lyle Saxon, he became fascinated with Yucca House. He had once told Miss Cammie at a New Orleans dinner party, "I think I could write a book in that house." In "that house," Saxon wrote Father Mississippi, Lafitte the Pirate, Fabulous New Orleans, Friends of Joe Gilmore, Old Louisiana, and Children of Strangers. Children of Strangers, his only full-length novel, was set at Melrose, and Saxon featured people who lived on and around the plantation as models for the characters. He actually used many of the books and scrapbooks containing Louisiana articles that Miss Cammie had collected to fuel his writings and acknowledged her in dedications for Old Louisiana and Fabulous New Orleans.

Miss Caroline Dormon, famous Louisiana naturalist and botanist, was a frequent visitor to Melrose Plantation and appears in another essay of Their Adventurous Will. She believed that Lyle Saxon had a gift greater than William Faulkner and described the Nobel Prize winner as "pompous with bags and bags of tricks." She told Saxon that he (Saxon) was restrained and should turn loose in his writing, which would release "tremendous, mysterious power." In a letter to Saxon she exclaimed "one of these days, I will read a novel by Lyle Saxon which will fairly quiver with power and which will curl up the thin sheets of bright metal (probably tin) that glitter on Faulkner, Anderson, Lewis, and these other poseurs..."

Lyle Saxon paid the ultimate tribute to Miss Cammie in a letter extolling the plantation life of Louisiana—particularly Melrose: "When I die and go to Heaven (pause here for the jeering to die down)... and I go to that place where one is allowed to spend eternity in doing the things he enjoyed most on this earth, I shall pass by the halos, the harps, the wings and all the rest of the celestial grandeur—and I shall ask for just one thing. Just let me spend the rest of my time in visiting the places on earth that pleased me when I was alive...and if I get this wish of mine, one of the first places to which my ghost will return will be Melrose, the home of the Henry family, some twenty miles out of Natchitoches..."

The above excerpts from this essay in Their Adventurous Will were based on research I did in the Cammie Henry Room of the Eugene P. Watson Memorial Library, Northwestern State University of Louisiana in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Archivists there graciously opened to me library collections of letters, photographs, periodical articles and memorabilia concerning Cammie Henry, Lyle Saxon, and many artists and writers who resided at Melrose Plantation during the 20th century.


Brava, Dr. Mary Ann Wilson, for recognizing one of Louisiana's "undersung" authors who once enchanted the naturalist Caroline Dormon and whose book, Children of Strangers, "quiver[ed] with mysterious power."
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