Eccentric Lafcadio Hearn in 19th-Century New Orleans
By Danny Heitman
In 1869, an odd little man named Lafcadio Hearn traveled from England to America, the latest stop on a continuing odyssey to find a place he could call home.
Visually impaired by a childhood accident and a colorful eccentric throughout his life, Hearn was an outsider who was drawn to others on the fringe. In the United States, he soon amassed a large body of stories, essays, reportage, and artwork about those who lived beyond the mainstream.
Hearn left the United States in 1887, eventually settling in Japan, where he gained lasting fame for writing books and articles that explained Japan to the West. But while Hearn’s Japanese writings have given him an enduring profile in Japan, where he died a naturalized citizen in 1904, the art and literature of his American period have, for generations, languished in relative obscurity.
But with the support of a small band of Hearn scholars and admirers, the American phase of Hearn’s career is getting greater attention. For the past decade or so, a steady stream of anthologies has brought Hearn’s vintage material back into print, some of it for the first time in book form.
Inventing New Orleans, S. Frederick Starr’s lively anthology of stories and essays from Hearn’s Crescent City phase, appeared in 2001, followed by anthologist Simon J. Bronner’s Lafcadio Hearn’s America in 2002. In 2007, editor and Hearn expert Delia LaBarre published The New Orleans of Lafcadio Hearn, which elaborated Starr’s collection and also threw additional light on a less publicized aspect of Hearn’s work: the charming woodcut drawings he made to accompany much of his journalism. The Library of America provided a capstone to the Hearn revival in 2009 with its mammoth, 850-page Lafcadio Hearn: American Writings, a brick of a book that, in addition to Hearn’s nonfiction, also includes his memorable novel, Chita.
Collectively, the recent Hearn books present an autobiography of sorts of a man who, though frequently claimed as an American man of letters, was truly a citizen of the world.
Patrick Lafcadio Hearn was born on June 27, 1850, on Lefkada, an Ionian island. The son of a Greek mother and an Irish army surgeon who parted ways shortly after his birth, Hearn was sent to live with relatives in Ireland. Estranged from her in-laws, Hearn’s mother had little contact with him, and he saw his father only rarely. His surrogate parent was an Irish aunt who believed, rather strangely, that locking children in closets cured their fear of the dark. Subjected to this treatment, the terrified Hearn developed an interest in the occult, which inspired much of his later writing about New Orleans’s voodoo culture. An early and ardent believer in ghosts, Hearn nicknamed himself “The Raven” in a nod to Edgar Allan Poe.
The family sent Hearn to study in England as a boy, and during a scuffle with classmates he injured his left eye, leaving it useless and discolored. Hearn’s right eye was noticeably enlarged, a condition that some scholars have connected with the strain it experienced as Hearn’s remaining means of vision. Hearn was self-conscious about his appearance after the accident, and he often used wide-
brimmed hats or stood in profile to mask his features.
Named after an island, Lafcadio Hearn seemed an island unto himself. He became even more isolated after his aunt lost her fortune, prompting the family to dispatch him to live with relatives in Cincinnati. Hearn arrived in Ohio in 1871 after a two-year detour in New York City, where he had tried unsuccessfully to make his own way in the world. Hearn’s Cincinnati sponsors quickly turned him out, leaving the young man penniless, homeless, and alone.
Like many a misfit before and since, Hearn fell into journalism, starting to write for Cincinnati newspapers, and developing a genius for sketches of the city’s underside. John Cockerill, editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer, embraced Hearn’s work.
“Hearn became attracted to some grisly subjects such as grave digging and animal slaughtering, and Cockerill, editing for a primarily male reading audience, did not wince,” Bronner writes of Hearn’s early career. “For Hearn, these reports combined the sensationalism that the newspaper needed and some of the ‘curious customs’ he had learned of from folklore and ethnology.”
Bronner suggests that Hearn’s ethnography—his study of other cultures—was groundbreaking: “Given assignments to cover the ‘police beat’ of murders and robberies, he filled his notebooks with details on the surroundings as cultural scenes. He walked the streets at night searching for stories of marginalized ethnic groups, neglected alleys and quarters, and undesirable occupations.”
Bronner’s anthology makes a good argument for Hearn’s stature as an ethnographer, although Hearn never aspired to establish himself as a scholar. Forgoing the cool neutrality of empirical research, Hearn’s reportage often says as much about him as about his subjects. And although a strain of the grim and macabre runs through much of his writing, Hearn’s commentaries can also be lighthearted and fun.
In a scheme that seems to have anticipated the gimmicks of reality television, Hearn agreed to follow a steeplejack up the roof of a Cincinnati cathedral, creating a narrative that reads like equal parts Fear Factor and Dirty Jobs.
Here’s Hearn: “It is scarcely necessary to observe that the writer, wholly inexperienced in the art of hazardous climbing, did not start out upon such an undertaking without considerable trepidation, notwithstanding the reiterated assurances of his guide that nothing was to be feared in view of the secure arrangements and first-class apparatus; and when we drove under the Cathedral spire itself, towering symmetrically under the clear blue, pillar piled on pillar, and cornice succeeding cornice, up to the last long, bare peak of white stone, it was impossible to quell a little fluttering of the heart.”
Hearn’s vividly expressive style and choice of topics made him a marquee attraction in Cincinnati, but he was forced to leave the Enquirerin 1875 after his marriage to a mulatto woman caused a scandal. The marriage would eventually dissolve, and in the meantime, Hearn joined the rival Commercialnewspaper, where his steeplejack story and other pieces appeared. The move proved liberating.
“At the Commercial, Hearn expanded his reports of black life, undesirable occupations, and the poor sections of the city,” Bronner notes. “Edwin Henderson, his city editor, gave him ample license to write on whatever he wanted and allowed his reports more room.”
In a piece for the Commercialcalled “Levee Life,” Hearn paints a Dickensian picture of existence beyond polite Cincinnati society: “Along the river-banks on either side of the levee slope, where the brown water year after year climbs up to the ruined sidewalks, and pours into the warehouse cellars, and paints their grimy walls with streaks of water-weed green, may be studied a most curious and interesting phase of life—the life of a community within a community,—a society of wanderers who have haunts but not homes, and who are only connected with the static society surrounding them by the common bond of State and municipal law.”
The hypnotic quality of Hearn’s prose—its parenthetical digressions, alliteration, and alertness to the nuances of scene—hints at the literary ambitions of a writer who seemed bent on creating stories that would transcend the ephemera of daily journalism.
Period newsrooms, whatever their limitations as incubators for objective reporting, proved an ideal laboratory for literary artists of the day, especially Hearn. As critic Malcolm Cowley once put it, “American daily journalism gave Hearn a chance he would have found in no other field. He had come to this country at a time when many serious writers, after fleeing to Europe, were complaining from a distance that American books had to be written and American magazines edited for a genteel audience composed mainly of women. They forgot the newspapers, which were written for men and therefore retained more freedom of speech, besides a touch of cynicism. . . . When describing crimes of violence, their reporters were advised to copy the methods of the French naturalists. Their critics were permitted to indulge in fine writing and a show of curious learning.”
That sensibility well suited Hearn, who found fresh inspiration in New Orleans, where the Commercial had dispatched him as a political correspondent after the hotly contested presidential election of 1876. Hearn eventually went to work for the fledgling New Orleans Daily City Item and, later, the Times-Democrat. In New Orleans, the range of his output expanded dramatically. Forced by necessity to be a jack-of-all-trades, Hearn rewrote national and international stories that arrived on the telegraph, crafted editorials, filed book reviews on everything from religion to literature to music, penned doggerel poetry, and continued his trademark sketches.
In a bid to boost the circulation of the struggling Item, Hearn also began creating woodblock illustrations for his stories. Influenced by European journals, he looked to illustrated journalism as the wave of the future.
Because of his poor vision, Hearn was an unlikely candidate for the close work of woodblock art. But his eye problems forced him to concentrate his vision more narrowly, which paradoxically seemed to enhance his perception. “His holding a magnifying glass to the printed page and small objects to better observe them,” writes Bronner, “gave him a sharp sensitivity to each individual word and the tiniest of creatures.”
Hearn, though unschooled as an artist, was an intuitive doodler who occasionally sprinkled his personal correspondence with tongue-in-cheek drawings, some of which are featured in the letters included in the Library of America edition of Hearn’s work. In an 1884 letter, Hearn, an aficionado of large hats, draws his ideal headgear—a chapeau as big as a wagon wheel.
While only a handful of readers would comprehend an “exhaustive editorial,” wrote Hearn, “a hundred will study and comprehend a good cartoon.”A Hearn newspaper woodcut of bats circling over a local prison called dramatic attention to the stench caused by the infestation. In another cartoon noting a fixture of life in the hot, humid South, a comically oversized mosquito sits like a house cat atop an oblivious resident, ready to extract its quota of blood while the poor victim sleeps.
“If it were not for mosquitoes,” Hearn remarked in the accompanying commentary, “we should all become terribly lazy in this climate. We should waste our time snoring upon sofas or lolling in easy chairs, or gossiping about trivial things, or dreaming vain dreams, or longing after things which belong to our neighbors, or feeling dissatisfied with our lot. . . . Idleness is the mother of all vices; and mosquitoes know this as well as anybody, and not being lazy themselves they will not suffer us to be lazy.”
Hearn’s talents as a writer and social commentator attracted a national audience, as he broadened his readership through color stories about New Orleans for Scribner’s, Harper’s Weekly, Cosmopolitan, The Century Magazine, and Harper’s Bazaar. Through those journals, he described the mystique of the Crescent City to the rest of the world, popularizing its reputation as a place of sensuality, frivolity, and intrigue. In this way, as Starr sees it, Hearn essentially invented the idea of New Orleans as we know it.
The French and Creole world of south Louisiana, writes Starr, “went straight to Hearn’s heart. He reveled in what he was sure was its authenticity, and contrasted it to what he was equally convinced was the artificial world of business, politics, and male striving. This better world of Creole culture he conceived as feminine and its chief glories—language, music, and cuisine—as the essence of civilization at any time or place.” Hearn published a Creole cookbook, a book of Creole proverbs, chronicled Mardi Gras, and delved into New Orleans’s voodoo rituals with relish.
Tellingly, Hearn wrote of New Orleans as a woman, as if penning a valentine to a treasured lover: “There are few who can visit her for the first time without delight; and few who can ever leave her without regret; and none who can forget her strange charm when they have once felt its influence. To a native of the bleaker Northern clime—if he have any poetical sense of the beautiful in nature, any love of bright verdure and luxuriance of landscape—the approach to the city by river, must be in itself something indescribably pleasant. The white steamer gliding through an unfamiliar world of blue and green . . . the waving cane; the evergreen fringe of groves weird with moss . . . as though one were sailing to some far-off glimmering Eden.”
But Hearn’s view of New Orleans as a paradise alternated with his vision of the city as a paradise lost. He was unflinching in his coverage of the city’s less flattering qualities, its political corruption and police brutality. In one of his cartoons about the local electoral process, Hearn depicted a devil sitting smugly atop a ballot box. Commenting on police tactics with suspected criminals, Hearn asserted that the city “does not pay police to kick and gouge and bite prisoners.”
Even when he wrote with affection for the Crescent City’s peculiarities, Hearn frequently adopted a tone of elegy. He lauded Pepe Llulla in “The Last of the New Orleans Fencing-Masters” and lamented the death of Jean Montanet in “The Last of the Voudoos.” He greeted the death of purported voodoo queen Marie Laveau as the end of an age, too. “Voudouism is rapidly dying out,” he wrote.
Seeking a society less touched by the march of time, Hearn left New Orleans in 1887, heading to Martinique and, eventually, Japan. But in explaining New Orleans to the rest of the world, Hearn had essentially created the city’s brand: the image of sex, sorcery, and song that continues to beckon from tourist brochures and marketing campaigns.
Which makes one wonder what Hearn, a lifelong skeptic of the customs of commerce, would think about what he had wrought.
“In the end,” writes Starr, “Louisiana disappointed him, not because it was backward but because it was not backward enough. With his one not very good eye he saw it rapidly modernizing and abandoning its solid old ways in order to wallow in crass and soulless materialism.”
Hearn’s quest for pure, authentic culture—a body of folklife uncorrupted by contact with the larger currents of change—is a continuing theme in his work, and a way of seeing that, like all lofty ideals, inevitably brought disappointment.
Beyond the bohemian slant of his vision, Hearn’s work doesn’t seem guided by any particular big idea or truly coherent philosophy. For that reason alone, perhaps, his reputation in America has long resided in the second or third tier of our national letters.
At least one reason for his comparatively modest stature in American literature is the open question of whether he was, in the classic sense, an American writer at all. Can such a globe-trotting scribe as Hearn be claimed as one of our own?
Cowley, arguing for Hearn’s stature in American literary tradition, believed that the United States of the Gilded Age, a time and place in which throngs of immigrants arrived and reinvented themselves, was critical to Hearn’s development. “It is doubtful whether he could have survived as a writer, or survived at all, if he had started his career in another country,” Cowley once commented.
Conditioned to feeding the beast of daily journalism, Hearn proved prolific, and the sheer volume of his output has also complicated his literary legacy, challenging anthologists to separate the wheat from the chaff. Cowley, who wrote the introduction to The Selected Writings of Lafcadio Hearn, which was published in 1949, confessed that some of Hearn’s work seemed dated and quaint, although the best material still held up.
Indeed, reading Hearn today can often be like skimming the latest headlines. His chronicles of poverty, class, and crime in nineteenth-century New Orleans continue to resonate as the city recovers from Hurricane Katrina. Chita, Hearn’s 1889 novel about a devastating tropical storm that savages Louisiana’s coast, also seems prescient in Katrina’s wake. Hearn’s cosmopolitan embrace of everything from Creole folklore to Asian mysticism seems tailor-made for the global sensibility of the twenty-first century. His worry about the homogenizing effects of international commerce on local cultures seems more relevant than ever.
Hearn traveled the world and encountered the strikingly exotic, but the most unusual part of Hearn’s life, it now seems, was Hearn himself.
“No American author of the nineteenth century,” Cowley declared, “had a stranger life.” It’s this personality, which leaps from the pages of these recent anthologies, thatcontinues to make Hearn such a compelling read.
Working in an era of deeply personal journalism, when the writer was often as much a part of the story as the events he was documenting, Hearn wrote about everything from birds to brothels and operas to opium dens, but whatever his stated subject, he was essentially writing about Lafcadio Hearn. His gossamer style and urbane manner sometimes seem like the forerunner of the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town.”
“Happily for Hearn,” writes Starr, “the concept of ‘news’ in the 1880s was still capacious, allowing the journalist a far greater freedom to elaborate and ornament than would be acceptable today. Whether at the City Itemor theTimes-Democrat, ‘news’ was whatever Hearn decided was newsworthy, which included just about everything that happened to interest him personally at the time.”
Within his stories and essays, the contemporary reader discovers what Cowley concluded a generation ago. At his best, Hearn “was independent of fashion and was writing for our time as much as his own.”
Originally published to the public domain by Humanities, the Magazine of the NEH 33:3 (May/June 2012).