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NOVEMBER 16, 2009

The Explorer

American Writings

By Lafcadio Hearn

(Library of America, 848 pp., $40)

 

In 1854, Commodore Perry steamed into the port of Yokohama and opened Japan to international trade. The subsequent era of the Meiji Restoration, which lasted until 1912, saw Japan begin slowly to transform itself from an insular, somewhat feudal society into a modern nation. Western envoys sent back dispatches about this mysterious country, whose traditions aroused fascination and suspicion in equal quantities. In the West, Japanese art and culture became all the rage, a vogue that reached its apotheosis in 1885, when Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado became a huge hit on the London stage.

The few from Japan who travelled abroad sent back their own reports about Western traditions and ideas. Chief among them was the writer Natsume Soseki, who journeyed to Britain at the end of the nineteenth century, but found it difficult to understand these tall, gangly strangers. Soseki’s stay in London was miserable. Upon returning to Japan in 1903, he was offered a position at Tokyo University. He was both pleased and perplexed: pleased, because it was a distinguished professorship which recognized his achievements as a scholar and teacher; perplexed, because the writer he was replacing, Lafcadio Hearn, was held in high regard as the chief reporter to the West of all things Japanese. Hearn was married to a local woman, and he was the father of four children born in Japan. The non-renewal of his contract was as much a shock to Tokyo University’s outraged students and faculty as it was to Hearn, who never really recovered from the blow. A little over a year later, the fifty-four-year-old author died in Japan, a somewhat broken man.

 

Patrick Lafcadio Hearn was born in 1850 on the Greek Ionian island of Lefkas to a Greek mother, Rosa Cassimati, and an Anglo-Irish army doctor, Charles Hearn. When he was two the infant was sent to Ireland with his mother, and they took up residence in Dublin with a great-aunt, Sarah Brenane. Two years later his increasingly unstable mother left Ireland for Greece, and two years after that his parents divorced. After his mother’s departure, Hearn never again laid eyes on her, and eventually she died in a mental asylum on Corfu. Hearn was now the ward of his sternly religious great-aunt, and his relationship with his peripatetic father was, in all senses of the word, distant.

A small, shy boy, Hearn attended a series of rigorously disciplined Catholic boarding schools in Ireland and England, where his experiences were uniformly miserable. His unhappiness was compounded by a playground accident that resulted in the loss of sight in his left eye when he was sixteen. Soon after, Hearn’s estranged father died, and a year later his great-aunt declared bankruptcy. The publicly shamed boy was forced to withdraw from school. No longer able to contemplate attending university, young Paddy Hearn lived for a short while in great poverty in Dickensian London before, at the age of nineteen, boarding a ship bound for the United States.

After some months as a semi-destitute waiter and dishwasher in New York, Hearn set out for Cincinnati, hoping to find a family contact in the great riverfront city. Instead he happened upon work in a printing shop that was run by an Englishman named Henry Watkin, who offered Hearn a place to sleep in exchange for keeping the shop clean and running errands. Watkin was a great raconteur, and a lover of Eastern philosophy and the generally bizarre, and he discovered in Hearn a young man whose eccentric tastes matched his own.

Hearn’s profoundly unhappy memories of school, and then London’s filthy underworld, had led the young immigrant to cultivate a sense of himself as an outsider. He adopted a new and somewhat Gothically inspired identity in which he imagined himself to be a maverick whose tastes were rooted in the culture, folklore, and mysticism of the past, as opposed to the crass materialism of the contemporary world. He found inspiration in the work of Edgar Allan Poe; but his true spur to self-definition was not literature, it was his unhappy life experience. Society never seemed to recognize this small, dark, displaced boy, and if the world would not recognize him, then he saw no reason why he should recognize it.

In 1872, the twenty-two-year-old Hearn presented himself before the editor of the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer and asked to be paid for contributions that he intended to make to the newspaper. Hearn had decided that journalism and translation would have to be tolerated so that he might earn a living until he transformed himself into a real writer. He proposed pieces not so much about the gentle antebellum world of Cincinnati, but about the people who made up the lurid underbelly of the city. He was particularly interested in the riverfront world of the Negroes with their songs, folktales, and superstitions, which suggested to him a genuine connection to an authentic past.

The editor was unconvinced by the young man, whom he later described as a “quaint dark skinned little fellow,” but he gave the brash youngster a chance, and Hearn began to write with a pen that veered from sensationalism to romanticism, depending upon the subject to hand. His dramatic reports quickly won him a wide audience. In 1874, a particularly ghoulish article called “Violent Cremation,” about the lynching of a supposed murderer, made him something of a local celebrity. He described the body of the cremated man as being reduced to

a hideous adhesion of half-molten flesh, boiled brains and jellied blood mingled with coal. The skull had burst like a shell in the fierce furnace-heat, and the whole upper portion seemed as though it had been blown out by the steam from the boiling and bubbling brains…. The brain had all boiled away, save a small wasted lump at the base of the skull about the size of a lemon. It was crisped and still warm to the touch. On pushing the finger through, the crisp interior felt about the consistency of banana fruit and the yellow fibres seemed to writhe like worms in the Coroner’s hands.

In the same year that Hearn published “Violent Cremation,” he extended his professional interest in Negro life into the personal sphere by marrying Alethea “Mattie” Foley, an illiterate black teenager born into slavery in Kentucky who worked at the city boarding house in which Hearn lodged. The association was, of course, illegal, but in a newspaper article that he wrote about Foley in 1875 one can sense that beyond his physical attraction for her, he was also won over by her love of storytelling:

She had never learned to read or write, but possessed naturally a wonderful wealth of verbal description, a more than ordinarily vivid memory, and a gift of conversation which would have charmed an Italian improvisatore. These things we learned during an idle half hour passed one summer’s evening in her company on the kitchen stairs; while the boarders lounged on the porch in the moonlight, and the hall lamp created flickering shadows along the varnished corridors, and the hungry rats held squeaking carnival in the dark dining-room. To the weird earnestness of the story-teller, the melody of her low, soft voice, and the enthralling charm of her conversation, we cannot attempt to do justice.

When word leaked out of Hearn’s irregular marriage, the Enquirer terminated his employment. But Hearn was by now too celebrated a journalist to find himself idle for too long, and the rival newspaper, the Cincinnati Commercial, soon picked him up. By this time Hearn’s controversial marriage had already begun to fall apart, and the aspiring young writer was beginning to tire of Cincinnati, and of his notoriety as Paddy Hearn, sensationalist journalist. He was ready now to stop wallowing in the outlandish, and make a concerted effort to become a literary man. A move to New Orleans would allow him the opportunity to look at the old French culture of the country, plus give him the chance to engage with the creolized Negro population who were steeped in a folklore tradition richer than that to be found on the banks of the Ohio River. In 1877, Paddy Hearn left for New Orleans, and somewhere along the way he re-invented himself as the more romantic-sounding Lafcadio Hearn.

At first Hearn was convinced that he had arrived in paradise. He loved the sedentary pace of life, and the sensual faded glory, of the humid south. He sent articles back to the Cincinnati Commercial before eventually finding employment with the local Times-Democrat. But he still struggled with the idea that he was doing the lesser work of journalism as opposed to what he described as “the sacred work of literature.” He persevered, and eventually published Stray Leaves from Strange Literature (1884) and Some Chinese Ghosts (1887), which were rough adaptations from foreign literature, and also translations of Gautier and Flaubert. But where was Hearn’s own literary work? His journalism continued to bring him a steady, if somewhat erratic income, but his heart was not in it.

A restless soul, Hearn soon began to grow weary of the city of New Orleans, and he made the decision to explore the hinterlands and islands of the bayou, which lay in the Gulf of Mexico. He particularly enjoyed Grande Isle, which he had first visited in 1883, and he imagined himself reclaiming a languorous island past that reminded him--it was a fantasy, of course--of his Mediterranean origins. Encouraged by his discoveries, Hearn decided that he should further explore the world of the tropics. And so, armed with a commission from Harper’s Monthly, he set off in June 1887 for the West Indies.

He spent two months there, and submitted a piece to Harper’s called “A Midsummer Trip to the Tropics.” He found himself intrigued by the supernatural and erotic elements of the region, and recorded his attraction to the place, and also his repulsion from it, in quick-fire notes that made up his travelogue style. Although he had to stay indoors much of the time, to protect himself from the heat and the snakes, no sooner had he returned to the United States than he began planning once more to travel south. This time his base was Saint-Pierre on the French island of Martinique, a place that in 1902 would be totally destroyed by the eruption of Mount Pelée.

Hearn’s extensive notes were eventually published as Two Years in the French West Indies, and his sojourn also gave him time to collect material for a second piece of fiction, Youma, which, like Chita, purported to tell a fictionalized version of a real event. But Hearn soon tired of the West Indies, too, and in April 1889 he returned to the United States. Less than a year later he persuaded Harper’s that he should set sail for Japan and submit articles from the mysterious Orient. The most important literary period of Hearn’s life was about to begin: finally he would find a world--unlike the underworld of Cincinnati, or the Creole world of New Orleans, or the Creolized world of the West Indies--which he could romanticize, but whose sense of itself was such that it would be difficult for him to patronize either the place or the people.

 

The work collected in American Writings covers the fifteen-year period from Hearn’s writing for the Cincinnati Commercial to his fiction and non-fiction about the West Indies on the eve of his departure for Japan. The selected early journalism demonstrates something of Hearn’s talent for teasing out other people’s stories and then conveying the essence of their lives sympathetically, and in often luminous prose. Yet in “Levee Life,” which concerns itself with the “original songs and peculiar dances” of the predominantly Negro stevedores and longshoremen of the Ohio River, we see another tendency of Hearn’s: he is all too often content simply to gaze raptly and somewhat anthropologically at the world about him, and there is occasionally a pedestrian superficiality to his observations, as though the writer is himself fed up with his assignment. For example:

Half of the colored ’longshoremen used at one time to wear only a coat and pants, winter and summer; but now they are a little more careful of themselves, and fearful of being sent to the Work-house to be cleaned up. Consequently, when Officer Brazil finds a very ragged and dirty specimen of levee life on the Row, he has seldom occasion to warn him more than once to buy himself a shirt and a change of garments.

At moments such as this, Hearn’s uncharacteristically flat prose seems to betray a weariness with the task at hand, and frustration with the kind of writer he has become.

“Gibbeted,” which reports the botched execution of a young murderer, is stamped with the familiar sensationalism of Hearn’s Cincinnati pieces, but it feels over-rehearsed. Hearn seems too easily to be pushing the right buttons in an attempt to outrage his readership, in the manner of his earlier piece (not included in this volume) “Violent Cremation.” Not long after arriving in New Orleans, however, it is clear that the newly created Lafcadio Hearn is determined to roll up his sleeves and present his readership with a more literary man. His observations remain acute, but his prose achieves a new mellifluousness--one which is forever in danger of becoming purple. He describes an unusual visitation of frost to his new city:

At moments the December sun intensified the brilliancy of these coruscations of frost-fire: lance-rays of solar flame, shivered into myriad sparkles against the glittering mail of interwoven crystals, tinged all the scintillating work with a fairy-faint reflection of such iridescence as flames upon a humming bird’s bosom.

It is apparent that, at least to begin with, New Orleans seized Hearn’s imagination. Few writers have ever written with more panache about an American city. Taken collectively, his New Orleans writings, which range from stern editorials attacking political misdeeds to impressionistic sketches depicting the mystery of creolized New Orleans, suggest that this distinctive city has more in common with the West Indies and Europe than the American mainland. Hearn’s articles helped to create the myth of voodoo New Orleans, and once he stopped writing for newspapers and began to contribute to more literary publications such as Harper’s Monthly, one can sense a new ambition in his writing.

 

Chita, from 1889, Hearn’s melodramatic adventure novel of the period, is a work at odds with itself. It is the plot-driven story of the strange female child of a respectable middle-class doctor, who survives a hurricane on Grand Isle and is subsequently raised by a family of simple fishing people. Mixed into this narrative, uncomfortably, are numerous digressions exploring cultural and linguistic practices. Hearn attempts to inflate his flimsy story into literature by adopting a highly stylized voice, and tries also to dazzle his readers with short bursts of rich description which ultimately seem to deviate from the main narrative rather than to drive it. The novel is replete with these poetic but static set pieces:

Sometimes of autumn evenings there, when the hollow of heaven flames like the interior of a chalice, and waves and clouds are flying in one wild rout of broken gold,--you may see the tawny grasses all covered with something like husks,--wheat-colored husks,--large, flat, and disposed evenly along the lee-side of each swaying stalk, so as to present only their edges to the wind. But, if you approach, those pale husks all break open to display strange splendors of scarlet and seal-brown, with arabesque mottlings in white and black: they change into wondrous living blossoms, which detach themselves before your eyes and rise in air, and flutter away by thousands to settle down farther off, and turn into wheat-colored husks once more … a whirling flower-drift of sleepy butterflies!

For all its weaknesses, Chita proved to be something of a commercial success, combining as it did sentimentality, an exotic location, and often startling descriptions of seascapes and storms that remind one of Melville and anticipate Conrad. The money that Hearn received from Harper’s for the serialization of the novel encouraged him to travel further into the creolized world and head down to the West Indies.

Hearn’s West Indian writing suggests a strange fascination with the bodies of Negroes, which often crosses the line into an awkward voyeurism. Although the younger Hearn had clearly identified with the black community of Cincinnati, there is a marked change of tone in his writings on racial matters once he reinvents himself in New Orleans. He suddenly appears to have imbibed the Southern nostalgia for the passing of the institution of slavery, and it is in this frame of mind that he sets sail for the West Indies. His dispatches suggest a continued interest in folklore, music, and dance, but his work does little more than preserve a record of a world past and fading, while his attitude toward the people that he encounters is too often one of undisguised superiority. He recaptures the delicacy of description that he achieved in Chita, but he now flaunts some newly acquired racial attitudes: “There is a glorious sunset,--a fervid orange splendor, shading starward into delicate roses and greens. Then black boatmen come astern and quarrel furiously for the privilege of carrying one passenger ashore; and as they scream and gesticulate, half naked, their silhouettes against the sunset seem forms of great black apes.”

Hearn is fascinated and repulsed by the “half-breeds” that he encounters, and obsessed with the relationship between the mingling of blood and the aesthetically acceptable (or unacceptable) appearance of various grades of people. Increasingly wedded to the notion of “the dignity of a white skin,” Hearn muses on what he sees as a conflict between black and mixed-race peoples, and he speculates as to what might happen should trouble break out: “And the true black element, more numerically powerful, more fertile, more cunning, better adapted to pyrogenic climate and tropical environment, would surely win. All these mixed races, all these beautiful fruit-colored populations, seem doomed to extinction: the future tendency must be to universal blackness, if existing conditions continue--perhaps to universal savagery.”

Youma, Hearn’s West Indian novel of the period, is less successful than Chita. Predictably enough, cultural observations and descriptive flourishes are thrown in to spice up the narrative, but it all feels tired, in the same way that Hearn’s sojourn in the West Indies seems to fatigue and eventually disappoint him:

One must send abroad to obtain even a review, and wait months for its coming. And this mental starvation gnaws at the brain more and more as one feels less inclination and less capacity for effort, and as that single enjoyment, which at first rendered a man indifferent to other pleasures,--the delight of being alone with tropical Nature,--becomes more difficult to indulge. When lethargy has totally mastered habit and purpose, and you must at last confess yourself resigned to view Nature from your chamber, or at best from a carriage window,--then, indeed, the want of all literature proves a positive torture. It is not a consolation to discover that you are an almost solitary sufferer,--from climate as well as from mental hunger.

In the end, what are we to make of these West Indian writings, which make up the vast majority of Hearn’s American Writings? The appendix, titled “Some Creole Melodies,” may point to their real value: they were meticulous records of cultural practices that used to be commonplace but which are now in danger of being forgotten. Anthony Trollope and J.A. Froude, the great nineteenth-century Negrophobic chroniclers of the region, wrote with a dyspeptic sneer on their faces, but it is both surprising and disappointing to find that the same is true of Hearn. His may have been a more romantic vision, and he certainly captured the sunrises and sunsets of the region with more literary panache than his English contemporaries; but like Trollope and Froude he looked down on the region and its “childish” people. Instead of seeing a rich past seeping through and contributing to a delightful tropical present, he saw only chaos, disorder, and a place of intellectual torpor. The West Indies disappointed him as the United States had disappointed him; and he would need to journey again.

The almost one thousand pages of American Writings, including a short selection of Hearn’s letters, end abruptly with the author’s departure for Japan, which is where his reputation was eventually made. Unlike the West Indies, Japan did not bore Hearn with a lack of intellectual vitality, and it remained exotic enough to beguile him with the sensuality that he craved. Finally, Japan stimulated his senses and his mind; and it enabled him to focus on a single patch of earth rather than skipping in a seemingly erratic and disorderly fashion from one place to another. Between his arrival in 1890 and his death in 1904, Hearn produced more than a dozen books about the country and its people, and found himself positioned as the man who was introducing the culture of Japan to the West.

This last “rebirth” suited Hearn, who had been more or less discarded at the beginning of his life, and thereafter remained suspicious of co-option into any group or category out of a fear of further rejection. As a child growing up in Ireland and England, he was always dark-skinned “Paddy,” and knew that he did not fit in. Although he tried to begin anew in the United States, his career never really took off. But things would be different in Japan. He had barely set foot in the country when he wrote to his friend Elizabeth Bisland, who would eventually become his first biographer, that “I only wish I could be reincarnated in some little Japanese baby, so that I could see and feel the world as beautifully as a Japanese brain does.”

 

American Writings concerns itself with the work that was produced as a result of Hearn’s migration to the United States in 1869. Perhaps no other writer of the American world of the late nineteenth century demonstrated such a fascination with a wide range of eclectic material as Hearn, and his tastes and his interests are reflected in the idiosyncrasies of the people and the places about which he chose to write. Still, for all his protestation of detachment, and his cultivation of an identity as a misfit, from the beginning one senses in Hearn a desire to belong--a desire that is always, and quickly, usurped by a growing unease, leading to a precipitous departure. Hearn possessed an understandable yearning to be rooted, and to that end was even moved to commit a socially suicidal marriage. But somehow the American world did not suit his temperament. All his life he had been made to feel offbeat and strange; and when it became clear to him that, despite his reinvention of himself as Lafcadio the literary man, he would never truly be comfortable in the United States, he headed south and further embraced the worlds of voodoo, myth, legend, rituals, and the oral tradition and song.

Predictably, he felt safest in the American world of the past, and this is reflected in his choice of cities--Cincinnati and New Orleans. In 1869, the western frontier had already moved far beyond Cincinnati; and the end of the Civil War, and the decline of a slave-based economy, had signaled a major slump in the fortunes of New Orleans. But the nostalgia that permeated both cities seemed to suit Hearn’s spirit: he was a man who liked to look over his shoulder and report on how the past had contributed to the present, as opposed to looking up the road and figuring out how the present might contribute to the future. He chose not to write about Chicago or New York, the great capitals of modernity, or to head west to the new frontier lands, or to press on to California. In unfashionable Cincinnati and New Orleans, he was able to make good use of his talent for noticing and transcribing minutiae that spoke to an authenticity more primary and more mysterious than present-day modern American society.

So just what kind of a writer was the thirty-nine-year-old Lafcadio Hearn who, on Saint Patrick’s Day 1890, set foot on board a ship bound for Japan? He was a writer who moved from one oddball subject or location to the next, and whose sense of prose was lyrical, and occasionally beautiful; but aside from his body of journalism on New Orleans, he had not yet produced anything truly original. Since his death, it is Hearn’s reputation in Japan, as a dedicated interpreter of that country to the West, which has kept his name before the public. And his American Writings--do they offer us anything beyond a sepia-tinted window through which we can take a peek at various peculiar corners of American and West Indian life in the late nineteenth century? Some Chinese Ghosts is a fairly uninspired retelling of stories already in the public domain. Chita lacks any coherent characterization, and the bizarre location and occasional poetic flourishes cannot compensate for the lack of real drama. Two Years in the West Indies and Youma tread increasingly slump-shouldered across ground that had already been clumsily covered by writers with less literary talent than Hearn; but whatever fascination Hearn might have initially felt for the region was soon replaced by a lethargy that dulled not only his mind but also his pen. So the American Writings suggest a writer with a profound literary gift that flickered only from time to time, and a man who eventually allowed his cosmopolitan bent to become corrupted by the vulgar battle between the supposedly superior and the supposedly inferior, and who, in the West Indies, compromised his literary gift so that that he might play the lesser role of judgmental cultural interpreter.

It is the journalistic pieces that are the most impressive legacy of Hearn’s American period, allowing us to glimpse the post–Civil War country coming to terms with crime and punishment and entertainment. But Hearn was no Whitman or Twain; he had no desire to use his pen and his imagination to help usher the United States forward and encourage the nation to think of itself in a new and self-confident way. He was attracted to the exotic elements of American life, but he rejected American life in its broadest sense. In the end, he did not want to belong to a place that appeared not to recognize him. He peered down the alleys, he stole in through the back doors, and then he scrambled out again. For something more and better, we will have to await his Japanese Writings.

Caryl Phillips’s latest novel, In the Falling Snow, has just been published by Knopf Doubleday.

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