By Simon Caterson
Lafcadio Hearn wrote without borders. This catholicity makes him unusually difficult to classify, certainly in terms of still-dominant categories of genealogy, geography, nationality and language. He has been claimed as a major American, Japanese, Irish and Greek author. Perhaps he was all of these at once.
Born in 1850 to a Greek mother and Irish father, Hearn grew up mostly in Ireland, France and England. Among Anglophone writers, he travelled more widely—and perhaps more deeply—than Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson and, for that matter, Mark Twain, whom Hearn met in New Orleans in 1882 and with whom he later toured.
In the English-speaking world, Hearn is best known as a member of the generation of writers—another was George Washington Cable—that put New Orleans on the literary map. He lived in the city for a decade before settling in Japan, where he spent the rest of his life, becoming a citizen and taking a Japanese name, Yakumo Koizumi, in 1895.
There are permanent memorials to Hearn in four countries: Greece, Ireland, Japan and the United States. A museum situated at his birthplace of Lefkada opened in 2014, the same year as the opening of the Lafcadio Hearn Gardens in County Waterford. In Japan, his former residence in Kumamoto—now the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum—attracts an estimated 150,000 visitors per annum. The Lafcadio Hearn House in New Orleans was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 2006.
Hearn’s work moves across land and sea and language, and he excelled at writing in an impressive range of genres: journalism and fiction, travel and folklore, ghost stories and poetry. He translated de Maupassant, Flaubert and Gautier. For Western readers in the nineteenth century, he was a major interpreter of traditional Asian poetry, folktales and ghost stories.
In addition to the journalism he wrote during his Louisianan sojourn, Hearn published a recipe book, La Cuisine Créole; a collection of Creole proverbs, Gombo Zhebes; and Chita, a novella set during the Great Storm of 1856.
Chita recreates the disaster that befell Last Island, a resort on the Gulf of Mexico. More than half of the four hundred residents, many of them members of Louisiana’s plantation aristocracy, perished in the hurricane or afterwards from injuries. In Chita, Hearn combines real people and events with fiction, including the novel’s main character, a young Creole girl who survives the storm but becomes separated from her family and is taken in by a fisherman and his wife.
Apart from anything else, Chita is an impressive demonstration of Hearn’s descriptive powers. Although he did not witness the hurricane, which struck Last Island two decades before he arrived in Louisiana, Hearn evokes a remote place that most readers in the age of sailing ships could never have seen for themselves.
On the Gulf side of these islands you may observe that the trees—when there are any trees—all bend away from the sea; and, even of bright, hot days when the wind sleeps, there is something grotesquely pathetic in their look of agonized terror. A group of oaks at Grande Isle I remember as especially suggestive: five stopping silhouettes in line against the horizon, like fleeing women with streaming garments and wind-blown hair,—bowing grievously and thrusting out arms desperately northward as if to save themselves from falling. And they are being pursued indeed;—for the sea is devouring the land.
It seems to me that Hearn was modern to the point of prophetic. Even though he lived in New Orleans more than a century ago, he sums up the city today with succinctness and surprising accuracy.
The best place to start with Hearn’s New Orleans writings is the appropriately titled essay “At the Gates of the Tropics.” “It is not an easy thing to describe one’s first impression of New Orleans,” writes Hearn in the oft-quoted opening, “for while it actually resembles no other city upon the face of the earth, yet it recalls vague memories of a hundred cities.”
In addition to their encounter with the exotic, Hearn understood that travellers to new places tend to find what they already know. Familiarity, as much as the “tropical beauty of the city itself,” Hearn is aware, makes New Orleans attractive to visitors. “New Orleans is especially a city of verandas, piazzas, porches and balconies, and the stranger is liable to be impressed with this fact immediately upon leaving the levee.”
The ability to see clearly both the unique and universal aspects of New Orleans makes Hearn’s impressions valuable and persuasive. Much of what he describes—the fecund atmosphere and apocalyptic weather, the battered grandeur of the older districts, and the ever-present danger of street violence in certain neighborhoods—hasn’t changed. Equally enduring is the constant arrival of new visitors, though today these are more likely to be tourists than sailors on shore leave.
Hearn describes Mardi Gras, that famous and most distinctive of New Orleans festivals, as an event that obscures “the romantic charm of the old city.” He portrays the city at other, quieter times of the year in his essay “New Orleans in Carnival Garb”:
To see the Queen of the South in her most natural and pleasing mood one should visit her during the dreamy season called St. Martin’s summer, when the orange blossoms exhale their fragrance, and the winds are still lukewarm, and the autumn glow bronzes those faint tints which the old-fashioned edifices wear. Then the curious confusion of gables and balconies gracefully jutting against the blue above, the Doresque oddity of the shadows wrought below, give the more antiquated streets a peculiarly impressive aspect—a foreign look not of this hemisphere or even of this century.
Hearn invokes a Louisiana that has vanished but whose ghost is ever-present. He became the first journalist to visit Saint Malo, a small village in St. Bernard Parish—and at the time the only Filipino community in North America—that was destroyed in the Hurricane of 1915.
He wrote an obituary for Jean Montanet, reputedly the last supreme exponent of voodoo, who left Africa and found fame and fortune in New Orleans. Although Hearn dismissed voodoo and the occult in general as “humbug,” he regarded Jean Montanet as an extraordinary individual “in point of natural intelligence.”
Hearn also celebrated the life of an equally legendary character who thrived in a different part of New Orleans society—the Spanish fencing master Pepe Llulla. Fencing was considered a vital gentlemanly accomplishment in Creole polite society and not simply a sporting pastime. In fact, dueling remained common in New Orleans long after it had ceased to matter as a serious means of dispute resolution in Europe.
When in 2012 Bon Koizumi, Hearn’s great-grandson, visited the then newly restored New Orleans house where his great-grandfather had lived more than a century before, he said in an interview with the Times-Picayune, “New Orleans is one of my favorite cities in the world. The Creole culture makes people open-minded. So this is the reason I love this city.” His great-grandfather displayed that same open-mindedness, Koizumi noted.
If you are inclined to believe, as the poet Les Murray has proposed about Australia, that the future of culture and language is creole, then Lafcadio Hearn provides a literary model of curiosity and inclusiveness as well as simply being a fine and original writer.
Simon Caterson trained as a lawyer in Melbourne before completing postgraduate studies in Irish literature at Trinity College Dublin. For more than twenty years, he has worked as a professional writer contributing regularly to major newspapers and magazines. He is the author of Hoax Nation: Australian Fakes and Frauds from Plato to Norma Khouri.