- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 24, 2002

LAFCADIO HEARN'S AMERICA: ETHNOGRAPHIC SKETCHES AND EDITORIALS
Edited by Simon J. Bronner
University Press of Kentucky, $35, 242 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY JACK MATTHEWS

Many years ago, while reading Lafcadio Hearn's 1890 travel book, "Two Years in the French West Indies," I came upon the extraordinary discovery that there are more shades and nuances of the color blue than I had dreamed possible. Sailing south from the gray Atlantic into the blue Caribbean, Hearn painted from a palette so rich and variegated that it is tempting to believe that no ocean has ever appeared so extravagantly polychromatic, thereby providing such a uniquely colorful experience for readers.
This testimony to his highly developed visual sense is especially impressive in view of the fact that Hearn lost the sight of one eye while he was still a boy, and was painfully afflicted for most of his life not simply by the handicap of partial blindness, but by the psychological effects of a milky film covering the blinded eye upon his self-image. And yet, neither his morbid, though understandable, sensitivity, nor the chaos of a youth spent in Europe, as a virtual orphan vacillating between wild extremes of privilege and abject poverty, kept him from achieving a literary reputation as one of the inimitable exotics of literature, a cosmopolitan born in the Ionian Islands of Greece and dying in Japan after living a rootless and nomadic life.
One thing Hearn never got over, however, was his painful awareness of his physical appearance, for he was undersized, oddly put together, and neurotically sensitive about how he looked; after all, he was one who saw blues where others saw only blue. So he was a psychological exile, as well never quite at home in the world, where to be at home is to belong to a place; and evidently the nearest Hearn came to feeling at home was briefly in Cincinnati, Ohio, and at the end of his life in Japan.
The central virtue of "Lafcadio Hearn's America" is its making available much of Hearn's best fugitive journalism, his "ethnographic pieces and editorials," very much as promised in the title. There are real nuggets of social history in these articles, for Hearn had early in life pledged himself (in his own words) to "a worship of the odd, the queer, the strange, the exotic, the monstrous." Furthermore, he was fascinated by the underworlds of cities, which in the late 19th century were beginning to achieve something of their modern character.
After two years in New York City, Hearn came to Cincinnati, on the Ohio River, where he wrote most of the pieces included in the present volume, and took upon himself the nickname of "the Raven," with a half-playful reference to the prophetic bird in Edgar Allan Poe's most famous poem. Cincinnati's Bucktown, with its population of "negroes" (Hearn's term, of course), had a special fascination for him, and one of the most interesting articles in the present volume is "The Race-Problem in America," published in 1894 and remarkable for its level-headed analysis of the situation some 30 years after emancipation.
One of Hearn's arguments has to do with the disproportionately large birth-rate among blacks, which he found a matter of great concern, a concern that will strike many readers today as "racist"; but if it is, it is a racism that is interestingly qualified in Hearn's case by the fact that he married a mulatto at a time when the laws against miscegenation were so strictly enforced that he had to list his wife's race as "white" on the marriage certificate.
Hearn was dedicated to "lurid detail" and "the prose of small things," and his fascination with the deprived and forgotten societies stayed with him throughout his life. The titles listed in the present book's table of contents testify to this: "Levee Life: Haunts and Pastimes of the Roustabouts"; "Some Pictures of Poverty: Impressions of a Round with an Overseer of the Poor"; "Pariah People: Outcast Life by Night in the East End" are a fair sampling.
There are, of course, fairly obvious explanations for the attraction the dispossessed had for him his uneasy sense of not belonging, of being physically and psychologically "different"; his rootlessness, and the insecurity of his youth. Hearn referred to himself as a "lizard that sought the sun" and eventually left Cincinnati for New Orleans, "the Marseilles of the western world." It was there, in 1880, that he wrote for the New Orleans Item an editorial titled "The French in Louisiana," in which he argues for the perpetuation of the natives' natural use of the French language, against current arguments for the exclusive use of English, because New Orleans was, after all, "an American city."
Hearn's argument is interesting in view of today's controversy over English in the public schools, especially with regard to the large Spanish-speaking populations in various parts of the United States. This is, of course, one of those arguments that sensible people can see from both sides, making the issue especially difficult to resolve.
Another of Hearn's editorials that will resonate with today's reader is "The Prevention of Cruelty to Women." No doubt, its preoccupation with "white slavery" seems quaint to us, but not its vivid descriptions of the brutal and murderous treatment of women, which was perhaps more common then than now, but only because the respect in civilized societies for human life generally has grown significantly in the last century, not because of a relative improvement in the treatment of women as women. Unlike the generality of polemicists, however, Hearn understands the complexity of the issue and refuses to simplify it by facile prescriptions.
Now and then, he says, "an unfortunate wife" will have her husband arrested; but then, usually "her affection forgives all even the brutality which disfigures her permanently; and it has actually been claimed that some women find a strange pleasure in being beaten." Many readers today will fail to find any amusement in such seeming innocence, while others will find support for their radical and fundamentally silly belief in the institution of marriage as "bondage."
The majority of the pieces in "Lafcadio Hearn's America" are, however, descriptive rather than monitory or prescriptive, and they convey a sense of urban life in 19th-century America with the flair and vividness that one might expect from a man who could see blues where others saw only blue.

Jack Matthews is distinguished professor of English at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.



Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide