Lafcadio Hearn, “Midsummer Trip to the Tropics” (1890)

Lafcadio Hearn published his Two Years in the French West Indies, of which “Midsummer Trip to the Tropics” is an extended prologue.  It was in print before it became part of the larger world on the two years of his life Hearn spent in Martinique.  To properly historicize this text we need to understand that Hearn was a vocal anti-racist (in word and in deed) at a time when race relations were near their worst.  While the United States was moving toward racial segregation, disfranchisement, and the codification of Jim Crow, Hearn married a black woman, wrote essays against racial discrimination, and describe favorably the former slave societies in the Indies.  Martinique would become one of the loves of his life.  When he left, after a smallpox outbreak on the island, he wrote “It seemed like tearing my heart out to leave Martinique.”  He went these, seemingly to abandon the United States, its systematical racial oppression, and the professional of journalism, tainted, in his words with “pettiness, cowardice, selfishness.”  (I cannot help sympathize as someone leaving academia with similar resentments shaping my judgment.)  “Midsummer Trip to the Tropics” documents his 1887 cruise.

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While I have not revisited it yet (and I truly fear putting my foot in my mouth here), I recall Innocents Abroad as being a profoundly American type of travelogue.  In that text Mark Twain toured the Mediterranean as an American, armed with American wit and sensibilities.  It is a busy book.  It is a tourist account.  Twain and his traveling companions saw what they were supposed to see.  Travel was a series of checked boxes (pyramids, the Levant, Paris).  Hearn’s account in contrast strikes me as profoundly un-American (for the Gilded Age anyway) in its sentiments and attitudes.  His account ends with an anti-racist stand, challenging the prevailing theories on segregation, nationalism, and scientific racism.  Hearn mourns for a moment the end of racial diversity, but he sees it as an inevitable conclusion to centuries of racial violence and animosity.  Hearn would spend the next two years of his life challenging the trend that would to the end of whites (and then mixed race people) in the islands.  “And the true black element, more numerically powerful, more fertile, more cunning, better adapted to pyrogenic climate and tropical environment, would surely win. [We see here, of course, that Hearn is not fully immune from scientific racism of the day.] All these mixed races, all these beautiful fruit-colored populations, seemed doomed to extinction: the future tendency must be to universal blackness.” (246)  It does without saying that this a goal of Jim Crow in the United States.  Hearn himself was fired for breaking anti-miscegenation laws.  Rather than seeing racial separation a key to preserving the integrity of racial categories, Hearn suggests that it is a recipe for disaster and would lead to “a struggle for supremacy.”  Earlier in the travelogue he wrote: “You are among a people of half-breeds, — the finest mixed race of the West Indies” when speaking of the human urban landscape of St. Pierre.  A few pages later is describes with wonder: “There is one rare race-type, totally unlike the rest: the skin has a perfect gold-tone, an exquisite metallic yellow; the eyes are long, and have long silky lashes; — the hair is a mass of think, rich, glossy curls that show blue lights in the sun.  What mingling of races produced this beautiful type? — there is some strange blood in the blending, — not of coolie, nor of African, nor of Chinese, although there are Chinese types here of indubitable beauty.” (188) When Hearn discusses the scenery, natural landscape, and architecture of the islands he is similarly celebrating the plurality of influences: the dress, the sugar plantation, the cross on top of houses of worship.   Even the sea is speaking to him in the language of miscegenation.  “Only, instead of a blue line at the horizon, you have a green line; instead of flashings of blue, you have flashings of green, — and in all the tints, in all the combinations of which green is capable: deep green, light green, yellow-green, black-green.” (195)

metisse

Hearn expresses horror at what can best be called “modernization” on the islands.  Much like Chita the story begins with the unfolding of nature.  Modernization on the island must engage in a continual struggle with nature.  “You see no human face; but you see all around you the labor of man being gnawed and devoured by nature, — broken bridges, sliding steps, fallen arches, strangled foundations with empty basins; — and everywhere the pungent odor of decay.” (204)  As with Hearn’s views on race, this pessimisms about development and his tendency to give the reigns of power to nature runs against the grain of the predominate ideology of post-Civil War America.  At a time when the United States capitalist class waged a brutal war against the mountains, plains, rivers, and resources of the North American continent, Hearn looks at development in the Caribbean with the eyes of a 20th century conservationist.  “Under the present negro-radical regime orders have been given for the wanton destruction of trees older than the colony itself; — and marvels that could not be replaced in a hundred generations were cut down and converted into charcoal for the use of public institutions.” (204)

Finally, Hearn cannot help but pay attention to and appreciate the growing population of new immigrants to the islands, particularly the so-called “coolies” from India.  Hearn seems to realize that the position of these new immigrants into the already complex racial mixture of Martinque or Trinidad.

I am hoping that Hearn will provide a less impressionistic account of some of these issues in his “Martinique Sketches” the second part (and the majority) of Two Years in the French West Indies.  For now, I want to suggest that Hearn might be a very un-American tourist in the sense that he is seeing in the West Indies shadows of the issues plaguing America, but his observations take him in the opposite direction than the U.S. was heading in the 1880s and 1890s.

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