Lafcadio Hearn, “Selected Journalism” (1875–1886)

I have been working rather leisurely through this volume of Lafcadio Hearn’s writings.  I appreciated his beautiful prose, his unconventional life, and his focus on subjects often neglected in travel writing.  While he lived to be 54, he spend only around twenty years in the United States.  His un-Americanism was driven home to him in 1903, the year before his death, when Tokyo Imperial University slashed his pay because he was no longer a “foreigner.”  [Why foreigners deserve more for the same work is a question that is still relevant in East Asia, by the way.  A Taiwanese college graduate, highly skilled, might make a starting wage around half of what a unskilled, illiterate (in the local language), American college graduate can make teaching ESL.  They work fewer hours and often do not need to even put in time in curriculum development.  This is not strictly speaking the Westerner-in-Taiwan’s fault, but it is odious enough to convince me that I should avoid teaching ESL, at least until starvation becomes a real threat.  But, if I took such a job, I would likely be over-paid and under-utilized.]  Hearn probably did not find a real home until Japan, although Martinique was attractive to him.

Hearn in Japan

Hearn in Japan

His American journalism reflected his mobile life.  He was always interested in criminals, the floating underclass, and those whose work required movement.  Like the people he wrote about, Hearn openly broke both the law and U.S. social standards with his marriage to a black woman, he often lived at the edge of poverty, and moved around so often he was often rootless.  I am reminded of Herman Melville’s hero in Omoo, who could never be satisfied with his job and “deserted” as a way to find a better life.  Without his Japanese writings (will The Library of America publish them?), I cannot say for sure what it was about Japan that made him finally settle there.  From the biographical notes in this volume, I see that he was upset with Japanese modernization, the destruction of Japan’s natural environment, and their borrowing of what he saw as disgusting Western institutions.  At the time that this journalism was produced, Hearn was in his mobile phase.

There are two periods documented in this volume.  The first is 1875-1877, while Hearn worked in Cincinnati.  He wrote about the occult, ghosts, the lives of stevedores and “roustabouts,” the girls that keep these “roustabouts” company, and famously the botched and horrifying execution of James Murphy in 1875.  What these stories have in common is that they tell the story of the city from the margins.  Now, I do not know how common this was in 1870s journalism.  I do know from Michael Denning’s work that such heroes frequented dime novels of that era.  I will assume Hearn is not unique in this interest.  His uniqueness and brilliance comes from how vibrant and real his descriptions of these people area, whether marginalized workers, condemned prisoners facing their death, or American ghost stories.

The remaining articles – some of them still written for Cincinnati newspapers – cover his time in New Orleans from 1877-1886, before he takes off for the Caribbean.  We see here, the beginning of his interest in the greater Caribbean.  He believed that New Orleans was at the “gates of the tropics.”  As with everywhere else he lived, he relished New Orleans working class life, its diversity, its often strange folklore and history, and its celebration of Carnival.  These stories cover much of the same ground as does “Martinique Sketches,” which only tells us that perhaps he is correct that New Orleans was the gate to the Caribbean, or at the very least part of the same historical and cultural realm.

We can only hope that The Library of America will publish his writings from Japan so I can revisit this fascinating writer.

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