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.

Lafcadio Hearn, “Youma: The Story of a West-Indian Slave” (1890): The Color Line and Slave Resistance in the West Indies

In Youma, Lafcadio Hearn is exploring the affect of the color-line on the sustaining and collapse of West Indian slavery.  The legacy of slavery, particularly the complex racial history of the island and the struggle over what to do with whites who remained, was a focus of much of Hearn’s writings on the Caribbean.  He was concerned that the hostility over slavery would lead to an end to the vibrant mult-racial culture in the islands.  Through this short novel, Hearn shows us how deeply intimate the black and white world were intertwined under slavery.  Through this, he is able to pose a question that remains relevant to us today.  How is it possible to resist a system the system which is responsible for our entire identity and life, even if that system is objectively odious.  As we search for (and often fail to find) alternatives to the banality of late capitalism, it is useful to remember how hard the search for alternatives has been for people in the past.

Youma begins with a short essay on the figure of the da, in the colonial French West Indies.  “For the Creole child had two mothers: the aristocratic white mother who have him birth’ the dark bond-mother who gave him all care,– who nursed him, bathed him, taught him to speak the soft and musical speech of slaves, took him out of her arms to show him the beautiful tropic world, told him wonderful folk-stories of evenings, lulled him to sleep, attended to his every possible want by day or by night.” (545)  These nurses would often raise children for more than one generation, and while “childish,” the das were one of the most important members of the white, slave-owning family in the Caribbean colonies.

One historical note on Martinique.  While Saint-Domingue saw the end of slavery through a violent revolution, for a time, abolition was imposed on the entire French empire.  This did not affect Martinique because of the arrival of the British.  In addition, while Saint-Domingue got its independence and could enforce abolition, Martinique remained (after some back and forth with Britain) in the French empire, which turned back some of the most radical experiments of the Revolution, including the extension of the “rights of man” to slaves.  Like in Haiti, however, slavery would end as the result of a slave uprising, it just took half a century longer.  The context of Youma is this slave revolt.

Youma “was a pet slave” and was raised with the white children.  The death of her childhood playmate Aimee, proves to the reader that Youma was emotionally affiliated with the white ruling class.  Alongside Hearn’s description of Youman’s experience of slavery, you are introduced to the rest of the plantation.  Hearn describes a culture of work and play.  It is a nostalgic account but not without its own brutal realities.  For example, Hearn shows how at the end of everyday the slaves had to kneel before the overseers and recite a prayer.

The plot centers on Youma’s courtship marriage to Gabriel, a field slave from another plantation.  The tension between her loyalties is immediately put on display.  “The commandeur [Gabriel] was certainly one of the finest physical men of his race, — young, industrious, intelligent; but he would make a rough mate indeed for a girl brought up as Youma had been.  She was also a slave, without education; but she had received a domestic training that gave her a marked superiority above her class, and she had moral qualities more delicate by far then those of Gabriel . . . Above all, she has been the companion of Aimee’s childhood, and afterwards her friend rather than her servant.” (572)  Despite these reservations, Youma and Gabriel marry.


It is not long before Gabriel hatches a plan to escape the island with his wife.  Despite his solid plans and clear vision for the future (“He spoke of his love for her, — of the life they might live together, — of liberty and he imagined it, — of their children who would be free”), Youma is unable to abandon the “child of Madame Desrivieres.”  Youma turns her back on her husband’s plan.

What makes the third act of this novel interesting is that is forces a resolution to this dilemma.  Clearly Youma cannot instigate it (being trapped by her loyalty to her owners).  Instead, the leadership that forces the resolution comes from the people who had spend the entire novel in the background, the rank and file plantation slaves.  The final pages of the novel are a brilliant description of the disorder, the violence, the fires, and vengeance of the revolt.  What the mob forces, of course, is the acceptance of Enlightenment principles of equality and justice.  “Yet the Governor knew the city was at the mercy of a negro mob,–knew the white population in peril of massacre.  The order seemed incredible to those who read it with their eyes; — it remains one of the stupefying facts of French colonial history, — one of the many, not of the few, which appear to justify the white Creole’s undying hate of Republicanism.” (607)  At the very least, this is a possible response to those who think the revolt, or the mob action, is incapable of affecting change toward greater freedom.

Image is from Haiti, I believe, but it shows the vengeance Hearn tries to express in the final pages.

Image is from Haiti, I believe, but it shows the vengeance Hearn tries to express in the final pages.

Lafcadio Hearn, “Martinique Sketches” (1890)

The second part of Lafcadio Hearn’s Two Years in the French West Indies is made up of fourteen beautiful essays on different aspects of life in Martinique, where Hearn spent most of this time while in the Antilles.  To continue with my observation from his “Midsummer Trip to the Tropics,” Hearn is not at all interested in what we would normally speak of as the tourist sites.  Most of the “Martinique Sketches” look at small slices of life, different classes of workers, local legends, or microhistory.  I also could not help but notice Hearn’s clear fascination with all sorts of women of Martinique.  Rarely is he not enthralled with a beautiful woman, or entire classes of beautiful women. He also continues his investigation of the complicated color line in the Caribbean, fearfully looking forward to a day when the islands will become much less diverse due to emerging racism and nationalism.


Each of the sketches begins with a creole term for a place, a legend, a class of people, or other phenomenon.  They all stand on their own, are all beautifully written, and endlessly fascinating.  Hearn draws us into another America, just a short steam-ship voyage from the emerging empire of the United States.  Instead of a fascination with the new, we find a deep appreciation for the past (including mythical legends).  Instead of an obsession with work, Hearn notices an almost universal striving for play.  I could not help but feel great sorrow for something that must have been abolished with the rise of global capitalism – the ability to experience a (truly) different way of life simply by traveling.  I will briefly describe each of these fourteen sketches to give you an idea of the rich diversity of themes and topics.

“Les Porteuses”:  This sketch explores the lives of the women transportation workers on the island.  These women can skillfully carry items on their head.  these women are always present in Martinique and are central to the economic functioning of the island, although they are highly exploited, making barely enough to survive.  Their ability to survive impressed Hearn as did the clear skill, which is taught to them at a very young age.

“La Grande Anse”: Grand Anse is a cosmopolitan town on the opposite side of the island from St. Pierre.  It is a “sleepy” and “swarthy” port city that, like “les porteuse” is essential to the trade of the island.  It is also, Hearn cannot help but notice, home to some beautiful people.  Indeed, it was stories about their beauty that convinced him to visit the city. 

“Un Revenant”: This is a journalistic discovery, and retelling of, a piece of Martinique folklore.  We are struck by the necessity of a deep historical memory for the survival and understanding of folklore.  Hearn has to build up the story piece by piece.  It reveals the interracial culture of the island and the deep legacy of slavery in the minds of the people of Martinique.  The story also intertwines with the emergence of Christianity in the Caribbean, evidence of which surrounds Hearn.  He is deeply moved again by the loss that will come with the growing racial divide in the Caribbean.  “The White Fathers have no place here now; and the Black Fathers, too, have been driven from the land, leaving only as a memory of them the perfect and ponderous architecture of the Perinnelle plantation-buildings.” (322)

St. Pierre

St. Pierre

“La Guiablesse”: This essay explores the experience of night in Martinique.  Night shows the duality of the traditions in the islands between the Christian realm and the realm of ghosts and “zombis.”  He then tells the story of one of the island’s many ghosts.

“La Verette”: This is a massive essay that takes you from a celebration of Carnival, in Hearn’s mind an extraordinary urban event.  As scholars of the Carnival phenomenon have already discussed, it was a time for playing with the boundaries between legitimate and transgressive traditions.  The essay moves into a moving description of a smallpox epidemic moving through the same city of St. Pierre.  The move from the procession of the Carnival to the procession of coffins is very striking. 

“Les Blanchisseuses”: These are the washerwomen, another element of the Martinique working class.  They are really entrepreneurial, carving out a good income for themselves through haggling and negotiation.  They also have a unique and intimate relationship with the river, being the first to be aware of – and the first to be endangered by – flooding.

“La Pelee”: This sketch is a natural and human history of “La Montagne,” the largest mountain of Martinique and a former volcano.  Its centrality to the scenery and the mind of the people of the island is a central point of this sketch. 

“Ti Canotie”: These are the boat people, often young men or boys, who use canoes to scavenge along the river floor, looking for coins or other lost goods.  They follow steamships, eager to take from them what the passengers thrown off the side.  Another element of the diverse motley crew of working people documented in this text.  His examination of the margins of the working class experience is one of the most powerful parts of this splendid book.

“La Fille de Couleur”: This chapter is Hearn’s celebration of the dress, lives and beauty of Martinique’s bi-racial women.  It is also a historical survey of the origins of the biracial population, legal efforts to suppress interracial sex, and how the image of reality of biracial women has changed.  A simply wonderful introduction to the complex racial history of the island. As always Hearn wants to celebrate the racial diversity of the island.

“Bete-Ni-Pie”: About the insect life of the island, much of it strange and in Hearns mind ominous. 

“Ma Bonne”: About food, dining customs and another woman Hearn is infatuated with Cyrillia.

“Pa combine, che”: This is an attempt to understand the experience of climatic acculturation and the relationship between the mind and beliefs of the people of Martinique in relationship to the climate.  The climate, Hearn asserts, changes you.  “Serious reading, vigorous thinking, become impossible.” (505–506)

“Ye”:  Another window into the folklore of the island, through the story of Ye and the Devil. 

“Lys”: In his final sketch, Hearn documents his departure from Martinique.

I still think Two Years in the French West Indies is a very un-American travelogue due to its celebration of the anti-work ethos of the island (and its addictive nature for newcomers), the various aspects of the diverse and marginalized working class, Hearn’s real effort to become like the people he lived with.  I find very little evidence that Hearn saw his place in Martinique as that of a tourist or an observer.  This was the work of someone who had made a real effort to assimilate into the Martinique society and contribute to its fascinating diversity – not a crude multiculturalism that Jim Crow was enforcing in the United States, but a society with many influences and broad solidarities. 

Creole Worker




Lafcadio Hearn, “Chita” (1889)

In the age of ecology and our current environmental problematic it is impossible to read lines like this without imagining Lafcadio Heran as prophetic.  “How often she herself had wondered–wondered at the multiform changes of each swell as it came in — transformation of tint, of shape, of motion, that seemed to betoken a life infinitely more subtle than the strange cold life of lizards and of fishes, — and sinister, and spectral.  Then they all appeared to move in order, — according to one law of impulse: — each had its own voice, yet all sang one and the same everlasting song.   Vaguely, as she watched them and listened to them, there cam to her the idea of a unity of will in their motion, a unity of menace in their utterance–the idea of one monstrous and complex life!  The sea lived: it could crawl backward and forward; it could speak! — it only feigned deafness and sightlessness for some malevolent end.  Thenceforth she feared to find herself along with it.” (130)  The ocean as a malevolent and destructive force that easily overpowers humanity and its feeble designs is the major theme of Chita, Hearn’s novel considering the impact of a Louisiana hurricane.  The handful of humans who populate the novel are largely passive in the face of nature’s devastation.  It is not so much revenge, as we might find in 21st retellings of such stories, shaped by concerns about climate change and the human impact on nature.  Instead, nature is closer to the Lovercraftian gods, indifferent to human concerns with a purpose and consciousness of its own.


The story begins with a long description of the lands and waters of the lower Mississippi, from New Orleans to “the islands.”  This description takes up around 1/5 of the short novel.  We immediately realize that the author is not concerns with humanity.  As the description unfolds we are introduced to the hurricane.  The human impact on the islands is limited.  “There are no telegraph lines, no telephones.” (88) Humans resort to hope and the divine for they have no technology that can salvage their homes, boats, and lives.

As we learn more of the human world, we discover that it is deeply divided by class.  A “great hall” is hosting a dance of “pleasure-seekers” when the hurricane hits.  Of course, nature respects no class boundaries and the dance hall party is broken up with the same indifference as is the homes of the impoverished locals.  It does however create an equalization of status that the poor scavengers can take advantage of.  “And swift in the wakr of gull and frigate-bird the Wreckers come, the Spoilers of the dead, — savages skimmers of the sea, — hurricane-riders wont to spread their canvas-pionions in the face of storm; Sicilian and Carsican outlaws, Manila-men from the marshes, deserters from many navies, Lascars, marooners, refugees of the hundred nationalities, — fishers and shrimpers by name, smugglers by opportunity. . . There is plunder for all — birds and men.” (95-96)  Hearn seems to lump these working poor into the same category as nature, indifferent and moving in with the same consciousness as scavanger birds, but we know better.  Nature may not be capable of consciousness of revenge, but the exploited and embittered underclass certainly are.  When the facade of civilization breaks down and equalizers power, so that those with a piece of paper declaring their wealth, and therefore power over others, find that that paper has no more worth than any other ink stained parchment, the revenge will be had.

One rich character, assumed lost on the storm, returns to find that he was forgotten with little pomp or concern.  Hearn writes: “Seldom, indeed, does it happen taht a man in the prime of youth, in the possession of wealth, habituated to comforts and elegance of life, discovers in one brief week how minute his true relation to the human aggregate, — how insignificant his part as one living atom of the social organism.” (117)  We cannot help but notice that this parallels the fate of all the humans in the delta, discovering that they are insignificant in the face of Nature.

The plot from this point focuses on the discovery, by a young religious woman named Carmen, of a young orphan who is given the name Conchita (Chita).  There is a moment of triumph over the indifferent Nature when Chita learns to overcome her fear of the water and takes up the skill of swimming.  Through this the ocean goes from being something to fear to something that gives life.  Chita becomes the means for Hearn to carry the story in a circular fashion back to the pristine state before the hurricane.  “Thou primordial Sea, the awfulness of whose antiquity hath stricken all mythology dumb; — thou most wrinkled living Sea, the millions of whose years outnumber even the multitude of thy hoary motions; — thou omniform and most mysterious Sea, mother of the monsters and the gods, — whence thine eternal youth?  Still do thy waters hold the infinite thrill of that Spirit which brooded above their face in the Beginning! — still is thy quickening breath an elixir unto them that flee to thee for life.”   (133)

Nature is not done with the characters.  In the final pages of this short novel we learn of an epidemic disease racing through the delta.  We are left with the same feeling of helplessness that we started with.  Hearn ends the novel with Carmen calling out for aid from God.

I have quoted extensively from Chita because the novel really should be read as an literary experience rather than for its plot.  The argument, is summarized in the books epigraph by Emerson “But Nature whistled with all her winds, Did as she pleased, and went her way.” (73)  We could read it as a warning or as a rebuff to the late 19th century optimism in human progress.  Hearn sets the novel in a place where the major gains of the 19th century were not evident, but yet some of its greatest sins (slavery and inequality) were deeply rooted.

Lafcadio Hearn, “Some Chinese Ghosts” (1887) Transgressions in Chinese Folk Lore

Lafcadio Hearn was quite the wanderer in his life and like many of us living in this liquid world moved around, never quite finding a suitable intellectual or physical home.  His writings too him to Japan, China, New Orleans, and the Caribbean.  In this sense, he is a great representative of the phenomenon of Americans participating in the world system brought on by Western imperialism.  We could probably place Hearn in the company of “orientalists” but his sympathies are much more complex that what we tend to expect from those who wrote on the empire from the privileged perspective of the center.  Hearn was transgressive in his own life, breaking anti-miscegentation laws by marrying a former slave.  He later marries into an old samurai family in Japan and takes on many of the accoutrements of Japanese living.  In is in this period that he writes his famous English versions of Japanese ghost stories.  He eventually takes on Japanese citizenship.  His “American Writings” are collected in the Library of America, but I am not sure if we should properly call him an American writer since he was born in Greece and spent most of his life outside of the U.S. (although he did live there for around 20 years in his most formative years).  He also lived much of his life in poverty.  His work would sustain a sympathy for working people.  Given this biography, it seems to me that we have much to learn from Hearn about living in a liquid world, but I will test that hypothesis while I explore some of his writings this week.


Hearn wrote Some Chinese Ghosts from his base in the United States and before visiting East Asia.  He later expressed regret that he tried to understand China without visiting it, from books alone.  He would not make this mistake with his great retelling of Japanese ghost stories, which are a product of many years living in Japan.  These were developed from his reading of works by important sinologists and reflect his first attempt at translating East Asian folklore.

We can take a look at this on three levels.  The first is what role folklore, in particular ghost stories, play for us in general, in a Jungian perspective.  From this we can imagine that ghost stories allow us to explore the limits that our value systems will allow.  By dealing with the impossible, they allow us to explore the limits of our possibles.  We would expect transgression to be written into the texts.  Another way is to look at these as Chinese ghost stories, developing from a certain cultural context.  The transgressions possible in these tales are only transgressive in the context of Chinese culture.  We would be wrong to try to read a universal human story in them.  Finally, we can read these as orientalism.  That is, to read them as an Western imposition, a threat to the authentic Chinese tale.  They can only teach us how Westerner looked at China in the 1880s.  I suspect all three have merit.  In any case, all the tales in Some Chinese Ghosts carry in them a story of transgression.


The first tale “The Soul of the Great Bell” speaks of an emperors mad attempt to fuse many metals into one alloy that will create the perfect sound based on the character of each metal.  The metallurgist hired to cast the bell fails two times.  It seems the dreams fusion is impossible.  When the emperor threatens death to the metallurgist, his daughter decides to cast herself into the metal.  Her ghost fuses the metals together perfectly, creating the “precious metal” and the mighty bell.  It, however, speaks the name of the craftsman daughter, “Ko-Ngai.”  On the surface, this is simply another tale of Confucian filial piety run amok, but she through her sacrifice she is able to reach immortality.  Rather than bind herself to the duty of the past, she is capable of projection into the eternal future.  We should also note that her sacrifice makes possible to impossible, the creation of that impossible alloy.

I had half expected “The Story of Ming-Y” to turn out to be a fox-spirit story, since it starts with a promising young scholar turned away from his path by a beautiful woman.  Instead of a fox spirit, Ming-Y met the ghost of Sie-Thao, the most beautiful of women who died “not as other women die.” (26) Ming-Y, hired by the magistrate to tutor for his family, sneaks away every night to be with this beautiful woman he met on the road.  At a crucial moment, before he learns the truth but after he decided to end the visits, he decided to reject the duty to his family and live with her alone.  The truth intervenes and allows Ming-Y to live a stable and proper life, but that does not undermine the importance of his choice.  It is the story teller, not the character who cannot accept the transgressive path.

“The Legend of Tchi-Niu” is similarly contesting the reality we have been given by proposing the potential of a woman bread-winner.  In this tale, the destitute Tong sells himself as a slave.  While in the nadir of his life, he is approached in a dream by a woman who offers to be his wife and promises “I will provide.” While he cannot be public about his new marriage because it entails a complete surrender of his role as a male provider.  He is rejecting existing reality through the half-real marriage.  Of course, his wife turns out to be supernatural.  In this case, she is the goddess Tchi-Niu, this revelation is made only after she provides him a son – continuing the her promise to him.”Thus he was made free; and prosperity came to him with his freedom; and whatsoever he gave to the sacred earth was returned to him centupled.” (34)

There are three more tales, but I will not have room to explore them today because I want to bracket the question of gender for a moment to make the point.  Notice with me that in all three of these tales the active agent is female.  This turns the traditional yin-yang definitions on their head (where the yin is female and passive, while the yang is masculine and active).  We certainly can find many tales of female agency in Chinese literature but they seem to require the imposition of a supernatural element.  In this way, we can consider the hypothesis that the power of supernatural tales is that, like science fiction, they can push the limits of what is possible.

In contrast, Hearn’s next major work, Chita, is fully of the world and brutally honest at that.