In November of 1877, the sultry southern city of New Orleans became home to an accomplished journalist who was to become the most exotic of writers in an era of exotic writers. Born to an undisciplined Greek woman and a rakish Irishman serving in the British occupation army in Greece in 1850, Lafcadio Hearn spent most of his childhood being shunted around Europe among uncaring relatives. Added to his emotional scars was a marbled and sightless left eye, the result of a schoolyard accident he had suffered at the age of sixteen. Eventually disowned by the great aunt with whom he had been living in Ireland, Lafcadio was sent to London to live with one of her former servants. He was miserable there, running away for long periods, all the while experiencing the wretched squalor of that great city.
A distant relative finally provided him with funds for passage to America, where he arrived in New York City sometime in 1869. After a brief but unpleasant sojourn in that noisy metropolis, Hearn headed westward to Cincinnati, having been advised by his relative to seek out a certain personage there who would find him work. That worthy proved to be no help at all, so once again Lafcadio was left to his own devices. Given shelter in the shop of a compassionate printer, the young immigrant sedulously searched for work in the daytime. He drifted about from job to job until his writing ability landed him a position on the staff of The Cincinnati Enquirer in early 1874. There he made a name for himself as a “sensational reporter” after his graphically detailed coverage of a particularly gruesome murder. His marriage to a mulatto woman created a scandal which caused his dismissal from the paper, but he soon found work on the rival Commercial, though not before a suicide attempt after learning of his firing. Hearn really began to develop a style then, especially in his pieces on the local black population.
The combination of cold weather and the dissolution of his marriage awoke the gypsy in Hearn in early 1877, and before the year was out, he had settled on his destination. Fresh from his reportorial triumphs in Cincinnati, he now sought relief from the severe Ohio winters in the more moderate climate of southern Louisiana. Hoping for a change in his personal life after his earlier travails, Lafcadio longed for domestic stability as well as literary success. While he managed to achieve the latter after a few years, the former eluded him for over a decade.
Arriving in New Orleans on board the riverboat Thompson Dean, the twenty-seven-year-old scribe’s first order of business was to find lodgings, which he did, at 228 Baronne Street in the French Quarter, after a daylong search. This quest became the subject of the initial article Hearn mailed to Edwin Henderson, his editor at the Cincinnati Commercial. Henderson had given Lafcadio a verbal contract to consider for publication any submissions, without guarantee of payment.
For a while Hearn was able to provide acceptable copy. A few months later, however, when the
Commercial ran into financial trouble, Henderson used the excuse of unsuitable subject matter to dis-charge the transplanted reporter. Forced to face poverty once again, Lafcadio barely managed a living doing odd jobs. He pawned his thick eyeglasses, his only item of value, soon replacing them with a magnifying glass attached to a buttonhole of his jacket, for viewing small near objects, and a collapsible telescope in his pocket for viewing distant objects.
During this period, New Orleans was hit by its last major yellow fever epidemic. Fortunately for the newcomer, he contracted breakbone fever instead, a non-lethal variant of the other disease. After a week in bed, tended by his landlady, the veteran journalist was back on his feet.
A friend found Hearn a position as assistant editor on a small local paper, The Item, in June of 1878. Lafcadio’s superb craftsmanship with words and choice of topics soon brought much attention to both himself and the paper. Exquisitely fashioned tales from foreign folklore were his meat – the more bizarre the better. These pieces, which he called “fantastics”, included such titles as A Dream of Kites, The Fountain of Gold, Aphrodite and the King’s Prisoner and A Dead Love. Hearn was akin to Edgar Allan Poe in his penchant for the grotesque and his meticulous attention to word usage. This was not entirely coincidental; to one of his friends he signed his letters “The Raven”, accompanying his sig- nature with a sketch of that bird with an enlarged eye like his own, which had become protracted due to his voracious reading habits.
Possessed of a true talent for language, Lafcadio added translations of current French fiction to his repertoire. With his new-found prosperity, he had begun to haunt local book stores such as Armand Hawkins’ on Canal Street, Fournier’s Book Shop on Royal Street, and Muhl’s, on Exchange Alley, for what would become a sizable collection of nineteenth-century French literature. Works by Loti, Gautier, deMaupassant, and the Goncourt brothers were revitalized by his pen. From these Gallic giants it was just a short step to the Creole culture, a major stratum of New Orleans’ social milieu.
Always attracted to dark-skinned people, Hearn became fascinated by Creole ways. He obtained a Creole dictionary and translated their street songs into English. He sought out George Washington Cable, a native New Orleanian and expert on Creole customs. Together they roamed the city’s streets, gleaning every scrap of information about those of French or Spanish descent that they could. After a while, Lafcadio began adding woodcuts to illustrate his stories, further enhancing their appeal. The Creoles themselves heartily approved of his renderings of their idiosyncrasies for the loving tone in which they were written.
In 1879, a brief attempt at earning extra money ended disastrously for the ambitious wanderer.
Putting up one hundred dollars of his own money in partnership with a ruffian whom he never named, Lafcadio opened an eatery. Known variously as “The Five Cent Restaurant” and “The Hard Times Restaurant,” it offered a diverse menu with every item priced at a nickel. The first month’s business was brisk–so brisk that Hearn’s partner absconded with the profits. Following that experience, Lafcadio stuck to writing as a means of livelihood. Further contact with noted men of letters occurred. Mark Twain, Charles Dudley Warner, Joaquin Miller, and Joel Chandler Harris all spread the word of Hearn’s artistry. Soon the name Lafcadio Hearn was being discussed in northern as well as southern literary circles.
Moving over to the Times–Democrat in late 1881, the rising writer’s recognition continued apace. He thrived in the liberal atmosphere accorded him by editor Page Baker, continuing his French translations in a column entitled Foreign Miscellany. While that ran on weekdays, Sundays saw his The Foreign Press feature, a varied assortment of items of European and Caribbean origin. Baker recognized Hearn’s talent for what it was, noting with pride the steady climb in the paper’s circulation.
It was at the Times-Democrat that Lafcadio first met an up-and-coming young poetess named Elizabeth Bisland. Though her beauty initially daunted the shy older journalist, they later became life-long friends. After Hearn’s early death, she would become his first biographer.
In 1882 Lafcadio finally saw his name on a book binding, although only as translator. Two years later, his Stray Leaves from Strange Literature appeared. An eclectic collection of folk tales from far-off lands, it was the first of Hearn’s works to be issued at the publisher’s expense.
When the World Industrial Exposition opened in New Orleans in December 1884, Lafcadio composed a triad of books for sale to fair-goers. Unfortunately, these triplets – a Creole cookbook, an historical guide to the New Orleans area and a dictionary of Creole proverbs – died a-borning, being published too near the end of the Exposition’s run to do much business.
Visiting the various pavilions in his capacity of reporter, Hearn found the Japanese Exhibit especially interesting. He returned to it several times, befriending the curator in the process. This friendship proved propitious years later when Lafcadio was stranded in Japan without funds or a job.
Lafcadio Hearn’s association with the Crescent City effectively ended in June of 1887. His tenure there had produced numerous newspaper columns, many translations, and a novel, Chita, based on the true story of a child who was the lone survivor of a hurricane which devastated the popular vacation spot of Grand Isle in 1856. He had begun to be published in leading national magazines, such as The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Bazaar and Harper’s Weekly. After more than nine years in New Orleans, it was time for him to move on to untapped locales. He resigned from the Times-Democrat and took an extended vacation in Martinique. That sojourn resulted in his second novel, Youma, and his sole travel book, Two Years in the French West Indies, published in 1890 by Harper Brothers of New York. On the basis of that book’s success, the same publisher signed the author to a contract to write a similar book about Japan. In that exotic island country, Lafcadio finally found fulfillment as family man, teacher and literary architect for a nation still in its infancy of westernization.
Philip Leibfried was born in Yonkers, NY and moved to New York City in 1970, where he still resides in an East Village apartment awash with books and videos. He has been published by microhorror.com, TalesofOld,org. fiction365.com and Short-Story.me.
Photo credit: The Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, by Shawn Harquail. Accessed June 21, 2016, under Creative Commons licensing.