Crumbling decay and cockroach tea cures

Inventing New Orleans
September 7, 2001

For much of its early history, New Orleans suffered recurrent outbreaks of yellow fever. During the 1853 epidemic, one in ten of the population perished. The last major outbreak occurred in 1878, when one of those temporarily struck down was the newly arrived journalist Lafcadio Hearn.

It capped an altogether unpromising start to Hearn's stay in the city. He had arrived from Cincinnati with only $20 and was soon reduced to sleeping on park benches. In one of the depressive fits to which he was prone, he wrote to his mentor and confidant Henry Watkin: "I really can see no prospectI of better years - the years seem to grow worse in regular successionI My heart always feels like a bird, fluttering impatiently for the migrating season." Then things looked up: Hearn got a job on a newspaper called the Item and did not migrate for a decade.

He had arrived in America aged 19 after a childhood spent in Dublin, school near Durham and a spell in London's East End. One day, without consulting him, his guardian presented him with a one-way ticket to Cincinnati, and Hearn's lifelong wandering was under way. It was only when he arrived in Japan in 1890 that he put down any roots, and true to his volatile nature he did it in a big way, taking a Japanese name (Koizumi Yakumo), adopting Japanese dress, marrying and fathering children, and writing several of what are still the best and best-known books about the Japan of that period.

Whereas in Cincinnati Hearn was chiefly known as a fearless reporter of lurid crime stories, in New Orleans he began to explore the enduring themes that would resurface in his writing throughout his life. Despite the inauspiciousness of his arrival, and the somewhat arbitrary way he had chosen his destination (disgust with the filthy northern weather being as great an impulse as any), New Orleans was for Hearn the right place at the right time. He was always engaged by manifestations of decay and ruin and the passing of old ways of life, and post-civil war New Orleans furnished plenty of examples. "I saw, indeed, signs of sad ruin on the face of the great plantations, there were splendid houses crumbling to decayI The scene was not without its melancholy; it seemed tinged by the reflection of a glory passed awayI O, fair paradise of the South, if still so lovely in thy ruin, what must thou have been in the great days of thy greatest glory!" Not that Hearn regretted the passing of slavery - indeed he was fired from a newspaper in Cincinnati when news broke of his short-lived marriage to a black woman - but there was a sweet pain in dilapidation that he found hard to resist. Progress offered little that seemed worth celebrating. In New Orleans, which had passed back and forth between France and Spain before being sold to the United States in 1803, and where an intoxicating diversity of races and customs still reigned, the threat of the new took the form of Americanisation. The old was the culture of the Creoles, white descendants of French and Spanish colonial settlers: quaint, gentlemanly, old-fashioned and wholly preferable to the invasive American presence that Hearn connected with brashness, materialism, spirit-crushing technology and the imposition of a colourless Christianity on the patchwork of local beliefs.

"The old Southern hospitality has been starved to death," he bemoaned, and in columns in the Item and elsewhere he set about describing all the aspects of local life that he thought worth protecting from the onslaught of the modern world. He collected ghost stories, published an entire book on Creole cookery, and recorded details of Creole medicinal remedies ("To alleviate the cerebral symptoms (of typhoid fever), a live pigeon is cut open and the warm, bleeding surfaces applied to the head"; "For tetanus, cockroach tea is given"). Using his gifts for poignant portraiture, he chronicled the lives of shabby genteel Louisianians, amassing an array of decaying human beings to stand by the rundown streets and buildings: "The old Creole gentlemen who persistently live in the quaint houses amidst a certain quaint poverty, often, alas, vainly striving to keep out the dampness and to 'maintain appearances' - are disappearing one by one from the life of the mouldering city, and are being filed away, like dusty documents, in the marble pigeon-holes of the cemetery." He told the story of the "The last of the Voudoos", the occultist Jean Montanet who died at the age of nearly 100, and he studiously recorded local customs and the folk wisdom of Creole sayings.

S. Frederick Starr's selection of some of these articles for Inventing New Orleans gives a flavour of Hearn's concerns at this time. Starr advances various psychoanalytical theories to explain Hearn's stance, such as that technological progress "reminded him of the world of his father and guardian, both of whom had turned their back on him and whom he rejected in turn". He also claims that "Louisiana is less a place than an idea, less a physical reality than a symbol" and deploys the vocabulary of modern criticism to demonstrate that Hearn "constructed" the places he wrote about and "invented" the modern idea of New Orleans.

One can take or leave such stuff. What is certain is that Hearn's strenuous lobbying failed to dent the acquisitive mercantile instinct that has destroyed much more in this world than just old Louisiana. Only in the record of that failure, in books such as this, does anything remain. Hearn's relationships tended to end acrimoniously, and so it was with the place he had once called "the most beautiful and picturesque old city in North America". "I have come to the startling conclusion that civilisation is a cold and vapid humbug," he complained in a letter, and later: "No: I will never set foot in N.O. any more - rather die." The migratory season had arrived.

Christopher Wood is a freelance journalist specialising in the arts.

Inventing New Orleans: Writings of Lafcadio Hearn

Editor - S. Frederick Starr
ISBN - 0 57806 352 3 and 353 1
Publisher - University Press of Mississippi
Price - $46.00 (£32.00) and $20.00 (£14.00)
Pages - 230

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