I came to the U.S as a refugee in 1966, a year of civil unrest, change, and transformation. I learned my new language and wrote in it about the variety and wonder of American experience. In my adopted city of New Orleans I wandered the streets of the French Quarter. Many writers, famous or not, dead or alive, had done their wandering on these streets, drawing from her steamy embrace a raw, fantastic je ne sais quoi.
New Orleans was, like me, a refuge from the U.S. proper. I was an outsider in an outside city. The U.S. had offered me asylum, as it did to others, Indifferent of origins, accents, or even aptitudes and skills, but New Orleans offered something more to my poetry-intoxicated youth. Here, the line between life and death felt transparent and palpable, its ghosts more alive than other places’ still living luminaries. The je ne sais quoi of New Orleans had given wings to Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Lafcadio Hearn.
I came to New Orleans at the same age as Hearn. At the end of the 19th century, Hearn (1850-1904) was one of America’s best-known writers, one of a stellar company that included Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Whitman, and Robert Louis Stevenson. In the 21st century Hearn is forgotten, with two remarkable exceptions: Louisiana and Japan. In New Orleans he is fondly remembered, for his vivid newspaper writing about low and high life in the city, and for his novels, especially “Chita,” a high and lush romance that has never gone out of print. In New Orleans Hearn found shelter from both Europe and America. Yet Hearn is significant for many reasons, not least of which is how the 20th century came to view the 19th. In the 21st century, Hearn is newly relevant for a host other reasons.
In a time of renewed urgency about refugees, borders, and increasing nationalism, Hearn embodies in one person the rejection of nationalist prejudice. Born in Greece to a Greek mother and an Irish surgeon in the British army, raised in Ireland, an immigrant to Cincinnati at the age of 19, and a beloved resident of New Orleans, Hearn went to Japan in 1890 and became the celebrated Japanese writer Koizumi Yakumo. He was a self-taught immigrant who spoke and wrote Greek, English, French and Japanese. His writing provided the West with a window on Meiji Japan, only a few decades after an American warship under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry arrived at Yokohama to open Japanese markets to the United States.
For most of his life, Hearn was poor and lived, of necessity, “on the other side of the tracks.” In Matsue, Japan, far from rapidly westernizing Tokyo, he found a modest teacher’s position, and was finally able to write in peace and study Shinto and Zen Buddhism. In New Orleans, the second of his three lives, he wrote about the culture that makes the Creole city on the Mississippi unique in the U.S.
Hearn was an odd person physically. He was short of stature and had lost an eye in a schoolyard fight. Think of all the pejorative names Donald Trump, the globe’s most menacing schoolyard bully, might have called him: a lazy moocher, a distributor of “fake news,” a cripple, and whatever else Trump’s bottomless bestiary might contain.
If Hearn attempted to find a place for himself in our country now, he wouldn’t get far. North America was once a place of possibility and hope. The decline of all that leads in a fairly straight line to the brainless slumlord’s son who holds our world hostage now. It isn’t just Hearn, the person, who might have been nipped in the bud, but also his fascinated respect for other cultures.
Trumpism, the ideology whose leader doesn’t read, isn’t solely to blame here. Books are being rapidly squeezed out of the cultural mainstream by the shorter and shorter attention span of a generation living inside screens. The technology that made possible Hearn’s travels from one world to another has advanced by leaps and bounds to the point where we are seriously debating what’s real and what’s virtual. This is a question New Orleans has always provoked. Hearn, treading our sodden soils and relishing the sights and sounds of the city, tried to answer it. He is still, in a virtual sense, New Orleans’ native son.
Andrei Codrescu wrote the introduction and edited “The Japanese Tales of Lafcadio Hearn,” which is being released by Princeton University Press this week. Codrescu, widely known through commentary on National Public Radio, lived in Louisiana for many years and taught at LSU where he edited the literary magazine, Exquisite Corpse. He can be reached at www.codrescu.com
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