Nuggets from a Fugitive Journalist

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 24, 2002 | Go to article overview

Nuggets from a Fugitive Journalist


Byline: Jack Matthews

Many years ago, while reading Lafcadio Hearn's 1890 travel book, "Two Years in the French West Indies," I came upon the extraordinary discovery that there are more shades and nuances of the color blue than I had dreamed possible. Sailing south from the gray Atlantic into the blue Caribbean, Hearn painted from a palette so rich and variegated that it is tempting to believe that no ocean has ever appeared so extravagantly polychromatic, thereby providing such a uniquely colorful experience for readers.

This testimony to his highly developed visual sense is especially impressive in view of the fact that Hearn lost the sight of one eye while he was still a boy, and was painfully afflicted for most of his life - not simply by the handicap of partial blindness, but by the psychological effects of a milky film covering the blinded eye upon his self-image. And yet, neither his morbid, though understandable, sensitivity, nor the chaos of a youth spent in Europe, as a virtual orphan vacillating between wild extremes of privilege and abject poverty, kept him from achieving a literary reputation as one of the inimitable exotics of literature, a cosmopolitan born in the Ionian Islands of Greece and dying in Japan after living a rootless and nomadic life.

One thing Hearn never got over, however, was his painful awareness of his physical appearance, for he was undersized, oddly put together, and neurotically sensitive about how he looked; after all, he was one who saw blues where others saw only blue. So he was a psychological exile, as well -never quite at home in the world, where to be at home is to belong to a place; and evidently the nearest Hearn came to feeling at home was briefly in Cincinnati, Ohio, and at the end of his life in Japan.

The central virtue of "Lafcadio Hearn's America" is its making available much of Hearn's best fugitive journalism, his "ethnographic pieces and editorials," very much as promised in the title. There are real nuggets of social history in these articles, for Hearn had early in life pledged himself (in his own words) to "a worship of the odd, the queer, the strange, the exotic, the monstrous." Furthermore, he was fascinated by the underworlds of cities, which in the late 19th century were beginning to achieve something of their modern character.

After two years in New York City, Hearn came to Cincinnati, on the Ohio River, where he wrote most of the pieces included in the present volume, and took upon himself the nickname of "the Raven," with a half-playful reference to the prophetic bird in Edgar Allan Poe's most famous poem. Cincinnati's Bucktown, with its population of "negroes" (Hearn's term, of course), had a special fascination for him, and one of the most interesting articles in the present volume is "The Race-Problem in America," published in 1894 and remarkable for its level-headed analysis of the situation some 30 years after emancipation.

One of Hearn's arguments has to do with the disproportionately large birth-rate among blacks, which he found a matter of great concern, a concern that will strike many readers today as "racist"; but if it is, it is a racism that is interestingly qualified in Hearn's case by the fact that he married a mulatto at a time when the laws against miscegenation were so strictly enforced that he had to list his wife's race as "white" on the marriage certificate. …

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