Academic journal article Journalism History

Lafcadio Hearn's America: Ethnographic Sketches and Editorials

Academic journal article Journalism History

Lafcadio Hearn's America: Ethnographic Sketches and Editorials

Article excerpt

Bronner, Simon J., ed. Lafcadio Hearn's America: Ethnographie Sketches and Editorials. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002. 256 pp. $35.

Lafcadio Hearn deserves a place in any account of literary journalism and journalism history. No one like him, it is safe to say, has ever graced the pages of American newspapers.

Born in 1850 of Anglo-Irish and Greek parents on the Ionian Islands west of Greece, he was educated in Ireland, England, and France. His early years were painful. He was torn by his parents' divorce, an eye injury in boarding school resulted in blindness in his left eye, and his right eye compensated and became enlarged, protruding from its socket. He became interested in the bizarre, the exotic, the morbid, and mythic.

At 19, he immigrated to the United States, toiling two years in New York before drifting to Cincinnati. He took odd jobs, but he also began to write reviews and sketches of the seedy urban underclass for the Cincinnati Enquirer. His distinctive style and subjects earned him a job as a full-time reporter. He was the exemplar of a tabloid reporter on a graveyard shift. Urban life in the late 1800s was dark, fetid, and congested, but Hearn was in his element. He reveled in narratives of murders, abductions, slaughterhouses, prostitution, and corruption. His essays and reporting were riveting and impossible to ignore. His graphic and lurid details-his ethnographic style-disturbed and attracted readers while providing a view of city life few writers could hope to experience or express.

He moved to the Cincinnati Commercial, which gave him the opportunity in 1877 to establish a bureau in New Orleans. It was a stroke of genius in assignment. Hearn brought his taste for the strange and macabre to the city of voodoo, carousing, revelry, and rioting. …

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