Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Lafcadio Hearn's America

Lafcadio Hearn's America: Ethnographic Sketches and Editorials

Edited by Simon J. Bronner
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 256
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Lafcadio Hearn's America
    Book Description:

    The American essays of renowned writer Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) artistically chronicle the robust urban life of Cincinnati and New Orleans. Hearn is one of the few chroniclers of urban American life in the nineteenth century, and much of this material has not been widely available since the 1950s.Lafcadio Hearn's Americacollects Hearn's stories of vagabonds, river people, mystics, criminals, and some of the earliest accounts available of black and ethnic urban folklife in America. He was a frequently consulted expert on America during his years in Japan, and these editorials reflect on the problems and possibilities of American life as the country entered its greatest century. Hearn's work, which reflects an America that is less "melting pot" than a varied, spicy, and often exotic gumbo, provide essential background for the study of America's first steps away from its agrarian beginnings.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5635-4
    Subjects: Sociology, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: Lafcadio Hearn’s America
    (pp. 1-34)

    Lafcadio Hearn’s America reeked with the smells of slaughterhouses and docks. It bustled with the arrival of rural migrants and European immigrants in the growing cities. It creaked with rough-hewn reminders of the old days, and it worriedly acknowledged modern intrusions of Americans busily “building up a world.” Out of sight of genteel society and the celebrated representatives of American letters, a swirl of roughneck ethnic, occupational, and racial types filled Hearn’s sketchbook. After dark, he listened for vibrant sounds and risque lyrics that were not being reproduced on sheet music. He watched for lurid entertainments and shady activities, and...

  5. Part I: Communities and the “Under Side” of America

    • 1 Levee Life: Haunts and Pastimes of the Roustabouts
      (pp. 37-53)

      Along the river-banks on either side of the levee slope, where the brown water year after year climbs up to the ruined sidewalks, and pours into the warehouse cellars, and paints their grimy walls with streaks of water-weed green, may be studied a most curious and interesting phase of life—the life of a community within a community,—a society of wanderers who have haunts but not homes, and who are only connected with the static society surrounding them by the common bond of State and municipal law. It is a very primitive kind of life; its lights and shadows...

    • 2 Saint Malo: A Lacustrine Village in Louisiana
      (pp. 54-62)

      For nearly fifty years there has existed in the southeastern swamp lands of Louisiana a certain strange settlement of Malay fishermen—Tagalas from the Philippine Islands. The place of their lacustrine village is not precisely mentioned upon maps, and the world in general ignored until a few days ago the bare fact of their amphibious existence. Even the United States mail service has never found its way thither, and even in the great city of New Orleans, less than a hundred miles distant, the people were far better informed about the Carboniferous Era than concerning the swampy affairs of this...

    • 3 Sicilians in New Orleans
      (pp. 63-65)

      Among the dark-eyed sailors from the Mediterranean who have anchored their fortunes at the port of New Orleans, there are swarthy hundreds in whose veins throbs the mingled blood of Roman, Carthaginian, Moor and Norman; and perhaps, too, of those antique colonists who brought into the volcanic lands of Sicily the civilization of Athens. This strange blending of Nations seems always productive of strange results. One would suppose, from comparing those results in various lands, that the more good blood is mixed, the more savage it becomes. From whom are the Greek brigands? From whom are the Italian and Sicilian...

    • 4 The Last of the New Orleans Fencing-Masters
      (pp. 66-75)

      Perhaps there is no class of citizens of New Orleans—the Marseilles of the western world—about whom so little is generally known as our Spanish element. I do not refer to those numerous West Indian and foreign residents who speak Spanish—Cubans, Manila-men, Mexicans, Venezuelans, natives of Honduras, etc.—or even to our original Spanish Creoles, descendants of those colonists who have left us few traces of the ancient Spanish domination besides a few solid specimens of Latin architecture and a few sonorous names by which certain streets and districts are still known. The old Spanish Creole families exist,...

    • 5 A Gypsy Camp A Group of Veritable Bohemians
      (pp. 76-77)

      There were a number of Gypsies encamped in this county during the past week. The few tentfuls who remained at Red Bank, on the Little Miami Road, yesterday, attracted a host of visitors. Most of the callers were profitable ones, for there were few gentlemen who did not willingly give up a dollar to have their “fortune” told, and no ladies who could resist the temptation. “What’s the use of going to a gypsy camp unless you do?” pouted one dark-eyed beauty whom we saw holding out her rosy palm to an old haggard woman, who but for her shrewdness,...

    • 6 Some Pictures of Poverty: Impressions of a Round with an Overseer of the Poor
      (pp. 78-86)

      West Seventh, Nos. 206,208, and 210, and the mysterious buildings in the rear, running back to the alley, is a locality of such picturesque wretchedness as, perhaps, may not be found elsewhere within the city limits,—not even in the labyrinthine hollows of the famous negro quarter in the East End. Narrow hallways, from whose irregular sides the plaster has fallen away in shapeless patches, lead through the frame cottages, fronting on Seventh street, into a species of double court-yard in the rear, whose northern end is bounded by a block of three-story frames, usually termed the Barracks, and inhabited...

    • 7 Pariah People: Outcast Life by Night in the East End The Underground Dens of Bucktown and the People Who Live in Them
      (pp. 87-96)

      The district lying east of Broadway, between Sixth and Seventh streets, and extending to Culvert or thereabouts, constitutes now but a small portion of what was known some eight or ten years ago as Bucktown, and was once not less celebrated as a haunt of crime than the Five Points of the Metropolis. Lying in the great noisome hollow, then untraversed by a single fill, the congregation of dingy and dilapidated frames, hideous huts, and shapeless dwellings, often rotten with the moisture of a thousand petty inundations, or filthy with the dirt accumulated by vice-begotten laziness, and inhabited only by...

    • 8 Les Chiffonniers: Rags, Wretchedness and Rascality The Gnomes of the Dumps How They Live, Work and Have Their Being
      (pp. 97-102)

      There is much the same kind of grotesque poetry about the rag business as there is about most of Gustave Doré’s pictures—a fantastically dismal and darksome poetry. Its bare mention conjures up visions of ghoulish gropings in the midst of hideous decay—of dilapidated carts with crumbling woodwork, drawn by skeleton horses through unfrequented back alleys—of moldy ashbarrels and uncleaned back yards and foul-smelling dumps. But beyond such vague notions the general public know little about the importance of this immense and profitable branch of traffic, and still less, perhaps, about its business routine. Feeling that the publication...

    • 9 Within the Bars: How Prisoners Look, Live, and Conduct Themselves Some Glimpses of Life in the County Jail
      (pp. 103-108)

      It is now some three years since the jail on Sycamore street, behind the Courthouse, has been used for the imprisonment of persons sentenced for minor offenses. It is that length of time since the Work-house has been built, and instead of now keeping tiers of cells of persons lying idle they have been put into workshops where they may make some return for the bread they eat.

      At present is occupied by those who have been sent up from the Police Court charged with crimes for which that Court has no power to punish; also, those arrested on Magistrates’...

    • 10 Cincinnati Salamanders: A Confederation of Twenty Little Communities Characteristics and Peculiarities of Our Fire Department Short Sketches of the Several Companies
      (pp. 109-114)

      Mental and moral, as well as physical, peculiarities impress themselves powerfully upon communities of men associated together for a common purpose or in a common calling. Even the most breadth-giving profession is liable to exert certain narrowing influences upon those who pursue it. Each vocation makes its mark into the character of its followers, often so deeply as to be read with almost unerring certainty by the skilled observer. A practiced eye will, in a miscellaneous crowd of strangers, detect the lawyer, the doctor, the mechanic, the merchant, and more readily than any other, the school-master, from the handwriting on...

    • 11 Steeple Climbers
      (pp. 115-120)

      Joseph Roderiguez Weston, the daring steeple climber, who recently affixed the green wreaths and tri-colored banner to the cross of the Cathedral spire, called at theCommercialoffice a few days ago and expressed the desire that a reporter should accompany him on his next trip to the giddy summit, when he should remove the temporary decorations there placed in honor of the Archbishop’s Golden Jubilee. Such a proposition could not well be accepted without considerable hesitancy—a hesitancy partly consequent upon the consciousness of personal risk, and partly owing to the probable nature of the public verdict upon such...

  6. Part II: “Enormous and Lurid Facts”:: Language, Folklife, and Culture

    • 12 Cheek
      (pp. 123-125)

      There is a picturesque force of laconic expressiveness about certain American slang-terms which has brought them into familiar use even among persons who ordinarily eschew slang in common conversation. Such a term is “cheek.” Cheek comprises in one syllable all that is usually expressed in such words as assurance, self confidence, impudence and insolence, the significance of cheek, largely depending on the context. For example, if we say that it is necessary to have some cheek in order to get along in the world, we mean self-confidence. But if we observe that a certain person has “more cheek than a...

    • 13 The Creole Patois
      (pp. 126-132)

      Although the pure creole element is disappearing from theVié faubon,as creole children called the antiquated part of New Orleans, it is there nevertheless that the patois survives as a current idiom; it is there one must dwell to hear it spoken in its purity, and to study its peculiarities of intonation and construction. The patois-speaking inhabitants— dwelling mostly in those portions of the quadrilateral farthest from the river and from the broad American boundary of Canal Street, which many of them never cross when they can help it—are not lessbizarrethan the architectural background of their...

    • 14 The Creole Doctor Some Curiosities of Medicine in Louisiana
      (pp. 133-142)

      The Northerner who decides to settle in New Orleans will find after the experience of a few summers in the Louisiana climate that he has become more or less physiologically changed by the struggle of his system with those novel atmospheric conditions to which it was obliged to adapt itself. According to the constitutional peculiarities of the individual, the effects of acclimatization may vary—while some persons suffer considerably, others endure very little positive discomfort; but all are subjected to a certain physical transformation. A rosy complexion invariably fades out; the blood partly loses its plasticity, as the proportion of...

    • 15 The Last of the Voudoos
      (pp. 143-147)

      In the death of Jean Montanet, at the age of nearly a hundred years, New Orleans lost, at the end of August, the most extraordinary African character that ever gained celebrity within her limits. Jean Montanet, or Jean La Ficelle, or Jean Latanié, or Jean Racine, or Jean Grisgris, or Jean Macaque, or Jean Bayou, or “Voudoo John,” or “Bayou John,” or “Doctor John” might well have been termed “The Last of the Voudoos”; not that the strange association with which he was affiliated has ceased to exist with his death, but that he was the last really important figure...

    • 16 New Orleans Superstitions
      (pp. 148-155)

      The question “What is Voudooism?” could scarcely be answered to-day by any resident of New Orleans unfamiliar with the life of the African west coast, or the superstitions of Hayti [Haiti], either through study or personal observation. The old generation of planters in whose day Voudooism had a recognized existence—so dangerous as a motive power for black insurrection that severe measures were adopted against it—has passed away; and the only person I ever met who had, as a child in his colored nurse’s care, the rare experience of witnessing a Voudoo ceremonial, died some three years ago, at...

    • 17 The Music of the Masses Airs from the Streets and Variety Halls—Tunes That the Barrel Organs and Whistlers Execute
      (pp. 156-169)

      There is plenty of newspaper and book space and a wealth of critical ability devoted to the treatment of the music of the elect and select, but it is small notice in that region and from that quarter that the music of the people gets. The few with souls attuned to harmony, and with trained and cultivated musical taste, gather to enjoy the noble harmonies of Wagner, the superb symphonies of Beethoven, but the music of the spheres is not more distinct from or inaudible to the great masses of the people. The oratorio is for the few, the ballad...

    • 18 Black Varieties: The Minstrels of the Row Picturesque Scenes Without Scenery
      (pp. 170-174)

      The attractive novelty of theatricals at old Pickett’s tavern, on the levee, by real negro minstrels, with amateur dancing performances by roustabouts and their “girls,” has already created considerable interest in quarters where one would perhaps least expect to find it; and the patrolmen of the Row nightly escort fashionably dressed white strangers to No. 91 Front street. The theater has two entrances, one through the neat, spotlessly clean bar-room on the Front street side, the other from the sidewalk on the river side. The theater is also the ball-room; and when the ancient clock behind the black bar in...

    • 19 Among the Spirits: An Enquirer Reporter Communicates with His Father
      (pp. 175-182)

      After his last visit to No. 16 Barr street, the reporter resolved to go through a course of purification before again presuming to enter that ghostly temple; for his spiritualistic friend had maliciously suggested that the spirits objected to him as being physically and psychically filthy. He began by taking a bath, and washed himself seven times in a mystic manner. Moreover, he promised to abstain from tobacco, to live on mush and milk, to wear a clean shirt, to black his boots every morning, and to forswear swearing. Alas for the fragility of such promises, so aptly compared to...

    • 20 Some Strange Experience: The Reminiscences of a Ghost-Seer
      (pp. 183-190)

      “They do say the dead never come back again,” she observed half dreamingly; “but then I have seen such queer things!”

      She was a healthy, well built country girl, whom the most critical must have called good looking, robust and ruddy, despite the toil of life in a boarding-house kitchen, but with a strangely thoughtful expression in her large dark eyes, as though she were ever watching the motions of Somebody who cast no shadow, and was invisible to all others. Spiritualists were wont to regard her as a strong “medium,” although she had a peculiar dislike of being so...

    • 21 Haceldama: Humanity and Inhumanity in the Shambles Hebrew Slaughters, Gentile Butchers, and Consumptive Blood-Drinkers
      (pp. 191-199)

      It is true that from a merely commercial standpoint, the daily sacrifice of beeves in the slaughter-houses of the Tallow District possesses little interest compared with the porcine holocausts of Bank street; and the fact that a Hebrew butcher cuts the throat of a bullock with a peculiarly-shaped knife is of less moment to the practical minded than the fact that the hog may be killed, scalded, cleaned and cut-up in the wonderfully brief period of three minutes. But there is always an interest attaching to the violent taking of life, which has no connection with results of profit and...

    • 22 The Manufacture of Yellow and Rockingham Ware in Cincinnati
      (pp. 200-206)

      “I wouldn’t like to have much of anything said about our goods in the newspapers,” said the proprietor of the largest yellow and Rockingham ware pottery in the city.

      “Why, pray?”

      “Because it might bring me some more customers, and a few more customers would break me up, I think,” said this singular man. “You see,” he explained presently, “I’d rather keep my goods just stored up in the warehouses than to sell them at the present low price, and then run the risk of not getting even that.”

      There are many facts of great interest not generally known with...

  7. Part III: Opinions of America

    • 23 Growth of Population in America
      (pp. 209-210)

      A very significant fact in the history of the United States was the announcement last year of an unexpected check in the growth of population. Such a check would signify, among other things, an enormous increase in the difficulty of living. It is undeniable that the difficulty of living in America has rapidly augmented within the last fifteen years. Twenty-five years ago there were chances in America for the industrious poor such as had never been offered in any other country,—except, perhaps, during a brief period in Australia. Any steady and vigorous mechanic, really master of his trade, could...

    • 24 The Labour Problem in America
      (pp. 211-213)

      Henry J. Fletcher, a noted authority on the social history of railroad troubles in the United States, has contributed to the OctoberAtlantic Monthlya remarkable paper on the problems involved by the colossal railroad strikes of recent years. The war between capital and labour in the United States offers peculiar features for study, and offers them upon an enormous scale. They are of the utmost importance to the sociologist; since they indicate the general lines of vast movements toward social transformation which are going on in Europe as well as in America,—though perhaps less clearly defined and less...

    • 25 The Race-Problem in America
      (pp. 214-216)

      It is difficult for any one who has not, by long residence in the Southern States of America, made himself familiar with the abnormal social conditions there existing, to form a fair judgment about the race-question. Even in the Northern States,—even in the cultivated New England atmosphere,—there still prevail misconceptions extraordinary of the real issues at stake in the South; and although a thinking minority of Eastern men now openly recognize that interference by the United States Government with Southern affairs could only produce immense mischief, the Northern people as a mass are still more or less influenced...

    • 26 Some Japanese Ideas of American Policy
      (pp. 217-218)

      Several of the Japanese papers, commenting upon the attitude of the United States towards Japan, have betrayed a curious misconception of American politics. They have gravely averred that the question of Chinese and Japanese immigration governs American policy in this regard,—because in America the will of the majority makes the government, and that majority is composed of working-men opposed to Chinese and Japanese immigration.

      While it is quite true that on the Pacific slope, the hostility to Chinese emigration did at one period obtain in Congress a strong popular representation, it would be quite a mistake to suppose that...

    • 27 Prevention of Cruelty to Women
      (pp. 219-220)

      We expressed our opinion some days ago in regard to the probable inefficacy of such laws against seduction as that which recently passed the Lower House of the Kentucky Legislature. The advocacy of the bill referred to nevertheless prompts us to the consideration of simpler and more efficacious laws to punish crimes against women—laws which we believe would have a positive and practical effect toward the improvement of public morals.

      If there be any sentiment of true chivalry in these days it has not made itself manifest in the enactment of laws for the protection of women. Thousands of...

    • 28 Recent American Novels
      (pp. 221-222)

      There has been what we might call a literary spurt lately among the younger school of American writers to catch up with the trans-Atlantic English literature of fiction. We refer especially to society fiction—to novels illustrating American society as British novels portray various phases of English society. We are represented, not largely, but well, in historical romance not American, but written by Americans, and European romances written by natives of the United States. But as regards novels illustrating American life proper we have had few productions of late years. At the same time there is a quantity of light...

    • 29 American Magazines
      (pp. 223-224)

      Walt Whitman, being interviewed on literary matters some time ago, stated that “there is a great underlying stratum of young men and women in America, who cannot speak, because the magazines are in the hands of old fogies like Holland or fops like Howells”—an observation which contains no little truth. There are not many magazines in the United States; and those that are successfully established and possess real influence are conducted with a rather narrow policy. Only a limited number of subjects are permitted to contributors. One magazine excludes any matter of a historical character. Another excludes antiquarianism in...

    • 30 American Art Tastes
      (pp. 225-226)

      A few years ago, except in the matter of literature, it was truly said of America, that she possessed no native art taste. The East, which led in matters of literary taste, chiseled sternly according to New England standards, gave to national thought in such matters a somber tone, a peculiar gray tint of puritanism. This puritanism has not yet wholly disappeared; it is visible in a thousand shapes. Even at a very late period when Eastern publishers reproduced the publications of European dilettanti, there was a great deal of ridiculous emasculation done, and much fig-leaf nonsense displayed. Even to-day...

    • 31 The French in Louisiana
      (pp. 227-228)

      The encouragement given by our Legislature to the French language in Louisiana has been ridiculed a great deal by persons apparently incapable of reflection and clad in the impenetrable mail of prejudice. It has been said that New Orleans is not a French city, but an American city; and that the use of the English language alone should be permitted in public affairs and public schools. It has also been said that the law was passed through Creole influence and to satisfy the selfish ends of a small clique. Finally it has been said that this maintenance of a foreign...

    • 32 The Roar of a Great City
      (pp. 229-230)

      When Hogarth painted his story of “The Enraged Musician,” whose music was drowned in the thousand cries and noises that surrounded him; when Chambers described “The Roar of a Great City,” the blending of a thousand noises, it was of the city of the past they told. Since then this roar has been growing louder and louder, until now, miles away, even before you see the smoky coronet that surrounds the modern city, you can hear a wild growl like that of some enraged beast. Neither Hogarth nor Chambers dreamed of the fierce whistle of the steamboat and locomotive, of...

  8. Bibliography
    (pp. 231-234)
  9. Sources of the Essays
    (pp. 235-236)
  10. Index
    (pp. 237-244)