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Unconventional Invention 

Author S. Frederick Starr captures a writer's love affair with a city in Inventing New Orleans: Writings of Lafcadio Hearn.

A self-described "Wandering Ghost," Lafcadio Hearn was more like a perambulating Cyclops; he had one good eye that, like a magnifying glass, saw the world around him in great detail. From 1877 to 1888 he focused his laser gaze on New Orleans, the city that held him longer than any other, and his writings comprise a colorful and intensely observed survey of local life and customs.

His numerous dispatches to Harper's Weekly and Scribner's magazine painted a vivid picture of this city's mysterious allure, while his 2,000 local newspaper articles -- he was on the staff of the City Item and Times-Democrat -- covered everything from crime and corruption to the death of Marie Laveau, and the people he found talking to themselves in the 1880s. Hearn left no stone unturned, and in the process almost single-handedly cemented this area's reputation for exotic eccentricity in the eyes of the nation.

His skills as an image maker later did much the same for Japan, as his dispatches established him as the leading interpreter of that formerly forbidden nation to the West. But it was his long overlooked local reports and observations that are the focus of S. Frederick Starr's book, Inventing New Orleans: Writings of Lafcadio Hearn (University of Mississippi). They comprise what Starr, chair of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute of Johns Hopkins University, considers an index of the central themes of hundreds of books by subsequent generations of New Orleans writers, and his introduction gives us an incisive look at Hearn's role as a cultural interpreter par excellence.

Despite a tendency to ramble on, Hearn's writing is colorfully enthusiastic, often bordering on the sensational. He understood the allure of the spectacle, and had a tactile way with words that could evoke the essence of an experience with remarkable facility, as he did in this description of our local humidity: "You do not know in the North what such dampness is. It descends from the clouds and arises from the soil simultaneously; it exudes from wood-work; it perspires from stone. It is spectral, mysterious, inexplicable. Strong walls and stout doors cannot keep it from entering; windows and doors cannot exclude it. You might as well try to lock out a ghost."

Concise or florid, Hearn always exhibited a willingness to pursue his subjects with an unprecedented depth and thoroughness, and nothing was too strange for his penetrating gaze. He reveled in exotica ranging from the tribal Senegalese facial tattoos of the original Dr. John, to the opium dens that the City Council doggedly refused to shut down. Although he decried the effects of opium on an already "lassitudinous" populace, he was obviously pleased to have such items to investigate, and his reports offer a fascinating picture of how much -- and how little -- the city has changed in the 123 years since he lived here.

But, more than a mere journalistic impresario, Hearn managed to synthesize the nuances of city life into much broader cultural patterns, setting the stage for all who followed in his meandering footsteps. As Starr, an Ohio native, former New Orleanian and author of several books on this area, says in his introduction: "Set your novel in south Louisiana and your themes start to multiply like outlets of the Mississippi delta. Involuntarily, you will find yourself holding forth on ethics, pleasure, morality and what Monty Python called 'The Meaning of Life.' For in the realm of the written word, Louisiana is less a place than an idea, less a physical reality than a symbol. Symbol of what? Of everything the New England tradition of American literature and culture is not. Louisiana represents heart over intellect, spontaneity over calculation, instinct over reason, music over the word, forgiveness over judgement, impermanence over permanence, and community over the isolated individual."

For Hearn, such contrasts were poignantly familiar. Born to an Irish father and Greek mother on the sunny Aegean island of Lefkos, he was raised in Ireland by Puritanical relatives whom he detested. His early life was lived in a succession of boarding schools, and the loss of an eye in a childhood accident left him feeling alienated.

He remained restless as an adult until he arrived in New Orleans at age 27. Once here he went native, haunting French Quarter dives and the voodoo rituals of former slaves. In the process, he adopted a romanticized version of French Creole culture that he considered a poetic antidote to American commercialism and Puritanism.

It was, according to Starr, a "composite vision of fading grandeur, noble simplicity, eroticism, authenticity of expression (and a hint of danger)" that became the basis of this city's cultural identity. Obviously, Hearn didn't invent it, but he was the first to distill it. Starr has done us the great favor of putting Hearn in context and letting him speak for himself.


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