Excerpts from

Wandering Ghost: the Odyssey of Lafacadio Hearn

(Kodansha International, 1992, ISBN-13: 978-4770016591)

By Jonathan Cott



The Bride Stripped Bare

When Lafcadio arrived in New Orleans on November 12, 1877, he immediately walked northeast, crossing Canal Street into the Vieux Carré, and suddenly experienced a coup de foudre: he had come home.

"It is not an easy thing to describe one's first impressions of New Orleans," he wrote in a dispatch to the Cincinnati Commercial, "for while it actually resembles no other city upon the face of the earth, yet it recalls vague memories of a hundred cities. It owns suggestions of towns in Italy, and in Spain, of cities in England and Germany, or seaports in the Mediterranean, and of seaports in the tropics . . . . I fancy that the power of fascination which New Orleans exercises upon foreigners is due no less peculiar characteristic than to the tropical beauty of the city itself. Whencesoever the traveler may have come, he may find in the Crescent City some memory of his home-some recollection of his Fatherland-some remembrance of something he loves."

During the next two months, Lafcadio explored the city of verandas, piazzas, and balconies; of sloping tile roofs and windows adorned with battened shutters and wrought-iron arabesque designs; and gardens embowered with palm and fig trees, myrtles and cedars, luxuriant shrubs, and an astonishing variety of fragrant, vibrantly hued flowers. A morning stroll through the French Market overwhelmed him with its displays of pomegranates, red bananas, pale green grapes, fresh dates, delftware, porcelain, silks, muslins, hills of shrimps, and pyramids of oysters. "One may see almost everything, and buy almost anything in the French Market; and he must have a hard heart or an empty pocket who can always withstand the softly syllable request of some bright-eyed Creole girl to buy something that he does not want."

During the day, Lafcadio no longer had his Concinnati chills or coughs; at night, however, he became a victim of the insidious, all-pervading dampness of the night dew and fog of this city built on marshes.

{[ 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 can not keep it from entering; windows and doors can not exclude it. You might as well try to lock out a ghost. Bolts of steel and barriers of stone are equally unavailing, and the stone moulders, and the steel is smitten with red leprosy. The chill sweat pouring down from the walls, soaks into plank floors, and the cunning of the paper-hanger is useless here. Carpets become so thoroughly wet with the invisible rain that they utter soughy, marshy sounds under the foot.]}

In this waterlogged city, Lafcadio observed that even the dead could not be buried underground, only "vaulted up" above ground in enclosed two-foot-square "pigeon tubes," which were then inserted in walls of white stone. And hanging on these walls or suspended from the lids of the catacombs he saw wreaths of faded leaves and garlands of withered flowers "crumbling to colorless dust-offerings lest the ghosts of the dead be totally forgotten."

"I have spoken with enthusiasm of the beauty of New Orleans," Lafcadion informed his Cincinnati Commercial readers, and now he added: "I must speak with pain of her decay. The city is fading, moldering, crumbling-slowly but certainly . . . in the midst of the ruined paradise of Louisiana." The New Orleans Walt Whitman had visited as a newspaperman in 1848, with its "strange vivacity and rattle," was still known everywhere as "the Queen City of the Mississippi," but Lafcadio now saw it thirty years later as "a dead bride crowned with orange flowers." New Orleans's fall to Admiral David Farragut in 1862, her humiliating occupation by Union troops, the exploitation at the hands of scalawags and carpetbaggers, the recurrent outbreaks of yellow fever, municipal corruption and high taxes, and the disintegration of the slave-based economy had all served to render the city stagnant and bankrupt.

Lafcadio's "dear old French houses" with their verandas, peaked gables, and dormer windows were gradually being torn down to make way for "hideous modern structures." But the ravished "bride" was, to the groom, still "fair and rich and beautiful,: since Lafcadio preferred "venomous . . . tropical lilies" to "the frail and icy-white lilies of the north."

In a sense, New Orleans was the embodiment of the Romantic notion Lafcadio had always responded to in the work of Gautier and Baudelaire-indissolubly linking beauty and sadness, beauty and decay, beauty and pain, beauty and death. La Ville Fatale. But, more significantly, it was "the divine breath of the ocean" that ineluctably drew the sea-bewitched Lafcadio to this southern port. For here, merchant-adventurers from the Mediterranean and the Levant-descendants of the great wanderer from Ithaca-now "anchored their lives," far from "the awakening rumble of traffic and 'the city sickening of its own thick breath.' "

"It is true," Lafcadio admitted, "that you can not hear the voice of the hoary breakers in the moonlight,-only the long-panting of the cotton presses, the shouting of the boats calling upon each other through the tropical night, and the ceaseless song of the night birds and crickets. But the sea ships, with their white wings folded, are slumbering at the wharves; the sea-winds are blowing through the moonlit streets, and from the South arises that wondrous, pale glow, like the far reflection of the emerald green of the ocean. So that the Greek sailor, awaking from the vision of winds and waves, may join three fingers of his right hand, after the manner of the Eastern Church, and cross himself, and sleep again in peace."

Some Friends Along the Way

Lafcadio worked at the newspaper in the morning, wrote and reading the afternoon, and sometimes went for a swim in Lake Pontchartrain. Back in his rooms, he would put on a linen suit and one of his oversized fedora-type hats-making him look, as someone once said, like a giant mushroom-and stroll to Gasquet Street. The air was filled with the scent of magnolia and jasmine, and Lafcadio passed the cottages of the wanton district, in whose midst he lived, enticed by the sight of the "frails" and horizontals behind half-opened doors and shutters, readying themselves for the night ahead or sitting on their doorsteps and murmuring sweet nothings to the passing stranger, who arrived at Mrs. Courtney's in high spirits and with a large appetite.

Mrs. Courtney almost always found time to sit with Lafcadio up in his little annex cubbyhole, serve him his dinner, and cut the beefsteak or leg of mutton for him. When she was too busy to do so, her vivacious twelve-year old daughter Ella gladly took her place. After the meal, Ella would beg Lafcadio to tell her one of his wonderful stories about goblins or Greek gods or mysterious, exotic places. So Lafcadio would sit on the doorstep of the annex, smoking his pipe, with Ella at his feet, and say: "This, Ella, is the tale Abu Mohammed el Hassan, son of Amr, recounted when he returned from one of his voyages . . . ."

Between the main house and the annex was a courtyard much like the one in Edgar Degas' mysterious Children on a Doorstep, painted in 1872 when the artist came to New Orleans to visit his mother's family. In this work of browns and ochres, a young girl, like Ella, stares down dreamily from a porch at a cluster of children sitting in front of a courtyard, empty except for one small dog. But Mrs. Courtney's courtyard was inhabited by many creatures, among whom Lafcadio had a number of favored friends: a fearless tiny mouse who joined the writer for dinner and to whom he always provided a modest portion of his meal; an old turtle that he professed to have trained to come when it was called and to depart when it was bid adieu; a gray tabby kitten named Nanny that Lafcadio had saved from drowning. There was also a colony of ants that continually streamed from the house to the annex and back again, which he sometimes spent an hour silently observing, until Mrs. Courtney looked out of the kitchen window and asked, "And sure, is there anythin' botherin' you, Mr. Hearn?" "No Mrs. Courtney," Lafcadio replied quietly, like a child in a trance; "I'm only watching the ants. They seem superior to us. They never fight among themselves, or backbite, or loaf. They're always working, working for the common good of their community. At a second's notice they are willing to sacrifice their lives-everything-to the general welfare. People are not like this. The propriety and morality of the ant is far higher than that of the human ."

The Man Who Loved Islands

As captivating and enticing as he often found New Orleans, Lafcadio occasionally longed for the "voices of birds, whisper of leaves, milky quivering of stars, laughing of streams, odors of pine and of savage flowers, shadows of flying clouds, winds triumphantly free."

In 1883 he convinced Harper's Weekly to let him explore the southern shore of Lake Borgne-just east of New Orleans, flowing into Chandeleur Sound-with its "shuddering reeds and banneretted grass," out of which rose, on slender supports, the strange houses of the isolated Tagalog fishermen (who were originally from Luzon in the Philippines). That same year he also traveled for the Times-Democrat into the Teche country (the Southern Louisiana bayou that served as the setting for Longfellow's Evangeline) to describe its astonishing world of Spanish moss:

{[ It streams from the heads and limbs of the oaks; from the many-elbowed cypress skeletons it hangs like decaying rags of green. It creates suggestions of gibbets and of corpses, of rotting rigging, of the tattered sails of ships "drifting with the dead to shores where all is dumb." Under the sunlight it has also countless pleasant forms-the tresses of slumbering dryads, the draperies flung out upon some vast woodland-holiday by skill of merry elves. Under the moon, losing its green, every form of goblinry, every fancy of ghastliness, every grimness of witchcraft, every horror of death, are mocked by it . . . . It is as though this land were yet weeping for Pan,-as though all the forest and streams had not ceased after more than a thousand years to lament the passing away of the sylvan gods and nymphs of the antique world.]}

In the summer of 1884 Lafcadio, exhausted from overwork and from mild but recurrent bouts of an enervating malarial fever, took a month's paid vacation-his first as a working journalist-on a little island at the mouth of Caminada Bay in the Gulf of Mexico called Grand isle. Arriving at a former Creole plantation that was now a hotel (Krantz's Hotel). Lafcadio threw his bag into his whitewashed cabin and then walked quickly to the beach where, like a child of the sea, he gave himself over to the gusting winds, the pounding waves, the sparkling light, the azure-golden air. He had not seen the sea since his arrival in America.

With the "hymns of winds and sea" and the "prayers of birds" in his ears, Lafcadio went swimming three or four times a day, sometimes starting out before dawn to view "the blossoming of the vast and mystical Rose of Sunrise" and letting the "Soul of the Sea" mingle with his own, vivifying, strengthening, and inspiring him.

When he wasn't at the beach, Lafcadio, assiduously avoiding the hotel guests, ingratiated himself with some of the local inhabitants of Grand Isle-a population of several hundred, mostly descendants of the pirates of Barataria Bay who spoke to Lafcadio in a slow, guttural French and occasionally invited him into their weatherbeaten cottages.

His favorite acquaintance was a Basque fisherman who entertained his inquisitive guest in his enormous living room filled with suspended nets and tackles, a marine clock and compass. In this shiplike ambiance, the Basque regaled Lafcadio with stories of Grand Isle, reminiscences of his youth in France and Algeria, and theories about the Cabala…"

Restless Farewell

As his life progressed, Lafcadio understood that he would always be a stranger in the world: "I ought never to have been born in this century, I think sometimes, because I live forever in dreams of other centuries and other faiths and other ethics,-dreams rudely broken by the sound of cursing in the street below." Yet his estrangement from the conventional life strengthened his intense, childlike curiosity and fueled his desire to travel: "Once in a while I feel the spirit of restlessness upon me, when the Spanish ships come in from Costa Rica and the islands of the West Indies. I fancy that some day, I shall wander down to the levee, and creep on board, and sail away to God knows where. I am so hungry to see those quaint cities of the Conquistadores and to hear the sandaled sentinels crying through the night--Sereño alerto!--sereño alerto!--just as they did tow hundred years ago."

On a springlike day in January 1887, Lafcadio was rummaging through the shelves of Fournier's secondhand bookshop on Royal Street when a pretty young Creole woman with black hair and brown eyes approached him, introduced herself as Leona Queyrouze, and said breathlessly, "I know you are Mr. Hearn, I saw a picture of you in the Times-Democrat, I've wanted so much to meet you, I admire your work greatly, could I impose on you perhaps to look at some verse I've been writing?"

Lafcadio was about to extricate himself as politely as possible, but the intensity of her passion and the sweetness of her importunate tone charmed him. "So you are one of the bees," he replied to her instead, "that come to the garden for flowers with the golden dust to make the divine honey and the tiny goblets of amber colored wax that hold it?"

"I am afraid," she responded, "there shall be little left for me. But the garden is large and the flowers are plentiful."

As Lafcadio accompanied her home, Leona noticed that the condition of his eyes gave them the "fixity of glance and introspective stare of statues . . . and cast a sphinx-like expression over his features." She prevailed upon Lafcadio to take several pages of her writing and to call on her again. It was to be the last friendship he made in New Orleans. On his next visit he told her, frankly but gently, that her quasi-blank verse was "so much prose measured off-not poetry." Leona took the criticism well, for she respected his opinions and perceptions. When she invited him to visit her again, he sensed that matters might get out of hand. Fascinated but detached, Lafcadio told her, "I would like to look upon you as a younger brother. Would you mind?" To this strange request she replied that she would not mind, even though she did.

Leona Queyrouze was hardly the typical overprotected Catholic Creole girl. A constant companion of her broad-minded father, she was the only female member of the Athénée Louisianais, a society that studied and promoted French language and literature, and to which she had contributed a scholarly paper on Racine. In addition to writing poetry, Leona played the piano, sang old Creole songs, and fenced.

Lafcadio was intrigued by this remarkable, independent-minded young woman, with whom he could converse about literary matters, dazzling her with his eloquent commentaries, and who tutored him, in turn, on the correct pronunciation of black Creole proverbs. As Lafcadio later described her, Leona was "all fire and nerves and scintillation; a tropical being in mind and physique, and I could never be to her what I should like to be." He was attracted to her, but he was impatient to travel and had definitely made up his mind to leave "this quaint and ruinous city . . . this land of perfume and dreams . . . . I came here to enjoy romance, and I have had my fill." He urgently craved new horizons for his work, where he hoped to be able to develop his writing full-time.

In May 1887, Lafcadio resigned amicably from the Times-Democrat. He stored his books with Rudolph Matas and said good-bye to former neighbors and current friends: Denny Corcoran, Page Baker, Julia Wetherall, Mrs. Courtney, Mrs. Durno, Lieutenant Crosby, and finally, to a tearful Leona Queyrouze. Leona claimed to possess second sight, but she had not foreseen the possibility of Lafcadio's departure, and upon first learning of it she had let him know that she was hurt and angry. Lafcadio responded in a note: "Medea, the beautiful witch-maiden, heard of a certain shepherd who kept bees which manufactured a particular sort of honey. She sent for him to come and tell her about the bees. He went for that purpose; but Medea sang him songs, and looked at him; and entangled all the web of his thought, and made his head feel as if many hives of bees were in it-so that he was never able to tell her anything about the honey. It was all her own fault that she never became a bee-keeper."

On his farewell visit Leona, Lafcadio spoke strangely, she thought, for a man on his way to seek new peoples and new worlds. He said: "Do not seek inspiration merely around you in the exterior world and its powerful vibrations which fill our senses with ecstasy of beauty. It is in the psychical depths of our own Self that we must look to find treasures which Aladdin's lamp never could have revealed."

Then he kissed her good-bye and set out with his one dilapidated leather suitcase.


About Jonathan

Jonathan Cott is a prolific writer, poet and author of 16 books, including Conversations with Glenn Gould, Wandering Ghost: The Odyssey of Lafcadio Hearn, and Pipers at the Gates of Dawn: The Wisdom of Children's Literature. A contributing editor at Rolling Stone since the magazine's inception, Cott has also written for The New York Times, Parabola, and The New Yorker. He lives in New York City.

Latest News

Jonathan was interviewed on KQED Radio's Forum with Michael Krasny: The Day The Music Died on February 4, 2009.

Jonathan Cott has a new article published in the January 2009 issue of Rolling Stone, Not Fade Away: Remembering Buddy Holly on the 50th Anniversary of His Death. The piece commemorates the 50th anniversary of the tragic death of musicians Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper in a plane crash on February 3rd, 1959.

Jonathan has co-authored with Karen Rester an article for Salon on the Amygdaloids, a rock band of neuroscientists. The article is an interview with the Amygdaloids' Joseph Ledoux, who contends that music, emotion and memory help to shape our identities.

Jonathan recently edited Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews.

Jonathan is also most recently the author of On The Sea of Memory: A Journey from Forgetting to Remembering.

Jonathan also served as editor for the late Studs Terkel's book, And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey.