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Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) prowled the streets of New Orleans from 1877 to 1888 before moving on to a new life and global fame as a chronicler of Japan. Hearn's influence on our perceptions of New Orleans, however, has unjustly remained unknown. In ten years of serving as a correspondent and selling his writing in such periodicals as the -- New Orleans Unmasqued (1989), Southern Comfort: The Garden District of New Orleans (1998), and Louis Moreau Gottschalk (2000).
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Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) prowled the streets of New Orleans from 1877 to 1888 before moving on to a new life and global fame as a chronicler of Japan. Hearn's influence on our perceptions of New Orleans, however, has unjustly remained unknown. In ten years of serving as a correspondent and selling his writing in such periodicals as the -- New Orleans Unmasqued (1989), Southern Comfort: The Garden District of New Orleans (1998), and Louis Moreau Gottschalk (2000).
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Chapter One PART I The Outsider as Insider IMPRESSIONS Hearn was by profession a journalist, but most "news" simply bored him. During a decade in Cincinnati he specialized in covering the most brutal and squalid sides of local life, passing stern judgments on what the locals had come to accept as normal. In the process he developed a style as lurid as his subject matter.     In Louisiana he underwent a change of heart. Deeply drawn to this unfamiliar world, he strove to present it with sympathy and love. To readers around the country he was now an insider, describing and explaining what they could barely imagine. In the process, he defined many of the themes that dominate subsequent writings on New Orleans. Later, he made good use of this reportorial style, which might be called "affectionate impressionism," in his landmark writings on Japan. Memphis to New Orleans NOVEMBER 14, 1877.     ... One leaves Memphis with little regret, despite those lovely sunsets, for rain and storms are more frequent than fine days. The day of my departure I watched the cottonboats being loaded, being myself upon a cottonboat; and the sight, at first novel, became actually painful as the afternoon waned and the shadows of the steamboat chimneys lengthened on the levee. Cotton, cotton, cotton,--thump, thump, thump,--bump, bump, bump; until everything seemed a mass of bagging and iron bands, blotched with white, and one felt as if under the influence of a cotton nightmare. Just when the boat was leaving the levee, it suddenly occurred to me that the color of the face of the bluffs and the color of the new cotton bales piled along the slope were almost precisely the same; and the irregularly broken brownness of the bluffs themselves helped out the fancy that Memphis was actually built upon bales of cotton. Allegorically speaking, this is strictly true.     --I once thought when sailing up the Ohio one bright Northern summer that the world held nothing more beautiful than the scenery of the Beautiful River,--those voluptuous hills with their sweet feminine curves, the elfin gold of that summer haze, and the pale emerald of the river's verdure-reflecting breast. But even the loveliness of the Ohio seemed faded, and the Northern sky-blue palely cold, like the tint of iceberg pinnacles, when I beheld for the first time the splendor of the Mississippi.     "You must come on deck early to-morrow," said the kind Captain of the Thompson Dean; "we are entering the Sugar Country."     So I saw the sun rise over the cane fields of Louisiana.     It rose with a splendor that recalled the manner of its setting at Memphis, but of another color;--an auroral flush of pale gold and pale green bloomed over the long fringe of cottonwood and cypress trees, and broadened and lengthened half way round the brightening world. The glow seemed tropical, with the deep green of the trees sharply cutting against it; and one naturally looked for the feathery crests of cocoa-nut palms. Then the day broke gently and slowly,--a day too vast for a rapid dawn,--a day that seemed deep as Space. I thought our Northern sky narrow and cramped as a vaulted church-roof beside that sky,--a sky so softly beautiful, so purely clear in its immensity, that it made one dream of the tenderness of a woman's eyes made infinite.     And the giant river broadened to a mile,--smooth as a mirror, still and profound as a mountain lake. Between the vastness of the sky and the vastness of the stream, we seemed moving suspended in the midst of day, with only a long, narrow tongue of land on either side breaking the brightness. Yet the horizon never became wholly blue. The green-golden glow lived there all through the day; and it was brightest in the south. It was so tropical, that glow;--it seemed of the Pacific, a glow that forms a background to the sight of lagoons and coral reefs and "lands where it is always afternoon."     Below this glow gleamed another golden green, the glory of the waving cane fields beyond the trees. Huge sugar mills were breathing white and black clouds into the sky, as they masticated their mighty meal; and the smell of saccharine sweetness floated to us from either shore. Then we glided by miles of cotton-fields with their fluttering white bolls; and by the mouths of bayous;--past swamps dark with cypress gloom, where the gray alligator dwells, and the gray Spanish moss hangs in elfish festoons from ancient trees;--past orange-trees and live-oaks, pecans and cottonwoods and broad-leaved bananas; while the green of the landscape ever varied, from a green so dark that it seemed tinged with blue to an emerald so bright that it seemed shot through with gold. The magnificent old mansions of the Southern planters, built after a generous fashion unknown in the North, with broad verandas and deliciously cool porches, and all painted white or perhaps a pale yellow, looked out grandly across the water from the hearts of shadowy groves; and, like villages of a hundred cottages, the negro quarters dotted the verdant face of the plantation with far-gleaming points of snowy whiteness.     And still that wondrous glow brightened in the south, like a far-off reflection of sunlight on the Spanish Main.     --"But it does not look now as it used to in the old slave days," said the pilot as he turned the great wheel. "The swamps were drained, and the plantations were not overgrown with cottonwood; and somehow or other the banks usen't to cave in then as they do now."     I saw, indeed, signs of sad ruin on the face of the great plantations; there were splendid houses crumbling to decay, and whole towns of tenantless cabins; estates of immense extent were lying almost untilled, or with only a few acres under cultivation; and the vigorous cottonwood trees had shot up in whole forests over fields once made fertile by the labor of ten thousand slaves. The scene was not without its melancholy; it seemed tinged by the reflection of a glory passed away--the glory of wealth, and the magnificence of wealth; of riches, and the luxury of riches.     O, fair paradise of the South, if still so lovely in thy ruin, what must thou have been in the great day of thy greatest glory!     White steamboats, heavily panting under their loads of cotton, came toiling by, and calling out to us wild greeting long and shrill, until the pilot opened the lips of our giant boat, and her mighty challenge awoke a thousand phantom voices along the winding shore. Red sank the sun in a sea of fire, and bronze-hued clouds piled up against the light like fairy islands in a sea of glory, such as were seen, perhaps, by the Adelantado of the Seven Cities.     "Those are not real clouds," said the pilot, turning to the west, his face aglow with the yellow light. "Those are only smoke clouds rising from the sugar-mills of Louisiana, and drifting with the evening wind."     The daylight died away, and the stars came out, but that warm glow in the southern horizon only paled, so that it seemed a little further off. The river broadened till it looked with the tropical verdure of its banks like the Ganges, until at last there loomed up a vast line of shadows, dotted with points of light, and through a forest of masts and a host of phantom-white river boats and a wilderness of chimneys the Thompson Dean , singing her cheery challenge, steamed up to the mighty levee of New Orleans. At the Gate of the Tropics NEW ORLEANS, NOVEMBER 19, 1877.     Eighteen miles of levee! London, with all the gloomy vastness of her docks, and her "river of the ten thousand masts," can offer no spectacle of traffic so picturesquely attractive and so varied in its attraction.     In the center of this enormous crescent line of wharves and piers lie the great Sugar and Cotton Landings, with their millions of tons of freight newly unshipped, their swarms of swarthy stevedores, their innumerable wagons and beasts of burden. Above the line of depot and storehouse roofs, stretching southward, rises the rolling smoke of the cotton-press furnaces. Facing the Sugar Landing, stretching northward, extend a line of immense sugar sheds, with roofs picturesquely-peaked, Sierra-wise. Below, along the wooden levee, a hundred river boats have landed without jostling, and the smoky breath of innumerable chimneys floats, upward-eddying, into the overarching blue. Here one sees a comely steamer from the Ohio lying at the landing, still panting, after its long run of a thousand miles; there a vast Mississippi boat lies groaning, with her cargo of seven thousand bales, awaiting relief by a legion of longshoremen. At intervals other vessels arrive, some, like mountains of floating cotton, their white sides hidden by brown ramparts of bales built up to the smokestacks; some deeply freighted with the sweet produce of the cane fields. Black tugs rush noisily hither and thither, like ugly water-goblins seeking strong work to do; and brightly-painted luggers, from the lower coasts,--from the oyster beds and the fruit tree groves--skim over the wrinkled water, some bearing fragrant freight of golden oranges, and pomegranates, and bananas richly ripe; some bringing fishy dainties from the sea. Ocean steamers are resting their levitation sides at the Southern piers, and either way, along the far-curving lines of wharves, deep-sea ships lie silently marshaled, their pale wings folded in motionless rest. There are barks and brigs, schooners and brigantines, frigates and merchantmen, of all tonnages--ships of light and graceful build, from the Spanish Main; deep-bellied steamers, with East Indian names, that have been to Calcutta and Bombay; strong-bodied vessels from Norway and all the Scandinavian ports; tight-looking packets from English ports; traders under German, Dutch, Italian, French, and Spanish flags; barks from the Mediterranean; shapely craft from West Indian harbors....     --It is not an easy thing to describe one's first impression of New Orleans; 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 in Germany, of seaports in the Mediterranean, and of seaports in the tropics. Canal street, with its grand breadth and imposing façades, gives one recollections of London and Oxford street and Regent street; there are memories of Havre and Marseilles to be obtained from the Old French Quarter; there are buildings in Jackson Square which remind one of Spanish-American travel. I fancy that the power of fascination which New Orleans exercises upon foreigners is due no less to this 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....     I find much to gratify an artist's eye in this quaint, curious, crooked French Quarter, with its narrow streets and its houses painted in light tints of yellow, green, and sometimes even blue. Neutral tints are common; but there are a great many buildings that can not have been painted for years, and which look neglected and dilapidated as well as antiquated. Solid wooden shutters, painted a bright grass-green, and relieved by walls painted chocolate color, or tinted yellow, have a pretty effect, and suggest many memories of old France. Few houses in the quarter are without them....     Most of the finer public buildings must have been erected at a time when expense was the least consideration in the construction of an edifice. They are generously and beautifully built; yet it is sad to see that many of them are falling into decay. Especially is this the case in regard to the old St. Louis Hotel--now the State House--with its splendid dome, frescoed by Canova, and its grand halls. To repair it would now require an outlay of hundreds of thousands. It has been outraged in a manner worthy of Vandals; soldiers have been barracked in it; mould and damp have written prophecies of ruin within it. Hither it was that the great planters of the South dwelt in the old days when they visited New Orleans, and under their rich patronage the hotel prospered well, till the war swept away their wealth, and, for a time at least, ruined New Orleans. I doubt if any of the great hotels here are now doing well.     The St. Charles, with its noble Greek façade, is the handsomest of these. From the entrance of the rotunda looking outward and upward at the vast Corinthian columns, with their snowy fluted shafts and rich capitals, their antique lines of beauty, their harmonious relation to each other, the sight is magnificent. I find a number of noble Greek façades in the city, the City Hall, the Methodist Church, on Carondelet street, and other structures I might name, are beautiful, and seem to illumine the streets with their white splendor. This elegant, gracious architecture appears adapted to this sky and this sunny clime; and, indeed, it was under almost such a sky and such a sun that the Greek architecture was born.     But, after all, the glory of the city is in her Southern homes and gardens. One can not do justice to their beauty. The streets broaden there; the side-paths are bordered with verdant sod as soft and thick as velvet and overshadowed with magnolias; the houses, mostly built in Renaissance style, are embowered in fruit-bearing trees and evergreen gardens, where statues and fountains gleam through thick shrubbery, cunningly trimmed into fantastic forms. Orange and fig trees; bananas and palms; magnolias and myrtles; cypresses and cedars; broad-leaved, monstrous-flowering plants in antique urns; herbs with leaves shaped like ancient Greek sword-blades, and edged with yellow ... And you can walk through this paradise hour after hour, mile after mile; and the air only becomes yet more fragrant and the orange trees more heavily freighted with golden fruit, and the gardens more and more beautiful, as you proceed southwardly.... NOVEMBER 20.     I have just witnessed a terrible exhibition of the power of the machinery. Friends had advised me to visit the huge cotton press at the Cotton Landing, and I spent several hours in watching its operation. Excepting, perhaps, some of the monster cotton presses of India, it is said to be the most powerful in the world; but the East Indian presses box the cotton instead of baling it, with enormous loss of time. This "Champion" press at the New Orleans Levee weighs, with all its attachments, upwards of three thousand tons, and exerts the enormous pressure of four million pounds upon the bales placed in it. When I first arrived at the gate of the building where the machinery is placed, they were loading the newly pressed bales upon drays--bales much smaller than the ordinary plantation bales. I was considerably surprised to see three or four negroes straining with all their might to roll one of these bales; but I was not then aware that each of the packages of cotton before me weighed upward of one thousand pounds ....     The spectacle of this colossal press in motion is really terrific. It is like a nightmare of iron and brass. It does not press downward, but upward. It is not a press as we understand the term generally, but an enormous mouth of metal which seizes the bale and crushes it in its teeth. The machine did not give me the idea of a machine, it seemed rather some vast, black genie, buried up to his neck in the earth by the will of Soliman, the pre-Adamite Sultan.     Fancy a monstrous head of living iron and brass, fifty feet high from its junction with the ground, having pointed gaps in its face like gothic eyes, a mouth five feet wide, opening six feet from the mastodon teeth in the lower jaw to the mastodon teeth in the upper jaw. The lower jaw alone moves, as in living beings, and it is worked by two vast iron tendons, long and thick and solid as church pillars. The surface of this lower jaw is equivalent to six square feet.     The more I looked at the thing, the more I felt as though its prodigious anatomy had been studied after the anatomy of some extinct animal,--the way those jaws worked, the manner in which those muscles moved.     Men rolled a cotton bale to the mouth of the monster. The jaws opened with a low roar, and so remained. The lower jaw had descended to a level with the platform on which the bale was lying. It was an immense plantation bale. Two black men rolled it into the yawning mouth. The titan muscles contracted, and the jaw closed, silently, steadily, swiftly. The bale flattened, flattened, flattened--down to sixteen inches, twelve inches, eight inches, five inches. Positively less than five inches! I thought it was going to disappear altogether. But after crushing it beyond five inches the jaws remained stationary and the monster growled like rumbling thunder. I thought the machine began to look as hideous as one of those horrible, yawning heads which formed the gates of the teocallis at Palenque, and through whose awful jaws the sacrificial victims passed.... (Continues...) Excerpted from Inventing New Orleans by Lafcadio Hearn. Copyright © 2001 by University Press of Mississippi. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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