Writer Lafcadio Hearn romanticized New Orleans for a national audience, drawing the artistic and preservation minded to the Vieux Carré in the early twentieth century.
While primarily known for his poetic writings about Japanese culture at the turn of the twentieth century, Patrick Lafcadio Hearn also wrote extensively about New Orleans, where he lived for one evocative decade. “I find much to gratify an Artist’s eye in this quaint, curious, crooked French Quarter,” wrote Hearn upon his arrival in New Orleans in 1877.¹ For the next decade, he fully immersed himself in the city’s unique way of life, and through letters, magazine and newspaper articles, woodblock prints, and a notable Creole cookbook, Hearn conjured a mythic Crescent City that attracted creative minds to New Orleans well into the next century.² Indeed, his romantic depictions of Creole life helped to fuel a cultural renaissance in the deteriorating Vieux Carré of the 1920s, a phenomenon that played an important role in the neighborhood’s preservation.
Hearn arrived in the United States in 1869 and found work in Cincinnati at a printing office, where he launched a journalism career that eventually led him to travel widely.³ When he reached New Orleans in November 1877, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine wrote that “the Southern blood in [Hearn’s] veins answered with a thrill, and he determined to remain.”⁴ He soon found two local newspapers, the Daily City Item and the Times-Democrat, willing to publish his satirical writings, which took the form of humorous sketches about the comings and goings of daily life. Hearn illustrated his articles with his own simple woodblock prints in an effort to boost circulation.⁵ In addition to his more lighthearted observations, Hearn also covered more contentious issues, such as police corruption, sanitation problems, and racial tensions, which often angered the subjects of his critiques.⁶
The Vieux Carré was in disrepair at the end of the nineteenth century, and most locals were indifferent or outright opposed to its preservation.⁷ Hearn, however, was enamored with the exotic culture he encountered there and made it the inspiration for his literary creations.⁸ Harper’s Weekly and Scribner’s Magazine published Hearn’s accounts of the city’s underworld haunts, voodoo practitioners, and indiscretions for a national audience, spreading the notion that it was unlike any other American city.⁹ This romanticized vision of New Orleans, which persists today, helped to inspire such notable creative figures as activist Elizebeth T. Werlein, artist William Spratling, and many others to take up residence in the Vieux Carré. The ensuing cultural renaissance of the 1920s made the old Creole city fashionable again and, ultimately, played a key part in its preservation.
1. Lafcadio Hearn, “At the Gate of the Tropics,” The Cincinnati Commercial, November 19, 1877. Reprinted in S. Frederick Starr, ed., Inventing New Orleans: Writings of Lafcadio Hearn (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001), 7.
2. Starr, Inventing New Orleans, xii; and T. R. Johnson, “Lafcadio Hearn,” in KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson (Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010). Article published February 24, 2011.
3. Nina H. Kennard, Lafcadio Hearn: Containing Some Letters from Lafcadio Hearn to His Half-sister, Mrs. Atkinson (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1912), 65.
4. Charles W. Coleman, “The Recent Movement in Southern Literature,” in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Volume LXXIV: December 1886–May 1887 (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1887), 855.
5. Starr, Inventing New Orleans, xiii.
6. Delia LaBarre, ed., “Introduction,” in The New Orleans of Lafcadio Hearn: Illustrated Sketches from the Daily City Item (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007), xliii.
7. The Vieux Carré Commission Foundation, “The History of the Vieux Carré Commission.”
8. Kennard, Lafcadio Hearn, 103.
9. Johnson, “Lafcadio Hearn.”