The New Orleans Of Lafcadio Hearn

Feature by Willard Manus

It's not exactly a travel book, but anyone interested in visiting New Orleans would do well to peruse the collection of sketches published by Lafcadio Hearn in 1880 when he was working for the Daily City Item. The newspaper was one of New Orleans' smaller ones, but Hearn attracted considerable attention, thanks to his satirical vignettes and cartoons depicting the unique culture of the city, including its redlight district, jaunty music, seamy politics and voodoo religion.

THE NEW ORLEANS OF LAFCADIO HEARN (published by Louisiana State University Press) reprints all of the 181 columns Hearn did for the newspaper, which allowed him to write about whatever tickled his fancy. Although Hearn, a veteran newsman, was blind in one eye and myopic in the other, he was able to draw his own illustrations and carve them with a penknife on wood-blocks.

Some of these illustrations were political in nature, others were comic and irreverent, or dramatic and angry (such as the one depicting a nursemaid's tragic preoccupation with her boyfriend and neglect of the child in her care.

"Hearn had a sense for absurdities and amusing qualities in his environment," writes editor Delia LaBarre, "and he had an extraordinary ability to modulate his criticism and praise along a continuum between cauterizing vitriol and medicinal balm. It is easy, as Juvenal said, to write satire. But it is not easy to range from the heavy-handedness of Juvenal to the light touch of Horace. Hearn exercised great restraint as well as uninhibited extravagance in his personal life, but if he had misanthropic tendencies, his humanitarian impulses were stronger."