Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Grandad Repatriates a Book

Ruby with her authorial father (photo credit: K. Dixon, omni-talented mother)

The past week for me was mainly a happy swirl.  I spent it on Washington Square in New York, mainly “helping out” with two of my grandchildren (Lulu and Cora) whose father had to be out of the country lecturing.  It was delightfully light duty, mainly a matter of being around in the evening and putting together a few meals.  My daughter was able to set me up with a computer and a fine place to work during regular work hours.  These circumstances allowed me to insulate myself somewhat, but only somewhat, from the chill and gusting political winds unleashed the previous week.  My workspace overlooked Washington Square Park, and on at least three days there were raucous anti-Trump demonstrations.  At the very end of the week we all migrated to my son Richard’s house in Brooklyn, where we had a mini-party in anticipation of second-youngest granddaughter Ruby’s fourth birthday and to mark the somewhat more-than-fourth of her aunt, our dear daughter, which falls close by. 

Five out of six of our grandchildren are girls, each of them delightful in a distinctive way.  Being able to hang out with some of them for several days of their routine school lives was a rare treat.  There is a special kind of investment one makes in one’s grandchildren—more mellow and reflective, perhaps, than that one had made in their parents.   Our grandchildren are living indices of rapid social change.  I knew all four of my long-lived grandparents quite well.  They were all of the nineteenth century.  When I compare their lives with those even now being lived by my grandchildren I am nearly staggered by the scope, breadth, depth, and existential consequences of the differences between them.  But our country has always been a cauldron of dramatic change, as I was led to meditate by the accidental recovery of one of my strayed books.

Our eldest child, Richard, the father of Ruby, is a man of parts with a special interest in the post-colonial world of the Caribbean.  As Cuba now sets out on its new path toward Chinese style pseudo-socialist bureaucratic plutocracy his book, Walking to Guantanamo, already a classic of offbeat travel literature, will become ever more valuable for its portrait of Fidel’s “old” new Cuba.  Richard has spent even more time, however, immersed in black Caribbean Francophonie.  Enabled by an impressive command of the Haitian creole, he pursues various fascinating cultural projects in Haiti.  My eye caught something familiar on his bookshelf—namely my copy of the Library of America anthology of the writings of Lafcadio Hearn.  I had forgotten, as I usually do, that I had lent it to him; but Rich is Hearn’s ideal reader.

Patrick Lafcadio Tessima Carlos Hearn was born in 1850 on Lefkada, one of the less famous of the Ionian Islands, and died in Tokyo in 1904.  In his intense, questing, adventurous, and often desperate life of fifty-four years he lived out and recorded in his lush writings an exotic version of the “American dream” that is perhaps unlikely to be the first to appear spontaneously in the mind of the casual auditor of that hackneyed phrase.  His father was an Irishman, a medical officer in the service of the occupying British army, his mother an illiterate Greek islander unfortunate enough to have fallen in with him.  

They played hardly any role in his miserable early life.  In his mature years Lafcadio could remember ever seeing his father only four times in his life; the mother, having been dumped by the father through the instrument of a particularly egregious annulment, eventually died in a Greek mental asylum.  Hearn was grudgingly educated by reluctant relatives and supposed family friends in Ireland, England, and France.  Coercive overexposure to Christianity in its Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant forms perhaps eased his eventual embrace of Buddhism, which he eventually adopted along with Japanese citizenship.

In 1869 Lafcadio himself was dumped with a one-way ticket to America and instructions to proceed to Cincinnati.  There, on the Ohio River, that meandering extension of the Mason-Dixon line, still roiling in the wake of a great war that ended the institution of what he rightly called “American feudalism”, Hearn arrived penniless.  The “immigrant narrative” is that people came to America “in search of a better life”.  What that often actually meant was that other, more powerful people in Europe, while sometimes being unwilling simply to kill them off, didn’t want them around any more.  Young Hearn eventually found his feet as a journalist—in Cincinnati, in New Orleans, and in the French Caribbean.  He left a unique body of commentary on the cultural diversity, much of it founded in a long history of the forced migration of African slaves, of the aging New World.  To his practical fluency in French he added a deeper philological impulse that led him toward folklore and anthropology.  He was fascinated by the cultural dynamism of creole social alloys.  He himself was married for a time to a former slave woman in violation of the miscegenation laws on the statute books of the State of Ohio.  Hearn has been credited with the “invention” or literary discovery of New Orleans as a principal site of the American picturesque.  If you have time but for a single brief essay, let me suggest “The Creole Patois” (pp. 744-748).  All this of course came before his “Japanese period,” for which he is best known among those who know him at all.