The Common Reader is launching a new monthly feature, the “Essay of the Month,” which will feature classic examples of the essay from the vast reservoir of the public domain accompanied by a brief headnote.
Our inaugural essay is by Lafcadio Hearn, one of the most acclaimed journalists of the 19th century. Born 1850 in Lefkada, Greece, Hearn became most famous for his writings about Japan. He was a cosmopolite of some extraordinary dimensions, living in Ireland, France, the United States, the British West Indies, before settling in Japan in 1890, where he married a Japanese woman by whom he had four children and where he became a naturalized Japanese, adopting the name Koisumi Yakumo. (Hearn’s first wife was African American.) He became the foremost western interpreter of Japan.
While in the United States, as he established himself as a journalist, he became famous for his writings about New Orleans, living there for nearly 10 years. This 1877 essay was the beginning of his New Orleans series of essays. He happened to have been in Memphis on October 31, serendipitously, and wound up witnessing and reporting on the funeral of Civil War Confederate General, cavalry leader, former slave trader, and ex-Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest. Hearn had no idea who Forrest was but knew from the size of the funeral that he was a person of some significance in Memphis. The piece we feature here, produced shortly after the Forrest funeral, was the end of Hearn’s reportage in Memphis.
I was not only inclined to use this piece because I like its depiction of going down the river but also because I just recently took the same trip by riverboat from Memphis to New Orleans and decided to write an essay about it. I thought our pieces together might make good companions.
I became a big fan of Hearn in the late 1970s when I was a graduate student at Cornell. For a time, I was living in a tiny apartment right below the father of one of Cornell’s English professors. He had been an accomplished correspondent himself in his younger days and, now long retired, would sometimes come to the apartment above my own, which he used as a library. He sometimes invited me up and I would browse his many books. It was during this browsing that I came across some of Hearn’s books, as he was clearly a favorite of this elderly former journalist. It was the afternoons I spent rummaging through this library that afforded me one of my most pleasant memories of graduate school.
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“Memphis to New Orleans”
November 14, 1877
By Lafcadio Hearn
… 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, become 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, if suddenly occurred to me that the color fo 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 can 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 friend 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 the 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 gree-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 swells, and the gray Spanish moss hangs in elfish festoons from ancient trees;—past orange-trees and live-oaks, pecans and cotton-woods 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 sued 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 then thousands 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; or 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 planting 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, 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.