Any one who has ever paid a flying visit to New Orleans probably knows something about those various culinary preparations whose generic name is “Gombo”—compounded of many odds and ends, with the okra-plant, or true gombo for a basis, but also comprising occasionally “losé, zepinard, laitie,” and the other vegetables sold in bunches in the French market. At all events any person who has remained in the city for a season must have become familiar with the nature of “gombo filé,” “gombo févi,” and “gombo aux herbes,” or as our colored cook calls it, “gombo zhèbes”—for she belongs to the older generation of Creole cuisinières, and speaks the patois in its primitive purity, without using a single “r.” Her daughter, who has been to school, would pronounce it gombo zhairbes:—the modern patois is becoming more and more Frenchified, and will soon be altogether forgotten, not only throughout Louisiana, but even in the Antilles. It still, however, retains originality enough to be understood with difficulty by persons thoroughly familiar with French; and even those who know nothing of any language but English, readily recognize it by the peculiarly rapid syllabification and musical intonation. Such English-speaking residents of New Orleans seldom speak of it as “Creole”: they call it gombo, for some mysterious reason which I have never been able to explain satisfactorily. The colored Creoles of the city have themselves begun to use the term to characterize the patois spoken by the survivors of slavery days. Turiault tells us that in the towns of Martinique, where the Creole is gradually changing into French, the Bitacos, or country negroes who still speak the patois nearly pure, are much ridiculed by their municipal brethren:—Ça ou ka palé là, chè, c’est nèg:—Ça pas Créole! (“What you talk is ‘nigger,’ my dear:—that isn’t Creole!”) In like manner a young Creole negro or negress of New Orleans might tell an aged member of his race: “Ça qui to parlé ça pas Créole: ça c’est gombo!” I have sometimes heard the pure and primitive Creole also called “Congo” by colored folks of the new generation.
In ten years of serving as a correspondent and selling his writing in such periodicals as the "New Orleans Daily Item," "Times-Democrat," "Harper's Weekly," and "Scribner's Magazine" he crystallized the way Americans view New Orleans and its south Louisiana environs. Hearn was prolific, producing colorful and vivid sketches, vignettes, news articles, essays, translations of French and Spanish literature, book reviews, short stories, and woodblock prints.
He haunted the French Quarter to cover such events as the death of Marie Laveau. His descriptions of the seamy side of New Orleans, tainted with voodoo, debauchery, and mystery made a lasting impression on the nation. Denizens of the Crescent City and devotees who flock there for escapades and pleasures will recognize these original tales of corruption, of decay and benign frivolity, and of endless partying. With his writing, Hearn virtually invented the national image of New Orleans as a kind of alternative reality to the United States as a whole.
S. Frederick Starr, a leading authority on New Orleans and Louisiana culture, edits the volume, adding an introduction that places Hearn in a social, historical, and literary context.
Hearn was sensitive to the unique cultural milieu of New Orleans and Louisiana. During the decade that he spent in New Orleans, Hearn collected songs for the well-known New York music critic Henry Edward Krehbiel and extensively studied Creole French, making valuable and lasting contributions to ethnomusicology and linguistics.
Hearn's writings on Japan are famous and have long been available. But "Inventing New Orleans: Writings of Lafcadio Hearn" brings together a selection of Hearn's nonfiction on New Orleans and Louisiana, creating a previously unavailable sampling. In these pieces Hearn, an Anglo-Greek immigrant who came to America by way of Ireland, is alternately playful, lyrical, and morbid. This gathering also features ten newly discovered sketches. Using his broad stylistic palette, Hearn conjures up a lost New Orleans which later writers such as William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams used to evoke the city as both reality and symbol.
Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) was a prolific writer, critic, amateur engraver, and journalist. His many books-on a diverse range of subjects-include "La Cuisine Creole: A Collection of Culinary Recipes" (1885), "Gombo Zhebes" (1885), "Chita" (1889), and "Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan" (1894).
S. Frederick Starr is chair of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University. His previous writings on Louisiana culture include "New Orleans Unmasqued" (1989), "Southern Comfort: The Garden District of New Orleans" (1998), and "Louis Moreau Gottschalk" (2000).