Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A Stray Impressionist Finds his Home

Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) had travelled and wandered far in his life, and though he thought the tropics would keep him, it was in the far east that he discovered home. In the fall of 1889, he was unhappy and staying in New York when an art editor at Harper's suggested he write a book on Japan. While Hearn worked on his book proposal for Harper's, the art editor travelled to Montreal to talk with Sir William Van Horne to see if he could provide passage across Canada for Hearn and an artist. Sir William agreed and offered $250 upon Hearn's arrival in Montreal. The requirement was for Lafcadio Hearn to write an article about the trip across Canada on one of Sir William's Canadian Pacific Railway trains.

On March 8th, 1890, Hearn and C. D. Weldon, the artist, left New York by train and arrived in Montreal greeted by the cold and ice:

Ice, many inches thick, sheets the pavements; and lines of sleighs, instead of lines of hacks, wait before the station for passengers. No wheeled vehicles are visible,--except one hotel omnibus: only sleighs are passing. They have for me quite an unfamiliar picturesqueness.

Hearn's glimpse of Montreal was unfortunately short. It would have been interesting to read of his impressions from a longer stay in Montreal, but he did leave a short description:

The city is very solid and very gray--a limestone city largely: comfortable, conservative looking. Nothing that strikes the eyes has a foreign aspect, --except a few old French houses recalling memories of New Orleans: the newer and larger buildings awake remembrances of New York and Philadelphia in their less modern quarters.

These excerpts are from the "required" article published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in 1890; in the article Hearn also reflects on the nature of modern travel. He sees that a circuit of the world was possible, according to his calculations, in 35 days and six hours. He outlines the various stages and durations. It was on his mind. He was fondly attracted to Elizabeth Bisland, a fellow journalist, who had left New York on a race to be the first to circumnavigate the world in the shortest time. Bisland was playing catch-up with Nellie Bly who had already left on her trip around the world. It was the attempt of the owner of the Cosmopolitan Magazine's to compete with Bly and The World. Nellie Bly won.

Hearn's article continues with wonderful descriptions of Canadian scenery for many pages; just what Sir William Van Horne was looking for I am sure. They arrived at Vancouver where they boarded the Abysinnia which departed on March 17th.

It was on this day, the 4th of April, 1890, when Lafcadio Hearn first glimpsed Japan, the country that this "civilized nomad" could at last call home:

Then with a delicious shock of surprise I see something for which I had been looking, --far exceeding all anticipation --but so ghostly, so dream white against the morning blue, that I did not observe it at the first glance: an exquisite snowy cone towering above all other visible things--Fujiyama! Its base, the same tint as the distances, I cannot see--only the perfect crown, seeming to hang in the sky like a delicate film,--a phantom.


Unknown said...

Enjoyed the account, which was clearly well researched and well written. I'm a great admirer of the work of Hearn and have read all the biographies of this wonderful ghostly fugitive. Well done Chumley, from Lucas Montague in Ireland

ralph mackay said...

Thank you very much for the compliment. I too have been a devotee of Hearn ever since the day in 1979 I picked up his Shadowings (Little Brown, 1900) in an older shop in Montreal now long gone. Information gleaned is from Elizabeth Stevenson's biography. Cheers.