Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Lafcadio Hearn and Dust

To Ellwood Hendrick
Tokyo May, 1896.

Dear Hendrick,________.........Somebody (who, I do not know) has been sending me books. Did you send me a book by Richard Le Gallienne? I thought Mrs. Rollins had sent it, and I wrote to her nice things about it, which vexed her into sending me a very sharp criticism of it (she is a critic), and proving me to have praised a worthless book out of liking for the sender! Where am I! I am certainly wrong. I did think the book nice because of my belief that she sent it; and I am now equally convinced that it was not. I should certainly make a bad critic if I were acquainted with authors and their friends. One sees what does not exist wherever one loves or hates. As I am rather a creature of extremes, I should be an extremely crooked, visioned judge of work. I have not tried to answer Mrs. Rollins's letter-----fact is, I can't. . . .

What is the present matter with American civilization? Nearly all the clever American authors seem to be women, and most of them have to go "out of town" for their studies of life. American city-life seems to wither and burn up everything. There is something of the same sort noticeable in England----the authors have to go out of England. Of course, there are some great exceptions------like James and Mallock. But how many great writers deal with civilized life as it is? They go to the Highlands, like Black and Barrie, ----or to Italy, like Crawford, ------or to strange countries like Kipling; but who to-day would write "A London Romance"? This brings up another question. What is the meaning of English literary superiority? It is all very well to howl about the copyright question, and the shameful treatment of American authors; but what American authors have we to compare with the English? Excepting women like Mrs. Deland and Miss Jewett and Mrs. Phelps, etc.,-------what American writers can touch English methods? James is certainly our best; -----so London steals him; but he stands alone. America has no one like a dozen,-------nay, a score of English writers that might be named. It certainly is not a question of remuneration; for real high ability is always sooner or later able to get all it asks for. It must be an effect of American city-life, and American training, and American environment;------perhaps over education has something to do with it. Again----English work is so massive-------even at its worst: the effort made is always so much larger. Perhaps we do things to fast. The English are slow and exact. I am told that the other Northern races are still somewhat behind-----always excepting great Russia. But in the France of 1896, what is doing? The greatest writers of the age are dead or silent. Is not our horrible competitive civilization at last going to choke all aspirational life into silence? After the Du Maurier school, what will even England be able to do? Alfred Austin after Alfred Tennyson!

These are my thoughts sometimes; -------then, again, I think of a possible new idealism, ------ a new prodigious burst of faith and passion and song greater than anything Victorian; ------ and I remember that all progress is rhythmical. But if this comes, it will be only, I fear, after we have been dust for a century.
I feel this is an awfully stupid letter. But I'll write a better one soon. My best wishes for your big, big, big success. They will be realized, I think.

Ever affectionately,

-from Lafcadio Hearn: Letters from Tokyo translated and edited by M. Otani (Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1920) p. 10-18.

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