Tribal Diatribe – On Lafcadio Hearn and the Irish love of bad language
An Irishman’s Diary
Lafcadio Hearn: various annoyances provoked him to write a letter telling Harper’s Magazine where they could stick their assignment
Having recently participated in a TV documentary on the Irish fondness for swearing, I was struck by an essay in the latest New York Review of Books. It concerns Lafcadio Hearn: a writer who spent his childhood in Ireland, although he also had multiple other layers of identity, thanks to a Greek mother, British citizenship, many years in the US, and a final home in Japan.
The NYRB piece centres on a pivotal moment, from 1890, when he arrived in Yokohama on an assignment for Harper’s Magazine. Then as now, there was a pandemic on – the Russian Flu – and he hadn’t been paid any advance. These and other annoyances provoked him to write a letter home telling Harper’s where they could stick their assignment.
It included this summary of the magazine staff: “Lying clerks and hypocritical, thieving editors, […] artists whose artistic ability consists in farting sixty-seven times to the minute – scallywags, scoundrels, swindlers, sons of bitches – Pisspots-with-the-handles-broken-off-and-the-bottom-knocked out – ignoramuses with the souls of slime composed of seventeen different kinds of shit.”
He also called them “miserable beggarly buggerly cowardly rascally boorish brutal sons of bitches”. And all that off his chest, he concluded: “Please understand that your resentment has for me less than the value of a bottled fart, and your bank account less consequence than a wooden shit-house struck by lightning.”
So writing, Hearn burned his journalistic boats. And intemperate as the letter was, it led to him settling in Japan and becoming the writer he is remembered as today.
But it also set me reading his 1961 biography by American Elizabeth Stevenson, which among other things wrestles with Hearn’s complex identity. “Only the Japanese make a positive claim [to him],” Stevenson writes. As for his other nationalities: “The case for the British is thinner than for the Americans […] but it is not altogether hopeless. Hearn spent his formative years in Dublin . . .”
Before anyone gets annoyed about the use of the B-word there, she does also use the I-word. But she does so in a way that brings us back to where I started. Her book also quotes the sweary letter and mentions how shocked the recipient was. He shouldn’t have been, Stevenson suggests.
He had just failed to appreciate its style: “a swinging Irish profanity in which words had gained complete control of the writer.”
Half a century later, Hearn’s more typical literary output was the subject of an excellent pun by a young Samuel Beckett. Beckett was touring Europe at the time – 1937 – and being nagged by his family to write for The Irish Times (via something called An Irishman’s Diary). In a letter to a friend, he jokes about contributing “Lafcadio Hernia” to the column.
Perhaps the episode in Yokohama could also be diagnosed as a Lafcadio Hernia: an acute outbreak of bad language that led to a chronic career rupture. As for Beckett, he was no stranger to occasional swearing either, as I was reminded a few years back while reading Molloy in my local café.
Although the book presents his usual grim picture of the human condition, one passage made me laugh out loud. And this was a proud moment, because academics are always talking about how funny Beckett is, but their laughter seems to be mostly of the intellectual kind: inaudible. Whereas here my open and spontaneous mirth drew public attention. I was so pleased I had to resist a temptation to hold the book up and point at the author’s name for anyone who was looking.
Had they looked closer, they would have seen I was laughing at the antics of a foul-mouthed parrot. The bird is kept by a woman who is also keeping Molloy. And it has the bad habit of saying occasionally “Fuck the son of a bitch”, so that Molloy reasons it must formerly “have belonged to an American sailor”. Then it emerges that the parrot can also say “Putain de merde”, causing Molloy to conclude: “He must have belonged to a French sailor” before the American.
The woman, meanwhile, is trying to civilise the bird by teaching it to say “Pretty Polly”. And Molloy, sensing kinship with the caged animal, is clearly moved by its sincere attempts at reform. The parrot is an eager student: “He listened [to the words “Pretty Polly”], his head on one side, pondered, then said, Fuck the son of a bitch. It was clear he was doing his best.”
Maybe the parrot was Irish. Or maybe Beckett was right to blame its vocabulary on the international maritime community. Speaking of which, when Lafcadio Hearn wrote his letter from Yokohama, according to the biography, he was staying in a hotel called Carey’s, an American-owned establishment “frequented by sailors”.