Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 971
Chita is based on actual events, and its origins lie in Lafcadio Hearn’s residence in Louisiana in the 1870’s and 1880’s and his travels to the barrier islands off its coast in the Gulf of Mexico. It was at a dinner party in 1883 that New Orleans writer George Washington Cable told Hearn the story of Last Island’s destruction in the great hurricane of August 10, 1856. According to that account, a girl belonging to a prominent Creole family had been rescued after the storm, was returned to her parents in New Orleans, and had subsequently been sent to a convent. By then, however, the girl had come to prefer the carefree life she had experienced on the coast, and she ran off to marry a fisherman and have numerous children.
Hearn was inspired by the barrier islands’ wild beauty, and he actually wrote much of Chita during visits to Grand Isle in 1886 and 1887. He was able to supplement Cable’s account with stories from New Orleans newspapers, learning, for instance, about the crucial role played by Captain Abraham Smith and his ship, the Star. Noted New Orleans doctor Rudolph Matas shared medical information with Hearn, and musician Henry Edward Krehbiel taught him about Creole music. Hearn went on to publish two sketches based on the material, “Torn Letters” and “The Post-Office,” in the New Orleans Times-Democrat in 1884. The novel itself appeared in serial form in Harper’s Magazine in April, 1888, and a revised version—dedicated to Matas—was published in book form the following year.
Hearn was a miniaturist rather than a natural novelist, and, as short as it is, Chita is one of his longest sustained works. However, it itself is divided into three sections, and each section includes myriad individual episodes, observations, and sensory details. The novel has been analyzed as a series of carefully structured musical “movements,” but given the static effect of its style, it can also be interpreted as a kind of painting.
The nineteenth century art movement known as Impressionism, which emphasized individual brush strokes and the fleeting nature of light and color, had come into prominence in France during the period Hearn had lived in Louisiana. Although Hearn supplemented his modest writing income with woodcuts of typical New Orleans types, it is unclear whether he was aware of the French movement. Still, his literary style closely approximates the Impressionists’ works. The effect is particularly obvious in the novel’s opening section, in which Hearn paints an elaborate and extended word-picture of the Gulf Coast and its barrier islands: “Over the rim of the sea a bright cloud gently pushes up its head,” runs one typical passage. “It rises; and others rise with it, to right and left—slowly at first; then more swiftly. All are brilliantly white and flocculent, like loose new cotton.” Hearn’s preference for the present tense, his short clauses and sentences, and even his use of punctuation (which is likely to strike modern readers as excessive)—all contribute to the shimmering effect.
Whatever Hearn’s knowledge of French art, he was quite familiar with contemporary French literature. While in New Orleans, he had translated works by French authors Théophile Gautier and Pierre Loti, both of whom wrote of distant lands and amorous adventures. Hearn shared their fascination with the exotic and reveled in what he thought of as the strange life and landscape of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. He also was drawn to marginalized groups, those people who stubbornly maintained a traditional way of life in the face of “progress.” He also was drawn to the region’s Creole culture—comprised, as he understood it, largely of French elements—finding a rich and vital subject. (Hearn would later move to Japan and write extensively about its traditional, and fast-disappearing, way of life.)
The evolutionary theories of English social philosopher Herbert Spencer would prove to be an important influence on the deterministic, even pessimistic American literary movement known as naturalism. Hearn’s interest in Spencer (awakened by an acquaintance in New Orleans), however, led him in an entirely different direction, encouraging him to develop the more positive worldview he displays in Chita. It is this outlook that the girl acquires as she grows up with the Vioscas, memorizing “with novel delight much that was told her day by day concerning the nature surrounding her,—many secrets of the air, many of those signs of heaven which the dwellers in cities cannot comprehend.”
Like the French writers he admired, Hearn was more concerned with description than with character development, and the individuals in his novel are scarcely more significant than the earth and the sky and the relentless waters of the gulf. Chita herself emerges as an important figure only in a few pages of the novel’s final section. In Hearn’s vision, each element of the novel (and the world) is a fragment of the greater whole.
Chita proved to be a critical and popular success. The novel was reprinted nearly one dozen times and appeared in a British edition in 1890. In subsequent decades, however, Hearn and his novel passed out of fashion. Twenty-first century readers may find its plot sketchy and overly sentimental, appreciating it instead as a poetic evocation of a vanishing culture. They may also appreciate it as an account of a vanishing landscape. “The sea is devouring the land,” observes the novel’s narrator in its opening section. “Many and many a mile of ground has yielded to the tireless charging of Ocean’s cavalry.” Vivid memories of the destruction wrought on the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, coupled with fears that erosion could destroy Louisiana’s barrier islands by the end of the twenty-first century, make it possible to read Chita both in an ecological context and in a purely literary one.
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