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...
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