Lafcadio Hearn: A Biographical Essay

Portait of Lafcadio HearnOf Greek and Anglo-Irish parentage, Hearn was born on the island of Lefkas on June 27, 1850, and died in Japan on September 26, 1904. When he was three his parents separated and young Lafcadio was taken to Ireland to be raised by a stern great-aunt, who intended him for the Jesuit priesthood. After primary school in Ireland, Hearn spent four years at St. Cuthbert’s in England.

At the age of thirteen, a schoolyard accident cost him the sight in his left eye. Feeling disfigured and outcast, Hearn wore wide brimmed hats and refused to allow himself to be sketched or photographed from the left side for the remainder of his life.

As Yone Noguchi says, “His Greek temperament and French culture became frost-bitten as a flower in the North.”pba00753

He was sent to Rouen, France, just one year before his literary idol, Guy de Maupassant, arrived at the same school. But the two never met; Hearn, rootless and restless again, escaped to Paris. When his wealthy aunt stopped the allowance which was his sole support, Hearn briefly kicked around unemployed in London. His aunt’s bad investments crashed, and scarcely enough of her fortune remained to buy him a one-way ticket to America -- and the distant relations willing to take him in.

In 1869, nineteen-year-old Lafcadio Hearn reached America. Details of his time in New York are sketchy, but it is known that Hearn picked up some typesetting and proofreading skills which would serve him well. Two years on, weary of the gritty life of New York, he came at last to Cincinnati. Making friends with a printer, the painfully shy and odd-seeming Hearn was able to supplement his income by selling newspaper sketches. In October of 1872, he was hired to do piece work, and by early 1874 was a regular reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer .

Hearn covered and helped solve a sensational murder, the Tanyard Case, which brought him fresh notoriety. However, his marriage to a woman of mixed race, Mattie Foley, was not recognized under Ohio law and got him fired from the Enquirer. Immediately the Cincinnati Commercial snapped him up, and Hearn’s beat became crimes, hangings, the bitter realities of poverty and the low life in post-bellum Cincinnati.

pba02313In 1877, after six years in Cincinnati, Hearn departed for New Orleans to cover the contentious Tilden-Hayes election of 1876. When he turned in travel and local color stories instead, the Cincinnati Enquirer stopped paying. Translating French realists like Gautier and Flaubert, and later Zola and de Maupassant, strongly marked Hearn’s literary output, and Hearn’s translations of French stories are still read and admired today. In New Orleans he wrote local sketches, honing his remarkably intense and atmospheric prose style, famed for its brevity as much as for vividly evocative language.

The starkest poverty forced Hearn, nearly starving, to find any work he could; after almost a year of scraping an existence in the slums of New Orleans, the Item hired him for columns, cartoons, book reviews, and, because of his excellent command of French, abstracts and compilations of the several Louisiana French newspapers. The Times-Democrat paid him for stories of local life, Creole culture, articles urging the preservation of New Orleans’ architectural heritage, and ghost stories.pba00751

Hearn’s eyesight grew worse, making his livelihood of writing, proofreading, and translating more and more difficult. Some of his friends in New Orleans included novelist and social reformer George Washington Cable and the voodoo queen Marie Laveau. While at New Orleans’ World Industrial and Cotton Exhibition of 1884-85, Hearn chanced on a Japanese exhibit which drew him again and again. At about the same time, Cable told Hearn the true story of the devastating hurricane on Dernier Isle which became Hearn’s novel Chita (see pba00751 and pba002319), first published in Harper’s Magazine to great commercial and critical success in 1889. Because Cable resented Hearn’s using the story Cable himself had intended to write, the friendship permanently cooled.

Chita brought Lafcadio Hearn a measure of wealth and fame. Hearn traveled to Martinique and stayed two years, producing a book from his travel reports and sketches for Harper’s called Two Years in Martinique which became Two Years in the French West Indies (see pba002298 and pba002300), as well as a novel based on the true story of a slave woman who protected her young charge in the midst of a slave uprising, Youma: The Story of a West-Indian Slave (see pba00405). These books did not sell as well. Disappointed, Hearn returned to New York in the spring of 1889, but couldn't find the easy part-time job he wanted. The New York Times offered him a post as a book reviewer and commentator on French intellectual and cultural trends, but there was nothing made available to work on.

pba02301Frustrated, Hearn turned to reading: Percival Lowell’s Soul of the Far East captivated him. When his friend, art editor William Patten of Harper’s, suggested a trip to Japan, Hearn leaped at the chance. In 1889 he outlined his proposed book Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (see pba00759, pba02291, and pba002292) with clarity and grace. “I could not hope. . . to discover totally new things, but only to consider things in a totally new way. . . . The studied aim would be to create, in the minds of the readers, a vivid impression of living in Japan—not simply as an observer but as one taking part in the daily existence of the common people, and thinking with their thoughts.” Harper’s sent him on assignment to Japan.

Lafcadio Hearn came to Tokyo at last in 1890. Almost upon his arrival, he cancelled the deal with Harper’s Magazine in order to teach Western literature to Japanese students. In 1891, Hearn married Setsuko Koizumi, of a samurai family; they had three sons and one daughter. He taught in several places in Japan and by 1896 he was a professor at Tokyo (Imperial) University.

Often happy in his new family life, Hearn immersed himself deeply into the life and culture of his adopted country. Primarily out of concern for the well being of his extended family, he became a Japanese citizen, taking the name Koizumi Yakumo. The xenophobia of late 19th and early 20th Century Japan oppressed him and made his life as a university teacher precarious; poorly paid, sometimes harried by feuds with jealous academicians, Hearn moved his family several times, trying to find more congenial places to live and write. His students honored their sensei as much as other professors resented his success. In life and in death, Hearn’s staunchest friends and bitterest enemies were his literary colleagues.

For a generation, Hearn’s lectures provided Japanese scholars with nearly all they knew of English and American literature. Hearn’s writings also became the major source for Westerners curious about Japan’s extraordinarily rich and ancient culture, its fascinating tales and traditions.

In 1893, Hearn wrote to author and editor Basil Hall Chamberlin, “After four years studying poetical prose, I am forced now to study simplicity. After attempting my utmost at ornamentation, I am converted by my own mistakes. The great point is to touch with simple words.”

Hearn died of heart trouble in September of 1904, and was the first Westerner to be buried in Japan according to the Buddhist rites. His gravestone reads, “In memory of Lafcadio Hearn, whose pen was mightier than the sword of the victorious nation which he loved and lived among, and whose highest honor it shall ever be to have given him citizenship and, alas, a grave!”

Vilified in turn by the Western press possibly due to his seeming opposition to Christianity and profound sense of superiority of Asian culture which offended many readers in the West, Hearn’s literary reputation languished in Britain and America. In Japan he is still revered, where his English versions Japanese folktales are used in the classroom as a foundation for teaching English to Japanese students.

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