Hearn: A Biographical Essay
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,
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.”
He was sent to Rouen, France, just one
year before his literary idol, Guy de Maupassant, arrived
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
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,
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.
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
literary output, and Hearn’s translations of French
stories are still read and admired today. In
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.
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
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
Lafcadio Hearn a measure of wealth and fame. Hearn traveled
two years, producing a book from his travel reports and
sketches for Harper’s called Two Years
in Martinique which
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
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.
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
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
country. Primarily out of concern for the well being of
his extended family, he became a Japanese citizen,
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
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
for Lafcadio Hearn in the PBO database .