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Abandoned misfit who found peace in prose and his new land

Special to The Japan Times

In the West, Lafcadio Hearn is largely unknown outside of small circles of Japanophiles and aficionados of Gaelic writers.

News photo
Lafcadio Hearn toward the end of his life (Photos courtesy of Yokohama Archives of History)

Ironically, though Hearn wrote in English, he is best known among the Japanese -- a people not renowned for regularly reading that language.

Most foreign residents with an interest in Japan besides partying or lining their pockets will likely have become aware of Hearn shortly after arriving here -- probably forming a picture of an early visitor who described a Japan that no longer exists.

Some, indeed, may have read a book or two of his, but more likely will not have, for a further irony is that Hearn is more read about than actually read.

Ignorance of the man renders the writer mythic, and so endearing is the myth that even some 21st-century expatriates may toy with the notion that they, too, are a kind of second Hearn -- a foreigner on a solo odyssey in a Japan no other gaijin has ever encountered; a conceit maybe manifested by a studied refusal to greet one of their kind passed on a lonely road. For the Hearn-wannabe, the epithet "New Lafcadio Hearn" is the ultimate compliment, and envy is the lot of wannabes who witness its bestowal on another.

Hearn occupies a more important position among the Japanese themselves. He is a writer who has contributed to the national oeuvre. Virtually any Japanese will have read his stories in their middle-school English textbooks, or perhaps even their Japanese readers (his "In a Cup of Tea" has been anthologized in translation). TV and movie versions of his "Yuki-Onna," "The Story of Mimi-nashi Hoichi," "Mujina" and other spectral tales tingle spines in ghostly August. And the intelligentsia opine that Hearn not only popularized old Japanese stories as literature, but also discovered the "Japanese soul" -- as if this had not already been revealed by the Manyoshu poets before the eighth century.

More than a discoverer, though, Hearn was an advocate.

The Japanese embraced him not for any putative revelations as much as for his being a distinguished Western writer who extolled the beauty of their country.

The Japanese appear to remain a people who seek validation, as any outlander will realize who has been here long enough to have been asked for the umpteenth time, "What do you think of my country?"

Much as Basho's haiku are etched in stone at the spots of their inspiration, Hearn's writings continue to validate his places of residence in Japan. Matsue (Shimane Prefecture), Kumamoto, Yaizu (Shizuoka Prefecture) and Tokyo have each held Hearn-related events in this centennial year of his passing on Sept. 26. Such validation helps pillar tourism, especially in Matsue, which alone had the foresight to preserve one of Hearn's homes.

The Hearn myth is nicely summed up in the publisher's foreword to the paperback "Kokoro": "Hearn's flight from Western materialism took him to Japan in 1890. His search for beauty and tranquility . . . kept him there the rest of his life."

Both statements are false.

To debunk the myth and reveal the real man, we must return to June 27, 1850, when he was born to an Anglo-Irish army surgeon, Charles Bush Hearn, and a local Greek woman, Rosa Cassimati, on the Ionian island of Lefkas.

The union of soldier and local woman proved less than sunny after the family moved to the Hearn home in Dublin. Charles lost interest in Rosa and left her -- prompting Rosa to return to Greece, never to see Lafcadio again. Charles remarried. Lafcadio, an encumbrance, was placed in the care of a great aunt, Sarah Holmes Brenane, a woman of means.

A maverick in a fiercely Irish Protestant family, Brenane had converted to Catholicism. She sought to raise her charge as a good Catholic, but his religion of predilection was the mythology of the Greeks, whose deities he discovered in art books in a corner of his aunt's library. He would later recall that he became a pantheist at the age of 15.

His aunt, realizing that Lafcadio would not grow up to be the "good Catholic" of her dreams, shifted her attention to an ambitious, devoutly Catholic relation named Henry Molyneux. In 1862, he convinced her to send 12-year-old Lafcadio to the Catholic Institution Ecclesiastique in France. The yearlong experience bestowed on Hearn a lifelong distaste for Christian education -- and a facility in the French language.

News photo
Hearn around 1873

At the age of 13, he entered St. Cuthbert's College in Ushaw, County Durham, in the northeast of England. There he first demonstrated literary ability, scoring first in English composition class for three straight years. It was also at St. Cuthbert's that he suffered an accident that blinded him in the left eye. Of diminutive stature, and with a dark complexion and a protuberant right eye, this new disfigurement shattered his modicum of self-confidence and trust in others. As he later remarked, it also accentuated his fascination with "the Odd, the Queer, the Strange, the Exotic, the Monstrous."

A further blow came in October 1867. Aunt Sarah had gone bankrupt, leaving her unable to pay Lafcadio's tuition. Thereupon Henry Molyneux arranged for him to lodge with Sarah's former maid in London's abjectly poor and squalid East End. However, she and her longshoreman husband had scant time to care for Lafcadio, who soon found himself alone, pounding tenement pavements, seeking respite in workhouses. It was, he would recall, his first look at "the wolf's side of life, the ravening side, the apish side, the ugly facets of the monkey puzzle."

Molyneux received a report of Lafcadio's rudderless existence and decided to be done with him. He gave him a pittance and a steamer ticket to New York, with instructions to go to Ohio and look up Molyneux's sister and her husband in Cincinnati, who, he said, would provide assistance.

Hearn found the sister's house, but was given $5 and turned away. At age 19 he was a waif, surviving by his wits and the generosity of strangers. He eventually landed a job with a newspaper there called The Enquirer, where he fast demonstrated a flair for dramatic rendering of macabre or morbid tales, and for investigative reporting in less reputable purlieus -- the honky-tonks and dives of Bucktown and the Levee.

Hearn, the outsider, was always drawn to the periphery. But as he rapidly became Cincinnati's most famous reporter, he found he needed fresh stimuli and, for one of Greek birth, a warmer climate. In October 1877 he left for New Orleans.

In the Gulf Coast city, Hearn virtually replicated his evolution in Cincinnati -- again progressing from waterfront vagabond to ace reporter (with The Item and The Times-Democrat) and participant observer of bordellos. But he also learned Spanish and studied Creole culture. He saw the publication of his first book, a translation of Gautier's "One of Cleopatra's Nights and Other Fantastic Romances" (1882).

Wearying of New Orleans, though, and yearning for tropical climes, Hearn's wanderlust next took him to the French West Indian island of Martinque, where he hoped to support himself by writing novels and magazine pieces for Harper's. He authored the novel "Youma" and sketches of island life, "Two Years in the French West Indies," both published in 1890.

Hearn's decision to go to Japan was not "a flight from Western materialism." He had harbored an interest in the country at least since 1885, when he wrote lovingly of the Japanese exhibit at that year's New Orleans Exposition for Harper's Weekly and Harper's Bazaar. He persuaded Henry Alden, the editor of Harper's Magazine, to publish a book on Japan.

Hearn landed at Yokohama on April 12, 1890. Fortunately, he had a letter of introduction to Basil Hall Chamberlain, a distinguished professor at Tokyo Imperial University (forerunner of the present-day University of Tokyo), and thus escaped roughing it on the waterfront one more time. The professor helped Hearn to find a position teaching English at a school in

Matsue, near the Sea of Japan.

His first six months in Japan were idyllic. He poured forth his most florid descriptions of the country, rich in vignettes topped with thunderclaps of exclamation: "Those first ghostly love-colors of a morning steeped in mist soft as sleep itself resolved into a visible exhalation!" There were, too, painterly musings hued from a fecund palette: "As the sun's yellow rim comes into sight, fine thin lines of warmer tone -- spectral violets and opalines -- shoot across the flood, treetops take fire, and the unpainted facades of high edifices across the water change their wood-color to vapory gold through the delicious haze."

Hearn was rocked, as one can only be upon falling in love or first visiting a country.

Winter having descended on Matsue, Hearn shivered in his wood-and-paper house. He dreamed of Martinique and toyed with the idea of going to the Philippines. Then a colleague, Sentaro Nishida, suggested someone to keep him warm -- a wife. Hearn agreed. He and Setsuko Koizumi, daughter of a local ex-samurai, were married in January 1891. A son, Leopold Kazuo Koizumi, was born in November 1893. Hearn gave up any thought of leaving Japan. He had become a family man. He would not abandon his wife and son as Charles Hearn had abandoned Rosa and him.

He remained devoted to family despite the cooling of his passion for Japan. "The beautiful illusion of Japan, the almost weird charm that comes with one's first entrance into her magical atmosphere, had, indeed stayed with me very long but had totally faded out at last" ("Out of the East," 1895).

We fall in love, but our ardor must cool if we are not to be consumed. The white heat of Hearn's earlier prose also cooled.

He sought a limpid, simpler style, and this he achieved in his ghost stories and weird tales and later essays.

In spite of his facility with languages, Hearn learned only enough Japanese to speak to rickshawmen and write the kana syllabaries. That he never achieved fluency perhaps was a plus, because in place of stories that smelled of the lamp, his tales have the inflections and rhythm of spoken language; from her childhood memory, Setsuko would recount these to him in a darkened room.

Another benefit of him not having devoted himself to learning hundreds of Chinese characters in middle age was a proportionately larger output -- he was prolific, with 12 books on Japan in just 14 years.

Hearn had achieved distinction as a journalist, and later fame as a writer, during an odyssey that ended in Japan.

"At the turn of the century," writes Kenneth Rexroth in "The Buddhist Writings of Lafcadio Hearn," "Hearn was considered one of the finest, if not the finest, of American prose stylists . . . [His] Japanese writings demonstrate economy, concentration and a great control of language . . . "

Style without substance can't nourish the soul. Hearn had both.

This pantheist with strong Buddhist leanings always wondered at the world and, with sentiments like the following, makes us feel the wonder, too: "No mere god could ever contrive such a prodigy as the eye of a May-fly or the tail of a firefly."

For other stories in our package on Lafcadio Hearn, please click the following links:

Disillusioned bard of a bygone Japan
  By Roger Pulvers

Glimpsing the essence of Hearn's Kamakura
  By Burritt Sabin

The Japan Times: Sept. 26, 2004
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