Abandoned misfit who found peace in prose and his new land
By BURRITT SABIN
Special to The Japan Times
In the West, Lafcadio Hearn is largely unknown outside of small circles of Japanophiles and aficionados of Gaelic writers.
|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
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
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
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
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
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
|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
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
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"
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
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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