Lafcadio Hearn
By Charles W. Kent, 1907. (Editorial sub-headings have been added.)

Lafcadio Hearn

Ionian Roots

Brother in impressionistic prose to Pierre Loti — producing a style instinct with sensation, color and melody — Lafcadio Hearn first saw the light of day on the Island of Santa Maura, off the eastern coast of Greece, June 27, 1850. Anciently the deeply wooded, mountainous Ionian Isle had been called Leucadia (in modern Greek Levkas or Lefcada), and hence the name given the gifted son of Rose Cerigote, a beautiful Greek girl, and Surgeon-major Charles Bush Hearn, of the Seventy-sixth Foot, who were married according to Greek rites in Santa Maura. Here, where Sappho is reputed to have flung herself to death from the “rock of woe,” little Lafcadio spent his earliest years, until England ceded the Ionian Isle to Greece, which necessitated the return of Dr. Hearn and his family to Dublin, Irleand. Afterwards, in his “Dream of a Summer Day,” Hearn recalled that faraway birthplace of tragedies and romance: “I have memory of a place and a magical time, in which the sun and the moon were larger and brighter than now. Whether it was of this life or of some life before I cannot tell, but I know the sky was very much more blue and nearer the world. …The sea was alive and used to talk and the wind made me cry out for joy when it touched me.”

Family Dissolution and a Troubled Childhood

Though Irish skies and scenes had suited the Hearns for three generations — the original head of the family having passed over from Dorsetshire to Meath in 1693 as private chaplain to a Lord Lieutenant — they offered a cheerless setting to the sun-loving Greek girl. Misunderstanding and unhappiness followed apace, and when Lafcadio was in his seventeenth year [editor's note: probably should read “seventh year”], with a brother three years his junior, the miserable mother fled to Smyrna, leaving her dark-eyed, odd-looking children to the care of their indifferent father. The marriage was annulled and in time both parents contracted other nuptial ties. From this sensational break the sensitive elder son never recovered, and it probably sowed the seeds of that morbid distrust of closest friends, which became a fixed trait in his mature character.

Lafcadio, a passionate, sickly boy, was adopted by his grand-aunt, Mrs. Brenans, the widow of a wealthy Irishman, and taken to live in Wales, where he passed a strange childhood. Mrs. Brenans was a convert to the Roman Catholic Church and was extremely bigoted, being surrounded by fawning priests and converted protégés. One of these, however, known as “Cousin Jane,” bequeathed him a number of classics and very soon he began to delight in mythology. His pious protectress, realizing his extraordinary devotion to “pagan gods,” had him put under religious tutelage. Catechism and confession took the place of his beloved deities, and from even that early period he cherished his resentment against Romanism.

“Almost Unrelieved Dissatisfaction and Wretchedness”

Little is known of his life between seven and nineteen, but the glimpses caught suffice to prove it an area of almost unrelieved dissatisfaction and wretchedness. Two years are supposed to have been spent in a Jesuit College in the northern part of France, which would account for his intimate and unusual knowledge of the French language. Certain it is that he was near Durham, where his student days evidently ended 1865, in all probability due to the distressing accident there which ruined the sight of one eye and impaired that of the other. A knot at the end of a rope used in a boyish game caused the dire misfortune, which tereafter was a source of perpetual distress to him. About the same time he became estranged from his grand-aunt and their connection was severed for good and all. Doubtless her crowd of parasites helped the cause along; for when she died, a few years later, they had sucked dry her substance, and little remained of her estate.

These were dark days for Lafcadio Hearn, tramping through the endless London streets, ill and half-blind. Details are happily lost, but it is stated in a letter of his that he was penniless, friendless, and sick in the great metropolis. Once he took service as a servant and once he was an inmate of the workhouse! Fragments of autobiographic papers, found after his death, shed these bits of crepuscular light upon his clouded early career.

New York and Cincinnati Years

Some time in 1869 — the exact date remains obscure — he came to the new world to seek betterment. How he managed the trip is also unrecorded; but he arrived in New York city, and for almost two years wandered hither and thither with nothing to recommend him to an employer. Odd jobs fell in his way, however, and while buffeting the blows of fate he made a friend in an Irish carpenter, a fellow-exile, who allowed him to sleep on the shavings, together with other privileges. In return Lafcadio ran errands and performed some simple bookkeeping. But these pursuits, together with hours spent in public libraries, could not continue forever. Unrest urged him farther west, and at the end of two years he journeyed on an emigrant train to Cincinnati, Ohio, where indulging in mean employments, among which was that of assistant to a Syrian street peddler, he secured regular work as type-setter and proof-reader with the Robert Clark Company. While here he endeavored to introduce a punctuation reform which gained him among his fellows the soubriquet of “Old Semicolon.”

Mechanical labor could not long satisfy his artistic nature, and he gave up his position with the publishers to become the private secretary of Thomas Vickers, then a librarian of the Cincinnati public library. Here his insatiable appetite for erudite matters was somewhat appeased, and he made the most of the opportunity;p but early in 1874 he was engaged as a general reporter on the Cincinnati Enquirer. Forthwith market reports and kindred things were ground out until a chance opened a more congenial field to him in an assignment on an atrocious murder, which he wrote up with such gruesome power that the town experienced a nine days' thrill of horror. Colonel John A. Cockerill, then in charge of the Enquirer, was not slow to see the advantage of making Hearn a descriptive and sensational writer on his paper. That year of 1874 also found the young journalist combining forces with H. F. Farney, the artist, on an amorphous Sunday publication called Ge Giglampz, which met an early and well-earned death within nine weeks. During the following year he resigned from the Enquirer and went on the Gazette, but in 1876 became a regular reporter for the Commercial. Foremost among the friends me made in Cincinnati at this time were Joseph Timison and H. E. Krehbiel, the latter well-known musical critic becoming his favorite companion in many curious explorations of the polyglot slums in search for “material,” particularly that which was strange and exotic.

Outside of theis journalistic wear and tear he devoted his time to the study of the French Romantic school, and their passion for le mot juste became his. Hours stolen from sleep would be given to the transliteration of Theophile Gautier, whose works, replete with the fantastic and bizarre, were his daily diet. Poor eyesight could not deter his purpose, no more than a poor purse could prevent the buying of dictionaries and thesauri. And it will be remembered that his maiden volume contained inimitable translations of six tales by Gautier, under the general title of ‘One of Cleopatra's Nights’ (1882).

South to New Orleans

Cincinnati eventually wearied him, and Southern secenes powerfully appealing to his senses, as they had ever done, he went to New Orleans in the year 1877. Poverty and self-sacrifice again awaited him, but it was during his sojourn in Louisiana that he developed into one of the great literary stylists of the Nineteenth Century. At first he read proof, clipped exchanges and wrote editorials for a minor journal dalled the Daily Item. Occasionally he contributed a translation, usually something weird or wonderful, and again he would fashion the original story or essay which subsequently were known as his “fantastics.” Despite carpet-bagger misrule and an epidemic of yellow fever which greeted him in the new environment, he enjoyed living among the poeple of New Orleans; the half-tropical life of the town had a peculiar appeal for him. Always anxious to free himself ofrom the drudgery of daily journalism, he exercised economy, putting his small savings into several literary schemes, but all such ventures were failures and he came out of them poorer than ever. Chief among his fond dreams was that of opening a second-hand bookshop, but it never became a reality.

Instead, in 1881, by good fortune he was brought into contact with the personnel of the reorganized Times-Democrat, upon which he was given employment. The staff included such unusual men as Charles Whitney, Honoré Burthe, and John Augustin, while Page M. Baker was editor-in-chief. Amid these choise spirits Lafcadio Hearn found true appreciation of his genius, and thus encouraged he produced his unique translations from the French writers Gautier, De Maupassant, and Loti — together with editorials on the oddest subjects, revealing his love of recondite research. These beautiful bits of belles-lettres were eagerly sought and read by a small but enthusiastic clientèle. In this fashion appeared the contents of three of his earlier works: ‘One of Cleopatra's Nights,’ ‘Stray Leaves from Strange Literature,’ and ‘Some Chinese Ghosts.’ To this period also belongs his collection of Creole proverbs published in 1885, udner the title of ’Gombo ZhXeXbes,’ which was the result of laborious study of oral literature.

Into the Tropics

A visit paid in the summer of 1884 to Grande Isle, one of the islands lying in the Gulf of Mexico, resulted in his successful novelette ‘Chita, A Story of Last Island,’ which was originally published in the Times-Democrat under the name of ‘Torn Letters.’ It won wider recognition than had been accorded to any previous efforts, and ‘Chita’ enabled him to carry out his cherished ambition of penetrating farther into the tropics. The Harpers, the publishers of his last tale, commissioned him to undertake the journey for them, and in 1887 he left New Orleans to sail for the Windward Islands. He went as far south as British Guiana, and during his sojourn wrote a number of travel-sketches, which appears in Harper's Magazine. The tropical world infatuated him, and after finishing the work assigned to him by the Harpers, he returned to live in Martinique. His next book, ‘Two Years in the French West Indies,’ was the outcome of his experiences and presented a minute and brilliant record of his vivid impressions.

New York, after a lapse of almost twenty years, again saw Lafcadio Hearn in 1889, when he returned there to correct the final proofs of ‘Chita’ before its issuance in book form. Money was not plentiful, however, and only by dint of extraordinary labor — the translation of Anatole France's ‘Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard’ in a couple of weeks — did he manage to keep his head above water. Finally he made an arrangement with the Harpers to go to Japan and write articles from there, after the same manner as his West Indian essays. The route chosen was by way of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and on May 8, 1890, Lafcadio Hearn left for the East never to return to America.

And on to Japan

During the voyage he discovered that the artist with him was to receive more than double the pay allowed him. Abruptly he severed his contract. Fortunately he had a letter of introduction to Paymaster Mitchell McDonald, a young American naval officer stationed at Yokohama, and the letter opened the way for the stranger. In August, 1890, Professor Basil Hall Chamberlain secured him a position in a school at Matsue, and here he began making those now well-known studies of the Japanese people, their customs, manners and civilization, which continued for an uninterrupted period of fourteen years, and of which ’ Japan: an Interpretation’ (1894) was the first volume, and ‘Japan: an Interpretation’ (1904) the last, Lafcadio Hearn became a favorite with his pupils and with the Japanese people at large. In January, 1891, he married Setsu Loizumi, a lady of high Samurai rank. Thereupon he renounced his English allegiance to become a subject of the Mikado, that his children might never suffer a doubtful position. He was adopted into his wife's family, and assumed their name together with the personal title “Yakumo,” which signifies “Eight-clouds.”

Matsue proved too severe a climate for him and he was transferred to the Great Government College at Kumamoto, the town in which his first child was born. Three years later, in 1895, he again changed his place of residence by removing to Kobe, where he engaged in journalistic work on the Chronicle. But the work told upon his weak eyesight, and he was compelled to abandon it. Through the influence of Professor Chamberlain he was given the position of Professor of English in the Imperial University of Tokio, where he remained a number of years. His salary was comparatively large, but not enough to support his increasing family. Constant ill-health, too, depleted his literary energies, and so hindred that source of income. During 1902, he wrote to American friends invoking their aid in securing work among them, and a course of lectures was arranged for Cornell University. Fate was against him, however, in the form of refusal to leave Tokio University even for a lecture-season, and this led to resignation. Then an epidemic of typhoid at Ithaca depleted Cornell funds and the authorities withdrew from their contract. The gloomy prospect was somewhat relieved by negotiations with the University of London for a series of lectures and by his securing the chair of English at the Weseda University; but violent illness intervened which left him broken. One the twenty-sixth of September, 1904, while walking on his veranda, he died suddenly, and his burial was effected according to Buddistic rites. A critic, speaking of him, said he was “the one alien who is the true adopted child of the Japanese mysteries.”


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