The Story of Lafcadio Hearn

Lafcadio Hearn – Koizumi Yakumo

lafcadio hearn family

Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904), writer, translator, and journalist, was born 27 June 1850 on the Greek island of Levkás (from which his middle name derived). Second of three sons born to Charles Bush Hearn, an Irish officer-surgeon in the British army, and Rosa Antonia Cassimati, a Greek inhabitant of Cerigo. Patrick Lafcadio was brought to Dublin at the age of two, but his parents’ marriage did not last and his mother returned to Greece, leaving him in the care of an elderly great-aunt, Mrs Sarah Brenane. He suffered a disfiguring eye injury while attending a boarding school in England; his claims of having been partly educated in France cannot be substantiated. He used his Greek middle name, Lafcadio, to the exclusion of his Irish given name, from his mid-twenties.

Emigrating to the USA, Hearn settled in Cincinnati, Ohio, working at various menial jobs and then on the Trade List, a business weekly. Eventually he became a reporter for The Cincinnati Enquirer and later for The Cincinnati Commercial, where he contributed prose poems and scholarly essays on themes unusual for that time, such as life among urban blacks. While in Cincinnati he translated stories from the French writer Théophile Gautier under the title One of Cleopatra’s Nights (1882), which reflected the dominant influence of French nineteenth-century masters, and Gustave Flaubert’s Temptation of St. Anthony (published posthumously)

In 1877 Hearn went to New Orleans to write a series of articles on Louisiana politics for the Commercial and remained there, writing for the Item (later the Times-Democrat), contributing translations of French authors, original stories and sketches, and adaptations from foreign literature. His growing interest in the esoteric and oriental was evident in other books of his New Orleans era, Stray leaves from stray literature (1884) and Some Chinese ghosts (1886); he also fell under the influence of the philosopher Herbert Spencer at this time.The scope of his articles varied widely; he wrote on Buddhism and Islām and on French and Russian literature. His editorials ranged from scientific topics to articles on anti-Semitism in Russia and France.Chita (1889), an adventure novel about the only survivor of a tidal wave, dates from this time.

His first marriage (1874), to Alethea (‘Mattie’) Foley, a black woman born into slavery, was short-lived; they had no children. From 1887 to 1889, Hearn was in the West Indies on assignment for Harper’s Magazine, which resulted in Two Years in the French West Indies (1890) and his novel Youma (1890), a highly original story of a slave insurrection.

In 1890 Hearn traveled to Japan for Harper’s. He soon broke with the magazine and worked as a schoolteacher in Izumo in northern Japan. Hearn’s articles on Japan soon began appearing in The Atlantic Monthly and were syndicated in several newspapers in the United States. These essays and others, reflecting Hearn’s initial captivation with the Japanese, were subsequently collected and published in two volumes as Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894).

Hearn’s most brilliant and prolific period was from 1896 to 1903, as professor of English literature at the Imperial University of Tokyo. In four books written during this time—Exotics and Retrospective (1898), In Ghostly Japan (1899), Shadowings (1900), and A Japanese Miscellany (1901)—he is informative about the customs, religion, and literature of Japan. Kwaidan (1904) is a collection of stories of the supernatural and translations of haiku poetry. Three of the ghost stories formed the basis of a critically praised Japanese film, Kwaidan, in 1965. Japan, an Attempt at an Interpretation (1904) is a collection of lectures prepared for delivery at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. Hearn died, however, before he could return to the United States. This last and perhaps best-known work is a departure from his earlier, idealized view of Japan

In Japan, Hearn reversed many of the radical attitudes of his youth and condemned the Westernisation of Japan, while accepting its inevitability. His outstanding achievement was to describe a country in the throes of Meiji transformation from its own perspective. Japan: an attempt at interpretation (1904) was a late effort at definitive analysis. Hearn was also an outstanding horror writer, whose work in the genre varied from the realistic descriptions of his American journalism to translations of Japanese folktales.

Hearn married (1891) Setsuko Koizumi; they had three sons and a daughter. Adopting Japanese citizenship and, with it, the Japanese name Koizumi Yakumo, he was successively a lecturer at Tokyo and Waseda Universities from 1896. He died of heart failure in Tokyo on 26 September 1904.

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