With so much of the contemporary debate over the condition of American culture revolving around Matthew Arnold’s pious admonition to seek the best from every culture, this book is doubly welcome. Not only does one get a tightly argued critique of Hearn’s Japanese writings but also a needed alternative view from one who considered Arnold “the colossal humbug” of the nineteenth century.
The first chapter is a biographical sketch, recounting Hearn’s life as a journalist in America, his fascination with the exotic, and his move to Japan in 1890, where he married a Japanese woman of Samurai birth and resided until his death in 1904. The second chapter is Dawson’s survey of the work of other Western writers on Japan, providing a context for Hearn’s unique contribution, which is examined throughout the remainder of the book.
According to Dawson, Hearn was less interested in the reality of Japanese life than in the mysteries of its collective folk-memory. For fourteen years he wrote vivid, impressionistic glimpses of his adopted country, most characteristically of ordinary people, or by the retelling of the timeless and ghostly folk-stories of solitary, uprooted Japanese men and women whose lives in many ways mirrored his own.
It is not altogether clear why Hearn became the preeminent interpreter of Japan for the West during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He never mastered Japanese and was an indifferent scholar. But he was more attuned to the “life of the culture” than famous contemporaries such as Basil Chamberlain, Rudyard Kipling, and Pierre Loti. If he was less proficient in the representations of that culture, he was more adept at getting beyond its symbols. Perhaps most important, he took his task seriously. Rather than simply describing an exotic culture, he attempted to show how elegantly the Japanese had managed to grapple with dark and mysterious aspects common to all human experience.