Lafcadio Hearn

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 721

Lafcadio Hearn is remembered for a delicate, continuously responsive sensibility and style; an interest in the weird, the strange, and the uncanny, especially as these qualities are manifested in folklore; and an ability to move between cultures that was in many ways far ahead of his time.

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Born Patricio Lafcadio Tessima Carlos Hearn in the Ionian Islands on June 27, 1850, he was the son of a British army surgeon and a young Greek woman of a respected family. Her elopement with a member of the unpopular British occupational forces broke her ties with her own family; thus, when she could not follow her husband to the West Indies, she and the infant Lafcadio went to Ireland to live with his family. There, religious differences, the language barrier, and her keen sensitivity to the criticism of her in-laws and, later, of her returned husband led to a mental collapse from which she never completely recovered. She eventually returned to the Ionian Islands, married a compatriot, and died in a mental hospital on Corfu.

Hearn was left in Ireland to live an unsettled life as the ward of a very devout great-aunt, becoming prey to all sorts of fears, especially of the supernatural. He was educated at home by tutors and at a church school in Normandy before being sent to Saint Cuthbert’s College near Durham, England. Here his imaginative pranks and winning nature won him many friends among the students.

Hearn left college without a degree because of three personal tragedies. Extremely myopic, he lost the sight of one of his eyes when it was accidentally struck by a classmate during a game. About this same time, his great-aunt lost her wealth through the business speculations of a relative she wished to help, and Hearn’s own father, who might have contributed financially to his schooling, died on a return voyage from service in India. His father’s money was left to three daughters by a second marriage.

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The great-aunt, now senile, resorted to sending Hearn to the United States. After two desperate years in New York, he went to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he was befriended by Henry Watkin, an English printer who helped launch his career as a journalist, first with the Cincinnati Enquirer and later with the Cincinnati Commercial. Hearn made his reputation in Cincinnati by reporting a sensational tan-yard murder in grisly, lurid detail.

After six years in Cincinnati, Hearn lived in New Orleans for ten years, becoming first assistant editor of the New Orleans City Item, then assistant editor of the New Orleans Democrat, and finally literary editor of the Times-Democrat. In New Orleans, he attacked corruption in city government, praised George Washington Cable’s writing about Louisiana Creoles, reconstructed tales from Arabian and Chinese literatures, and above all, through his translations in newspapers, introduced Émile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, and Pierre Loti to an American reading public.

Twice he visited the West Indies, where the color and charm of native life made an immediate appeal to his senses. Exotic travel sketches and two novellas about Creole life gained him an international audience before he departed for Japan in 1890 on an assignment from Harper and Brothers.

Hearn planned to stay in Japan for only a short time, but he was so thrilled with the culture he found there—one he immediately recognized as rivaling that of the West—that he spent the rest of his life there, identifying himself with the Japanese by marrying into a Japanese family and by becoming a naturalized Japanese citizen. His studies of customs and legends and his acute interpretations of the Japanese were translated into many languages. In 1895, after teaching in several secondary schools, he was made professor of English literature in the Imperial University of Tokyo.

When he died in Tokyo on September 26, 1904, he was buried with Buddhist rites in a Buddhist cemetery. This was his wish—to die and be cremated and buried like the Japanese. Given Hearn’s penchant for the exotic, Western critics and scholars have often questioned his understanding of what he saw in Japan as well as his ability to shed his own background and culture. Yet nowhere are works by and about Hearn as popular as in Japan, where he is considered an author who gave the Japanese significant insights into their own national character.

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