The constructive cultural fringe has long been a fruitful ground for Jonathan Cott’s work. As in The Search for Omm Sety (1987), he has taken as his subject an alienated Englishman who finds spiritual rest in an exotic but sophisticated culture. Yet however unconsciously, this telling of the life of Lafcadio Hearn is as much a tribute to nineteenth century Western individualism as the record of a remarkably peripatetic and prolific social critic who frequently derided the culture which gave him his opportunities.
Cott’s account, begun as an anthology of Hearn’s neglected writings, is a neo-Victorian biography of documents with the connecting commentary so thoroughly researched and smoothly written that one must wonder if the form is today too seldom used. Psychobiographers will lament the author’s reticence to psychoanalyze a subject who did and said so much inviting analysis; literary critics will wish for more etiological theorizing; and historians will be uneasy with the overwhelming dependence upon Hearn’s own works. As popular life writing, however, Wandering Ghost is superbly crafted and so unostentatiously well informed that it will become necessary to any future study of this eccentric author. A number of minor errors from previous works are quietly set right, the numerous illustrations (many of them by Hearn) are tastefully interspersed throughout the text, and the chronological bibliography of his writings is especially helpful.
The book begins with Hearn in a dreamy 1893 reverie, recalling the ancient Japanese tale of Urashima, in which the protagonist is unable to recapture the carelessly lost innocence of youth. As he awakens from his daydream, the clouds above become the “white, cold, spectral vapor” that had signaled Urashima’s own inability to return to the dreamworld in which he once had been so content. The long summer days of early childhood flood Hearn’s memory, when the glorious cloud-colors of the Ionian island of Leucadia made him hungry, and his mother’s stories gave him the power of eternal youth.
From the day of his birth on June 27, 1850, Hearn was unusual. The son of an English army surgeon and an illiterate Greek mother of noble birth, his skin was dark, and later his ears were pierced with gold rings. Only an English patrimony worked against him on Leucadia. When he was two years old, however, his family moved to Dublin to live with his father’s mother, a fervent Irish Protestant who disapproved of earrings and insisted on calling Lafcadio by the “Christian” name of Patrick. After his parents divorced and subsequently remarried, Lafcadio never again saw either of them, being reared by a financially secure grand- aunt of sixty-four, who intended to turn the child with shoulder- length black hair into a good Catholic heir. Resisting anglicanization at every turn, Lafcadio was haunted by the ghosts of his past, out of which developed a Poe-like fascination with the macabre, about which he often wrote. Increasingly attracted to his Greek heritage, by fifteen he avowed himself a pantheist, made life miserable for his Catholic schoolmasters, and managed to alienate his grand-aunt, who, in any case, was soon to be bankrupt.
To compound his alienation, at sixteen an accident and infection destroyed the retina of his left eye, which whitened with scar tissue, further marring what people already considered an odd countenance. At nineteen, Hearn was unceremoniously shipped to America, with pocket money and a one-way ticket. He arrived in Cincinnati in the summer of 1869, a dark-skinned, earnest pantheist with little money, small training, and no acquaintances; he was too poor to afford even a cheap boardinghouse. Alone in the world except for the barn animals with which he shared quarters, he wondered what his purpose in life was to be. Soon he discovered it in writing, which from that point would preoccupy if not always provide for him.
Hearn’s legacy to the world of letters is unique. Alienated from conventional society and truly without a homeland, yet possessing a rich romantic sensibility, he observed and interpreted both Western and non-Western cultures from the vantage point of a curious traveler having no intention of returning from whence he came. He was especially observant of detail which the native overlooks and anxious to find beauty in the strangest and most inexplicable circumstances. In the common Creole patois of New Orleans’ Old Quarter, Hearn heard the echo of resonant Ivory Coast melodies, and in the ghosts of the Orient saw strange reflections of those he had been forced to confront as a seven-year-old, locked in the dark by a well- meaning guardian. Everything was full of color, nothing without meaning or unworthy of attention. This deeply felt interest in the underlying meanings of form and ritual enabled Hearn to become the foremost interpreter of Japanese culture to the Western world after 1890. Nevertheless, to reach this level of writing, he spent twenty years producing news articles and essays of uneven quality for newspapers in Cincinnati and New Orleans.
From his days at St....
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