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Lafcadio Hearn: an Extraordinary Novelist, Poet and Traveler

Andrew Madigan By Andrew Madigan Published on June 8, 2017
This article was updated on October 23, 2017
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Lafcadio Hearn by Frederick Gutekunst

Lafcadio Hearn is one of the most intriguing, remarkable figures in literary history. Born Patricios Lefcadios Hearn on the Greek island of Lefkada on June 27, 1850, he would grow up to be a novelist, poet, traveler, journalist and translator.

His father, from Ireland, was a surgeon in the British Army, and his mother was Greek, of royal ancestry. The family moved to Dublin when Patrick was two, but his parents’ relationship was shaky and his mother was homesick. His father was sent to Crimea where war was raging. When he returned in 1856—suffering from physical and emotional trauma—his wife had returned to Greece and left Patrick with an elderly great-aunt.

This aunt would often lock Hearn in a closet as a therapeutic measure—she wanted to alleviate his fear of the dark. The byproduct of this “therapy” was a fascination with the occult, mysterious and esoteric. Hearn developed a belief in ghosts and would later become intrigued, perhaps obsessed, by the folklore of exotic cultures, especially the voodoo tradition from New Orleans.

His mother remarried, but was later committed to a mental hospital. The father remarried as well, in 1857. The great-aunt was appointed Hearn’s permanent guardian. He never saw either parent again.

The drama and hardship were just beginning:

Hearn was sent to Catholic boarding school in France, because his aunt thought him insufficiently religious, and later to Britain. At 16, he injured his left eye in a schoolyard fight and, as a result, missed a year of schooling. He contracted an infection, which led to temporary blindness, a discolored iris, an enlarged eye, and poor vision. For the remainder of his life, he was extremely self-conscious about his appearance. He often wore a large hat to conceal his disfigurement and would hide his face as much as possible. Like many artists, the young Hearn was lonely, alienated, bookish, and experienced both physical sickness and emotional trauma.

Hearn’s aunt went bankrupt in 1867. She sent him to London, where he lived with her former maid. Neither the maid nor her husband had the time or resources to properly care for Hearn. He wandered aimlessly through the city. He visited the British Museum, libraries, studied the neighborhoods and people, their customs and manners.

At 19, Hearn emigrated to the US, where he lived in squalor and poverty. He stayed in New York for two years before settling in Cincinnati. There, he barely survived, sleeping in stables and storage rooms, and taking odd jobs. At some point in his 20s, Hearn started going by the name “Lafcadio”. He worked for a printer and read voraciously.

Hearn eventually took a job reporting for The Cincinnati Daily Enquirer. He wrote poetry and scholarly essays on provocative topics such as the conditions of the city’s African-American community. He also began translating French literature. He became quite a successful reporter with a strong local following. In 1874, along with Henry Farny, he founded Ye Giglampz, a journal devoted to satire, art and literature. During the same year, Hearn married an African-American woman (and former slave), which was illegal. As a result he was fired from The Enquirer, though the true reason for his dismissal may have been the anti-clerical perspective of his articles or the satirical portraits of public figures in Ye Giglampz.

Afterwards, Hearn took a job with The Cincinnati Commercial, a rival paper. He separated from his wife and in 1877, they divorced. Bored, restless and unhappy, he relocated to New Orleans to write a series of articles about the city. Hearn remained there for a decade, reporting for The Daily City Item and other leading magazines of the day, including Scribner’s, Cosmopolitan, Harper’sWeekly, and The Century Magazine, on a wide variety of topics: Buddhism, Islam, French and Russian literature, anti-Semitism, summaries of national and international news, Creole food and culture, public health and sanitation. He helped to instill within readers, a sense of the Crescent City as a place of mystery, wonder and intrigue.

He also began to write novels in New Orleans. Much of his work could be described as adventure fiction, but with esoteric, intellectual and political leanings. Chita (1889), for example, focuses on the survivor of a tidal wave, while Youma (1890) describes a slave insurrection.

Hearn wrote a Creole cookbook and published a collection of local proverbs. He wrote about the city’s charm, natural beauty, incompetent police, Mardis Gras, voodoo, murder rate and political mismanagement. Of police corruption, he wrote: “Until there is a complete reorganisation of that ridiculous and pernicious thing we call a police force it will be the last degree difficult to bring members of the force to account for any misdemeanor which they choose to commit.”

Harper’s sent Hearn to the West Indies for two years. The region fascinated him and inspired a number of fictional and nonfictional accounts. In 1890 he moved to Japan and briefly worked as a journalist. After this, he taught school in Izumo, for 3 years, before joining the English-language paper Kobe Chronicle. Later, Hearn became a professor of English literature at the Imperial University of Tokyo. He was enthralled by Japan and was more prolific here than anywhere else. From 1896-1904 he wrote nine books about, or infused with, Japanese culture, traditions and folklore: Exotics and Retrospectives (1898), Japanese Fairy Tales (1898), In Ghostly Japan (1899), Shadowings (1900), Japanese Lyrics (1900), A Japanese Miscellany (1901), Kottō: Being Japanese Curios, with Sundry Cobwebs (1902), Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1903) and Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation (1904).

In addition to adventure novels, Hearn wrote stories of horror and strange phenomena. The range of his work was quite broad, but he was particularly attracted to outsiders and the dark underbelly of society; sex, corruption, and brutality. He prowled the streets at night looking for new material. His writing was frenetic, brisk, vivid, sometimes lurid and sensationalistic. However, he always maintained the calm, cool, objective eye of the anthropologist. Hearn was fortunate to work in an era when journalists had more freedom to develop their own style and to explore a wide range of topics. He was never forced to write in a flat anonymous manner, adopt a corporate point-of-view, limit himself to narrow subject matters, or compose at a middle-school reading level. He was, for the most part, free to write about whatever he wanted without dumbing it down or replicating the opinions of his publisher.

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Mary Louise Vincent Lafcadio Hearn Collection

In 1891 Hearn married a Japanese woman, with whom he had four children. There is no record of divorce from his first wife, so presumably he was a bigamist. He became a Japanese citizen and changed his name—once again—to Koizumi Yakumo. He also converted to Buddhism, after having done time as a Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Spencerian. In September 1904, at age 54, he died of heart failure.


Freelance writer (food, drinks, books, travel, music, film) and former professor (creative writing, literature, Islamic studies, US history) and magazine editor who's lived in the UK, New York, ... Show More


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