Monday, September 26, 2016

Lafcadio Hearn - 112 years of captivation

Do you ever feel bereft after reading a book? You come to end and think, ‘Surely, there’s more, right? It can’t end here.’ For me, Lafcadio Hearn is one of those amazing authors who has the power to hold you captive until the end.  With each of Lafcadio Hearn’s books that I read, I am spellbound.

Born in 1850 to a Greek mother and Irish father, Patrick Lafcadio Hearn would continuously seek his place in the world throughout his life. He came to America in 1869 after he was shipped off from England by a distant cousin who did not want the responsibility of caring for Hearn, who was nineteen at the time.

Cincinnati, Ohio would be his home for nearly a decade. There he made a name for himself as a reporter for the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer with articles ranging from your normal literary critics and city news to lurid accounts of Victorian murders. Despite his fame as a reporter, he was fired from the Daily Enquirer newspaper due to his illegal marriage to an African American woman named Alethea "Mattie" Foley. She worked at the boarding house where he was staying at the time. Ever interested in learning about new people and cultures, Lafcadio would often frequent the kitchen where Mattie worked in order to hear her life stories. They were married in 1874. His marriage suffered by the actions of both Hearn and Mattie and despite trying to reconcile their differences, they ended up divorcing in 1877.  

Near the end of 1877, Lafcadio Hearn decided he needed a change of pace and moved to New Orleans. He worked various odd jobs trying to scrape together enough money before landing a job as a reporter again. After a decade in New Orleans, Lafcadio became once again disenchanted.

Luckily, he was given the opportunity to go the West Indies as a special correspondent for Harper’s Magazine. He would spend two years there, writing articles and publishing a book about life in that area. By the end of two years, realizing that he needed to make money and elevate his art, he left Martinique for New York.

Having always been fascinated by the Orient, Lafcadio pitched an idea of writing a travel book about Japan to Harper and Brothers. They agreed to publish a book, but gave him no contract or advance, but Lafcadio would not be deterred. He wrote several articles for Harper’s Magazine in order to finance his trip.

By March 8, 1890, Lafcadio had set off for a new adventure in Japan, in what he called ‘Fairyland’. He would spend the rest of his life in Japan. He married a Japanese woman, Setsu Koizumi, and had four children. He even became a Japanese citizen and changed his name to Yakumo Koizumi.

Years before in New Orleans, he had written to a friend, Henry Krehbiel that he felt out of place in the world. ‘I ought never to have been in this century, I think sometimes, because I live forever in dreams of other centuries and other faiths and other ethics, - dreams rudely broken by the sound of cursing in the street below.’

I think perhaps Lafcadio found his place in the world when he landed in Yokohama on April 12, 1890. A world where spirits, legends, and myths still roamed despite the advancements of modernity.

During his years in Japan, Lafcadio would write articles for various newspapers and publish several books on Japanese travel and life. He would become a teacher in the city of Matsue before moving with his increasing family to Tokyo. He was offered a job as an English professor at the Imperial University in Tokyo and as a lecturer for Tokyo and Waseda universities.

Lafcadio passed away on September 26, 1904 from heart failure. He left behind his wife and four children and his wife’s family. After his death, the influence of his books continued to captivate the western world. Friends within the literary world would publish books on his life and their interaction with him. Elizabeth Bisland’s The Life and Letters of Lafcadio Hearn and Milton Bronner’s Letters from the Raven are two such examples.

112 years later, Hearn still manages to captivate his audience describing not only Japan, but America and the West Indies at the end of the nineteenth century.

From one fellow lover of Japan to another, thank you for keeping the world of old Japan alive and well and continuing to inspire us in the twentieth-first century.


  1. I had a second grade teacher that LOVED Japan. For our arts that year, we made ceramic rice bowls, chop sticks, and learned to write the numbers 1-10. Here it is 50 years later and I still remember how to write the numbers!! I loved history then and I love it now.

    1. That is the mark of a great teacher if you can remember their lessons after so many years :)

      I have no talent in art, but it sounds like you had fun in that class!

      I love history and anthropology. I majored in both areas when I was in college :)