[Lafcadio Hearn made his name as a writer in the US, then became central to Japans cultural life. So why, 100 years on, dont we appreciate him more, asks John Moran.]
Next Sunday is the centenary of the death of an extraordinary Irishman who, at different times of a life lived in full, was Patrick Hearn, Lafcadio Hearn and Koizumi Yakumo, who reached the top of his profession as a journalist and translator in Cincinnati and New Orleans, who achieved broader acclaim as a writer for leading US magazines with sketches and feuilletons from New Orleans and Martinique, who had rave reviews for two early novels and who went on to world renown as an interpreter of Japan, where he died aged only 54.
Despite the significance of the anniversary the main act of commemoration will be a small exhibition next month at the Chester Beatty Library, in Dublin. Irelands neglect compares embarrassingly with events in Greece, where he was born, in New Orleans, where he lived for 10 years, and in Japan, where he married, had four children and spent his final 14 years. Its a neglect that also flies in the face of a renewed worldwide interest in the writer. On September 9th, for example, New Orleans City Council voted to designate a house in which Hearn lived as an official landmark.
Until relatively recently Hearn was best known for his exquisite sketches of life, customs and folk tales in Japan between 1890 and 1904, a time of great change, when the country was abandoning its ancient customs and beginning a process of rapid industrialisation. During Hearns period there he satisfied a great hunger in the West for Japonism with his sublime evocations of old Japan.
Some years after his death, however, Hearns star began to wane, due in part to his being seen as a writer who romanticised fin-de-siècle Japan at a time when Western readers had begun to lose their appetite for exotic tales from the inscrutable Orient. More significantly, disenchantment intensified as Japan developed imperialist ambitions and Western public opinion turned against it with its involvement in the second World War.
In post-war Japan many liberals were embarrassed that those on the ultranationalist far right shared Hearns enthusiasm for ancient Japanese culture, a view that had already brought only ruin and ostracism. Other critics have said he looked at the country through rose-tinted glasses. Nonetheless, Hearn has remained an abiding interest, and today most Japanese children are as familiar with Hearn and his wifes interpretations of Japanese ghost stories, or kwaidan, as Irish children are with Cuchulainn.
And with the passage of time the work of Hearn has actually contributed to a warming of US-Japanese relations. New Orleans and Matsue, the Japanese city he loved most, are now sister cities, joined by the bond of their adopted son. Hearns grandson Toki and great-grandson Bon are often involved in Hearn-related events in Greece, New Orleans, Martinique and Ireland.
The renewed interest in Hearns work is due partially to the discovery of new letters and to publications to mark the centenary of his arrival in Japan, in 1890: new biographies, reissues of his books and new compilations of his newspaper and magazine work.
There has always, though, been a stubbornly residual interest in Hearn: as far back as 1949 the US literary critic, poet and historian Malcolm Cowley called him ‘the writer in our language who can best be compared with Hans Christian Andersen and the brothers Grimm.
An Irish surge in interest was to a great extent due to the efforts of the late Sean G. Ronan, former ambassador to Greece and Japan, who with Hearns grandson Toki Koizumi and the Ireland Japan Association in 1991 produced Lafcadio Hearn (Koizumi Yakumo): His Life, Work And Irish Background. Dr Ronan followed it in 1997 with Irish Writing on Lafcadio Hearn and Japan, a collection of essays on his Dublin background and linking him to the Irish literary tradition. And another Irish diplomat, Paul Murray, in 1993 wrote a ground-breaking biography, A Fantastic Journey (an ideal introduction).
What many of the books have unearthed is the depth of Hearns Irish literary connections, such as Synges admiration for Hearns ‘fiery prose style and pride in his family kinship with the Hearns. Synges search for traditions on the Aran Islands is also compared with Hearns work in Martinique and Japan.
In reclaiming and reinterpreting folk tales and legends Hearn was engaged in a similar project to W. B. Yeats and other figures of the Celtic revival. Yeats corresponded with Hearn - meekly accepting criticism of his poetry on one occasion - and approved of Hearns observation that ‘there is something ghostly in all great art. According to Roy Foster, who introduces Murrays biography, Yeats could quote casually from Hearns books.
Hearns early work, particularly his journalistic ‘Period of the Gruesomes, in Cincinnati, was strongly influenced by the Anglo-Irish Gothic tradition, which produced, among others, Charles Maturin, Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker (the subject of Murrays most recent biography). Hearn also shared Yeatss interest in occult writers such as Villiers de lIsle Adam. In the US Hearn has been compared to Edgar Allan Poe.
Hearns entry to the world of print was described by the then editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer, John Cockerill. ‘One day there came to the office a quaint, dark-skinned little fellow, strangely diffident, wearing glasses of great magnifying power and bearing with him evidence that Fortune and he were scarce on nodding terms. Cockerill, who accepted Hearns review of Tennysons Idylls Of The King, was ‘astonished to have found it charmingly written.
At the Enquirer (1872-5) and, later, the Cincinnati Commercial (1875-7) Hearn was given freedom to write stories from the dark side of the street, which he did with great sympathy. His peculiar genius was for ‘the worship of the Odd, the Queer, the Strange, the Exotic, the Monstrous. It quite suits my temperament. The significance of his writings on New Orleans for the Daily City Item and Times and Democrat newspapers is outlined in S. Frederick Starrs collection of Hearns sketches, Inventing New Orleans, which argues that Hearns accounts of the citys culture were important in forging the abidingly exotic image of the Big Easy that still prevails in popular culture.
Hearns decision to go to New Orleans was influenced by an article in Scribners Magazine by the renowned southern writer George Washington Cable, with whom he soon became friends. Cable kept something of a salon at his home in the Garden Quarter, where Hearn was a regular guest. Oscar Wilde visited Cable in 1882, a time when Hearn also lived in New Orleans. It would be remarkable if Cable did not bring up the subject of Hearn to another visiting Irishman and vice versa.
The renewal of American interest in Hearns work was partly sparked by Jonathan Cotts 1990 biography, Wandering Ghost: The Odyssey of Lafcadio Hearn, now something of a cult book. An updated version of The Grass Lark, Elizabeth Stevensons detailed and affectionate biography, was published in 1999. Simon J. Bronners Lafcadio Hearns America, from 2002, was another excellent compilation of Hearns journalism.
Bearing in mind this considerable interest in a writer who spent his formative years among his relations in Ireland, it is a great shame that there will not be a more public commemoration of his life and delicate art. This is perhaps even more true when you consider that, towards the end of his life, he had renewed his interest in Ireland and started composing biographical details from his Irish years. In one letter he wrote that he would like to visit and smell the heather again; in another he declared: ‘I am Irish rather than English.
And yet Lafcadio Hearn was more than an Irish writer, more than a multinational writer, more than a chronicler of the marginalised and the gruesome, more than a romantic seeking to applyhis poetic prose to ghost stories, lore and fairy tales in New Orleans, Martinique and Japan.
More than the sum of his parts, Lafcadio Hearn was also among the foremost letter-writers of his time. There have been voluminous collections of these over the years, and more are on the way. Because of this and his renown as ‘the magnificent traveller, it is particularly sad that, while the Japanese are honour-ing Hearn with a commemorative stamp, An Post has turned down the Ireland Japan Associations proposal for one here.
It is an insult that can be added to the injury of the neglect of his centenary by official Ireland. Yet it would not have surprised him: his life was a litany of rejection and misfortune. By the age of five he had been abandoned by his parents; then he was abandoned by his guardians. He lost the use of an eye in a school game, which, combined with his tiny frame, crippled his self-image, and when he married a black woman in Cincinnati, at a time when mixed marriages were illegal, he was sacked from his newspaper job.
Small wonder he wrote in a letter: ‘I have always felt myself to be ostracised, tabooed, outlawed. A hundred years on, plus ça change.
[A display on Lafcadio Hearn opens in the Artistic Traditions gallery of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, on October 12th.]