BORN: 1850, Leukas, Greece DIED: 1904, Okubo, Japan NATIONALITY: American GENRE: Travel, criticism, fiction MAJOR WORKS: Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan
(1894) Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things
(1903) Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation
In a relatively short life of fifty-four years, Lafcadio Hearn managed to have several different literary lives. Today, it is Hearn’s work on Japan—where he was known as Koizumi Yakumo after becoming a citizen—that has maintained his literary reputation, although the locales of his travel writing are extensive and international. Also considered one of modern America’s leading prose impressionists, Hearn produced a large body of work that is more closely related to nineteenth-century European than American literature. His sketches, short stories, and novellas demonstrate a vision of evil and the supernatural reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Baudelaire. Hearn is also recognized as a perceptive literary critic whose readings and theories reflect his devotion to the beautiful and the bizarre. His lectures on American and European literature, published in collections such as Interpretations of Literature, are exceptional for their break with the conventions of Victorian criticism, and his essays on Japanese culture long influenced Western perceptions of East Asia.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Life in Transit Hearn was born on the Ionian island of Levkas, off the coast of Greece. His parents, a British army surgeon and his Greek wife, separated six years later and placed Hearn with an aunt in Ireland. He attended St. Cuthbert’s College and there suffered a mishap on the playing field that resulted in the loss of sight in his left eye. This injury, coupled with Hearn’s severe myopia, caused the abnormal enlargement of his right eye, giving him an odd appearance that commentators often use to explain his lifelong sense of estrangement and, consequently, his affinity for subjects outside the mainstream of human experience. Hearn immigrated to the United States in 1869 and eventually settled in Ohio. There he met an English printer, Henry Watkins, who trained him as a proofreader and encouraged his literary ambitions.
Hearn began his career as a feature writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer, gaining notoriety for his stories on slum and riverfront life. He received national attention with his report of the sensational ‘‘Tan Yard Murder.’’ Hearn’s account, written after viewing the coroner’s autopsy, contains vivid descriptions of the gruesome crime and the victim’s charred corpse. In the late 1870s, Hearn moved to New Orleans, where he wrote for local newspapers and contributed to national magazines. His writings included editorials, book reviews, short stories, local color sketches, adaptations of Creole and foreign folktales, and translations of Spanish and French works. During this period, Hearn pledged himself ‘‘to the worship of the odd, the queer, the strange, the exotic, the monstrous.’’
In 1887 he traveled to the West Indies. Two years later, under commission to Harper’s Magazine for a series of articles, Hearn left for Japan. He remained there for the rest of his life, lecturing in English and comparative literature at schools and universities and recording his impressions of the East for Western readers. This resulted in many of his most enduring works, including Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904), a collection of folk tales and ghost stories largely derived from older Japanese texts that was published just prior to his death from heart failure.
Works in Literary Context
The Bizarre, the Supernatural, and the Sensuous Hearn’s work is divided into three periods, each corresponding to a juncture in his life. The first consists of the sketches, short stories, and journalism that appeared in New Orleans newspapers and various national magazines. These works, collected in Exotics and Retrospectives, Fan-tastics and Other Fancies, and Leaves from the Diary of an Impressionist, focus on the bizarre, the supernatural, and the sensuous. Set in New Orleans, they offer colorful, romantic descriptions of Creole society conveyed in an ornate and consciously affected style. Stray Leaves from Strange Literature and Some Chinese Ghosts, also of this period, are volumes of obscure fables freely adapted from Eastern legends.
The Caribbean Hearn’s second period, encompassing material based on his life in the Caribbean, comprises the book of sketches Two Years in the French West Indies and the novellas Chita and Youma. Extravagant diction and lush imagery pervade these efforts, as do the motifs of death and ruin. Moreover, these works, which depict the interrelationship of nature and humankind and the struggle for survival between civilized and primitive peoples, manifest Hearn’s interest in the evolutionary philosophy of Herbert Spencer.
Late Life in the Far East The Far East, particularly Japan, is the dominant subject of Hearn’s third period. Although the author’s predilection for the grotesque is still evident, his style became more subtle and controlled. Hearn’s first impressions are recorded in Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, a series of vignettes that extol the land and its people. Out of the East and Kokoro contain similar sketches, while In Ghostly Japan relates traditional ghost stories and fairy tales. Hearn’s final book on the East, the posthumously published Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation, stands in contrast to his earlier volumes, which were largely uncritical of East Asian culture. In this collection of essays, Hearn, warning against the trend toward westernization, expressed his disillusionment with contemporary Japan and his concern for its economic and cultural independence.
Works in Critical Context
Lafcadio Hearn’s reputation as a writer and, in particular, as a travel writer, benefited from the initial fascination of the West for the ‘‘Mysterious East.’’ Although the present postcolonial and postmodern context would sometimes make of him the practitioner of a bygone exoticism, the often earnest quality of his work and the sheer quantity of his output—whether set in America, the Caribbean, or Japan—make him a figure to be reckoned with. Today, Hearn is best remembered as a literary pioneer of the East.
Critics find that at his best, Hearn was an exacting author whose work displays craftsmanship and integrity. At his worst, he appeared a flowery, mannered stylist rather than a creative artist. He has been praised for his ability to arouse the senses but criticized for the lack of variety in his sketches and short stories. Critics contend that, with the exception of Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation, he sentimentalized and misrepresented various aspects of Eastern culture. Yet, these works are credited with familiarizing Western readers with the people and traditions of the East. Despite the unevenness of his work, most reviewers agree that Hearn is an important prose stylist; a perceptive, albeit unconventional, critic; and an intriguing literary personality.
Chita, a Memory of Last Island (1889) Chita, Hearn’s novella about the Last Island hurricane that struck southern Louisiana in 1856, was inspired by events well-known to his contemporary readers. An unsigned review in the Nation called it ‘‘the slightest possible melody set to an elaborate accompaniment,’’ noting that the author seems more concerned with describing the sea itself than with the characters or the island that was destroyed by the hurricane. The reviewer concludes, ‘‘On the whole, the impression left by the book is that of an ill-treated opportunity, a rarely fine subject made tiresome by a lush style.’’ Ferris Greenslet, writing in 1911, finds more to love in the work, noting that it ‘‘is still in many respects his most astonishing tour de force in word-painting.’’ Greenslet acknowledges, however, that ‘‘the only logic in the harrowing conclusion is the emotional logic of a temperament immitigably macabresque, that must make a tale of terror intensify in poignancy to the end.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Select one of Hearn’s travel essays from Japan. What biases does Hearn bring to his writings on the Far East?
Discuss your emotional reaction to the essay. Discuss any biases that influenced your reading of the essay.
2. Why does Hearn include a study of insects in the collection Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things? How does this section relate to the other stories?
3. Compare and contrast the three literary lives led by Hearn. How did the locations of New Orleans, the West Indies, and Japan affect his writing style?
4. Discuss the influence of Hearn’s personal background on his works. Where is it most apparent? Citing specific examples from his texts, discuss the role that biographical details have on the emotional impact of his work.
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