Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (27 June 1850 – 26 September 1904), known also by the Japanese name Koizumi Yakumo (小泉 八雲?), was an international writer, known best for his books about Japan, especially his collections of Japanese legends and ghost stories, such as Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. In the United States, Hearn is also known for his writings about the city of New Orleans based on his ten-year stay in that city.
Hearn was born in and named for the island of Lefkada, one of the Greek Ionian Islands, on 27 June 1850.
Hearn lived in New Orleans for nearly a decade, writing first for the newspaper Daily City Item beginning in June 1878, and later for the Times Democrat. Since the Item was a 4-page publication, Hearn’s editorial work changed the character of the newspaper dramatically. He began at the Item as a news editor, expanding to include book reviews of Bret Harte and Émile Zola, summaries of pieces in national magazines such as Harper’s, and editorial pieces introducing Buddhism and Sanskrit writings. As editor, Hearn created and published nearly two hundred woodcuts of daily life and people in New Orleans, making the Item the first Southern newspaper to introduce cartoons and giving the paper an immediate boost in circulation. Hearn gave up carving the woodcuts after six months when he found the strain was too great for his eye.
At the end of 1881 Hearn took an editorial position with the New Orleans Times Democrat and was employed translating items from French and Spanish newspapers as well as writing editorials and cultural reviews on topics of his choice. He also continued his work translating French authors into English: Gerard de Nerval, Anatole France, and most notably Pierre Loti, an author who influenced Hearn’s own writing style. Milton Bronner, who edited Hearn’s letters to Henry Watkin, wrote “The Hearn of New Orleans was the father of the Hearn of the West Indies and of Japan,” and this view was endorsed by Norman Foerster.
The vast number of his writings about New Orleans and its environs, many of which have not been collected, include the city’s Creole population and distinctive cuisine, the French Opera, and Louisiana Voodoo. Hearn wrote enthusiastically of New Orleans, but also wrote of the city’s decay, a dead bride crowned with orange flowers.
Hearn’s writings for national publications, such as Harper’s Weekly and Scribner’s Magazine, helped create the popular reputation of New Orleans as a place with a distinct culture more akin to that of Europe and the Caribbean than to the rest of North America. Hearn’s best-known Louisiana works include:
Gombo zhèbes: Little dictionary of Creole proverbs (1885)
La Cuisine Créole (1885), a collection of culinary recipes from leading chefs and noted Creole housewives who helped make New Orleans famous for its cuisine
Chita: A Memory of Last Island (1889), a novella based on the hurricane of 1856 first published in Harper’s Monthly in 1888
Hearn also published in Harper’s Weekly the first known written article (1883) about Filipinos in the United States, the Manilamen or Tagalags, one of whose villages he had visited at Saint Malo, southeast of Lake Borgne in Saint Bernard Parish, Louisiana.
At the time he lived there, Hearn was little known, and even now he is little known for his writing about New Orleans, except by local cultural devotees. However, more books have been written about him than any former resident of New Orleans except Louis Armstrong.
Hearn’s writings for the New Orleans newspapers included impressionistic descriptions of places and characters and many editorials denouncing political corruption, street crime, violence, intolerance, and the failures of public health and hygiene officials. Despite the fact that he is credited with “inventing” New Orleans as an exotic and mysterious place, his obituaries of the vodou leaders Marie Laveau and Doctor John Montenet are matter-of-fact and debunking. Selections of Hearn’s New Orleans writings have been collected and published in multiple works, starting with Creole Sketches in 1924, and more recently in Inventing New Orleans: Writings of Lafcadio Hearn. Two Years in the French West Indies
Harper’s sent Hearn to the West Indies as a correspondent in 1887. He spent two years in Martinique and in addition to his writings for the magazine, produced two books: Two Years in the French West Indies and Youma, The Story of a West-Indian Slave, both published in 1890.
Later life in Japan
In 1890, Hearn went to Japan with a commission as a newspaper correspondent, which was quickly terminated. It was in Japan, however, that he found a home and his greatest inspiration. Through the goodwill of Basil Hall Chamberlain, Hearn gained a teaching position during the summer of 1890 at the Shimane Prefectural Common Middle School and Normal School in Matsue, a town in western Japan on the coast of the Sea of Japan. The Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum and his old residence are still two of Matsue’s most popular tourist attractions. During his fifteen-month stay in Matsue, Hearn married Koizumi Setsu, the daughter of a local samurai family, with whom he had four children. He became a naturalized Japanese, assuming the name Koizumi Yakumo, in 1896 after accepting a teaching position in Tokyo. After having been Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and, later on, Spencerian, he became Buddhist.
During late 1891, Hearn obtained another teaching position in Kumamoto, Kyūshū, at the Fifth Higher Middle School, where he spent the next three years and completed his book Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894). In October 1894, he secured a journalism job with the English-language newspaper Kobe Chronicle, and in 1896, with some assistance from Chamberlain, he began teaching English literature at Tokyo Imperial University, a job he had until 1903. In 1904, he was a professor at Waseda University. On 26 September 1904, he died of heart failure at the age of 54 years. His grave is at the Zōshigaya Cemetery in Toshima, Tokyo.
In the late 19th century, Japan was still largely unknown and exotic to Westerners. However, with the introduction of Japanese aesthetics, particularly at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, Japanese styles became fashionable in Western countries. Consequently, Hearn became known to the world by his writings concerning Japan. In later years, some critics would accuse Hearn of exoticizing Japan, but because he offered the West some of its first descriptions of pre-industrial and Meiji Era Japan, his work has historical value.
Admirers of Hearn’s work have included Ben Hecht, John Erskine, and Malcolm Cowley.
The Japanese director Masaki Kobayashi adapted four Hearn tales into his 1964 film, Kwaidan. Some of his stories have been adapted by Ping Chong into his puppet theatre, including the 1999 Kwaidan and the 2002 OBON: Tales of Moonlight and Rain.
Hearn’s life and works were celebrated in The Dream of a Summer Day, a play that toured Ireland during April and May 2005, which was staged by the Storytellers Theatre Company and directed by Liam Halligan. It is a detailed dramatization of Hearn’s life, with four of his ghost stories included.
Yone Noguchi is quoted as saying about Hearn, “His Greek temperament and French culture became frost-bitten as a flower in the North.”
There is also a cultural center named for Hearn at the University of Durham.
Hearn was a major translator of the short stories of Guy de Maupassant.
In Ian Fleming’s 1964 novel You Only Live Twice, James Bond retorts to his nemesis Blofeld’s comment of “Have you ever heard the Japanese expression kirisute gomen?” with “Spare me the Lafcadio Hearn, Blofeld.”
The first museum in Europe for Lafcadio Hearn was inaugurated in Lefkada, Greece, his birthplace, on July 4 2014, as Lefcadio Hearn Historical Center. It contains early editions, rare books and Japanese collectibles. The visitors, through photos, texts and exhibits, can wander in the significant events of Lafcadio Hern’s stunning life, but also in the civilizations of Europe, America and Japan of late 18th and early 19th centuries through the open mind of his lectures, writings and tales. The municipalities of Kumamoto, Matsue, Shinjuku, Yaizu, Toyama University, Koizumi family and other people from Japan and Greece contributed to the establishment of Lefcadio Hearn Historical Center.