How could a man born on a Greek island in 1850 be a household name in Japan today? The answer lies in the story of Lafcadio Hearn, whose life was global, bi-racial, and multicultural a century before these concepts became fashionable. Without knowing it, Hearn turned himself into a prototypical individual of the twenty-first century.
He was born on the Ionian island of Lefkada, then part of the British Empire, to a Greek mother, Rosa Antoniou Kassimati, and an Irish Protestant father, Sergeant Major Charles Bush Hearn. And his parentage manifests the ethnic mixing of empires and the ideological divides he tried to bridge all his life between East and West, empire and colony, black and white, journalism and high culture.
This double heritage also instilled in Hearn an impulse for nomadism and travel writing more than a hundred years before Bruce Chatwin explored this connection. It is no accident perhaps, as Hearn’s biographer Jonathan Colt notes, that Lefkada lies next to Ithaca, the birthplace of Odysseus.
Unlike Odysseus, Hearn wandered all his life and ever father afield, seeking fortune in Cincinnati, the warm weather and music of New Orleans, and the racial mélange of the Caribbean. And it was this pursuit of the racial Other that eventually brought him to Japan, where he settled in middle age, so far away geographically from Lefkada and Dublin and culturally from Ohio and Louisiana. Few individuals have tried to bring together such divergence of place and fewer still could claim to have encountered or been affected by five empires: the Ottoman, British, French, American, and Japanese.
His life, therefore, is not just a study of nomadism, but also represents a case of how mixed heritage can predispose someone to be more receptive to national, ethnic and racial dissimilarity.
At the age of two, Lafcadio and his mother moved to Dublin while his father was stationed in the West Indies. But his paternal family never accepted the Greek wife and half-Greek child. Eventually Hearn annulled the marriage, forcing Rosa to return to Greece. Abandoned by both mother and father, Lafcadio was raised by an Irish aunt.
As a result of Dickensian circumstances involving a cruel and unethical legal adviser to his aunt, Lafcadio found himself impoverished and without any prospects in Ireland. Thus at the age of 19 he immigrated to Cincinnati, where without any money he slept on the streets. Through many efforts he secured a job as a reporter, eventually working for the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer where he wrote about crime but also about the city’s downtrodden citizens. His lurid descriptions sold papers and enhanced his popularity. In a short time, he became the city’s most famous and controversial reporter.
But perhaps his most provocative decision was to marry an African-American woman, Alethea Foley, an unlawful act at the time, which led to the loss of his job with the Enquirer. Unable to bear the complications caused by his marriage and the chilly climate in Ohio, he divorced and in 1877 took a ferry to New Orleans.
In this city he was able to write about the creole population. Indeed, his writings, ranging from voodoo, to cuisine, to lush street life, and colorful music in Harper’s Magazine, Century Magazine, Pippincott’s Magazine and Atlantic Monthly, brought national attention to New Orleans as a distinctive place in the United States. At the same time, Hearn continued to work on cultural criticism and translations of French authors such as Théophile Goutier and Pierre Loti. He also compiled a book of New Orleans recipes, only the second in that city’s long history of cookbooks.
After ten years in Louisiana, Hearn restless perhaps for the azure waters of the Ionian Sea and for the unbuttoned pattern of island life, decided to leave for the Caribbean. He travelled to Martinique where he lived for two yeas as a correspondent for Harper’s. He was entranced by the racial complexity of the island, “ranging up from the black or nearly black through bronze reds and coppery browns and fruit yellows to the dead ivory of the sang-mete.”
Hearn abandoned this paradise after two years and traveled to New York. But unable to bear the “nightmarish” city, he turned his gaze improbably towards Japan, where he took an assignment as a reporter. So in March 8, 1890 he left for Montreal from where crossed the continent by train to Vancouver and then on the steamer, Abyssinia, left for Yokohama.
In Japan he reinvented himself again. When his sponsoring newspaper withdrew support, he stayed on. At first he settled in the town of Matsue, as a teacher in a middle school. He married a local woman, Koizumi Setsu, who stemmed from an impoverished but aristocratic samurai family. Eventually he became a naturalized citizen and undertook the name Koizumi Yakumo.
In 1896, after landing a position teaching English literature at the Tokyo Imperial University, he moved to the capital city. But he continued to write in English about Japan for now a substantial international audience, which included luminaries such as Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Stefan Zweig. Indeed, Zweig described Hearn as someone unique in the world of art, “a miracle of transplantation, of artificial grafting: the works of an Occidental, yet written by an Oriental.” Hearn died in 1904.
Today in Japan, Colt explains, he is honored as an adopted son, and praised as a sensitive interpreter for the world of Japanese literature, religion, and society. It is remarkable that a man born on a tiny Greek island should travel around the world and write so brilliantly about the unconnected places he lived in.
In this he was helped perhaps by his disability -- his half-blindness. As a result of an accident at the age of sixteen, he lost sight in one eye. But this mishap may have sharpened his outlook to the possibility of empathic links between distant societies. Perhaps only someone who was half of something – Greek, Irish, blind, American, Caribbean, and Japanese -- could become, as Tennyson said of Ulysses, part of what he had met.
Note: Quotations are taken from Jonathan Colt, Wandering Ghost. The Odyssey of Lafcadio Hearn, (New York: Knopf, 1991).