Friday, July 8, 2011


During the colorful and splendid coronation of the Mikado held in Kyoto toward the end of the year 1915 a gold medal and ribbon known as the Sho-shii, which is the fourth class of the junior rank of court, was conferred on Lafcadio Hearn under his Japanese name Koizumi Yakumo. But this honor came too late. Lafcadio Hearn had already been dead for over ten years. And what honor could there be for a departed spirit who, even during his mortal life, dwelt in the weird ghostly realms of his imagination?

His strange name came from one of the Greek Ionian islands, Leucedia, which is pronounced Lafcadio. Here he was born in the year 1850, the son of an Irish surgeon serving in the English Army of Occupation and a Greek girl mother. Six years later the little family moved to Ireland, but here they were not very happy. The call of the East was too strong for them to resist. The little mother soon abandoned her husband and child, ran off to seek a warmer and happier clime, married again and ended up going to Asia Minor. The father also married again, turned Lafcadio over to the care of a great-aunt, and left for India. Many, many years later, Lafcadio Hearn himself abandoned western civilization and found a home in Japan.

His education was strictly religious. He was first sent to Jesuit school in the north of France and later to a Roman Catholic college in the north of England. Here he acquired his haunting horror of Gothic cathedrals and conventional beliefs. The idea that ghosts lurked in the dark corners of old churches took hold of him and was greater than his fear of Hell. He soon lost his religion. An accident caused him to lose his sight of one eye and this misfortune greatly influenced his entire life, for the eye that remained was very defective and near-sighted. The vivid world of reality faded before him, the pictures that make up life became dim, the sun became clouded over with a milky film, and he was ready for the life in the ghostly spheres of his own imagination -- the life that was later dedicated to a literature of rare magic beauty.

At sixteen or seventeen, we find him in London suffering from illness and extreme poverty. We find him sleeping in a hayloft for the sake of the heat rising from the well-fed horses in the stalls below.

At nineteen, he was penniless in New York serving as a waiter and sleeping in the parks, and at twenty, he had wandered out to Cincinnati and was working first as a messenger and then as a peddler of mirrors for a Syrian merchant. Mirrors for Cincinnati from a young, wall-eyed peddler who could himself reflect the strange, dark phosphorescent beauty of the Orient!

He had other jobs but lost them all. At every stroke he met defeat and soon he lost his courage and with that he became timid and afraid. He was afraid of the real world, which he could see but for dimly as though it were a haunting ghost. But at night, when all was still and peaceful and the inhabitants of the prosperous and enterprising city were snug in their beds, then he marched forth into the kingdom of this imagination, into the fairyland that he conjured up in his romantic brain . . . then he crawled, half-starved, into a rusty boiler, that lay among the rubbish of vacant lot, and went to sleep.

His first start in the field of letters came several years later when he secured work on a newspaper. His extreme shyness prevented him from doing general reporting; and, apropos of this, the editor of the paper once remarked that if Hearn was sent to interview anyone, the person would have to come out into the street and invite him into the house or he would come back to the office empty-handed. But he soon distinguished himself in the reporting of a horrible murder. The ghost and corpse set his imagination working, and from these companion spirits, he had nothing to fear. More work, allowing play for his marvelously vivid descriptive powers, followed and for a time he was almost comfortable, when suddenly he lost his job, and, owing to an illegal marriage contracted with a negress, had to leave Cincinnati.

New Orleans seemed warmer and in character closer to the Orient. Here he walked the streets and wrote short sketches describing the oddities of the city. Failure after failure beat him down but at last he secured work on a newspaper. Then with a partner he opened a five cent eating house called, "The Hard Times," which would have proved a success had the partner not rung off with the money and the cook. Hearn was left with the debts.

At about this time, Hearn began his translation from modern French masters. He never made a mistake regarding literature. His first translation was Gauthier's One of Cleopatra's Nights, and at a later date, he translated Anatole France's The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard, and Flaubert's Temptation of St. Anthony. It was also during these days in New Orleans that he began contributing Oriental stories to the newspapers. These he collected and made into the first volume typical of his strange genius, and now famous under the title, Chinese Ghosts. "The volume, Chinese Ghosts," he oncc wrote, "is an attempt in the direction I hope to make triumph someday, poetical prose."

Each of the six legendary stories contained in this volume cost him months of study and painstaking work. His contribution to literature may be found in the simple flow and subtle sense of his words, chosen for their musical interplay of vowel sounds as well as for their power to express clearly the desired ideas. And more than this; he gives the reader a ghostly shudder by building up an intimacy with the unseen. He makes us feel the great unknown, as though the air in which we move were filled with weird, haunting spirits, companions somehow to those locked in our hearts.

It is true that he worked within the sad limits set for him by life, but within these boundaries he performed miracles. He made tragedy a thing of great beauty and pictured it without irony or bitterness. Passionate flights of suffering he recorded without cruelty and even death and hopelessness he clothed with a certain fragrance. His pen could hurt no living creature for it was directed always by an affection for nature and a love for the mystical.

From New Orleans he went to the West Indies where he wrote some travel sketches and finally, in the year 1890, he arrived in Japan. The call of the Orient that drive his mother to Asia Minor and sent his father to India brought Lafcadio Hearn to Japan. He was now forty years old and weary unto death of the industrial Anglo-Saxon civilization in which for the past twenty-five years, he confessed, he lived like a rat and "must have acquired something of that disposition." In Japan he found no difficulty in fitting himself modestly into the picture, and he at once began the process of suppressing and even stamping out the smoldering remains of his Occidental civilization.

He gave up his journalistic work and became a teacher of English in the schools. He married a Japanese wife who gave him several children and he enjoyed a home life of great sweetness and simplicity. Now his chilled nature began to thaw out and, to amuse the children, he translated the fairytales and other romances of Old Japan. Now there were times when he seemed to kneel at the feet of nature or sit in the lap of one of the giant bronze Buddhas and again he would stand in the spray like shade of tall bamboos and look up at the pattern against the glowing sun, all to see how it could best be told with a pen. At last he was happy!

For the sake of his children and because of his contempt for the Western world he renounced his citizenship and became a subject of Japan. He threw away Western science and, attracted by the poetry and glamor of Eastern religion, became a Buddhist. To the very end, civilization, of which he had been given a full bitter taste, remained to him a hideous thing. But the ghost of his life, the idea of universal evil, never left him.

He died in the fall of 1904 after having brought back to life many of the dead romances that had lain moldering in the ancient dust of old Japan. With his exquisite style he has given Eastern folklore its important place in our literature. He blew the breath of life into those weird spirits in whose realms he really lived and died.

Manuel Komroff
New York
March, 1927

from his introduction to Lafcadio Hearn Some Chinese Ghosts, Modern Library 1927.