Review of The
Selected Writings Of Lafcadio Hearn
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/30/06
Lafcadio Hearn is one of those writers I knew the name of for years- who could forget Lafcadio Hearn?- yet could not exactly place with any book, movement, style, nor philosophy. Then, a while back, I stumbled upon his Selected Writings at a used bookstore and snapped it up. Amazingly, after years of having his name on my list of writers to acquire, for I had never come across him in a bookstore, and only had one brief tale or report of his that I had read decades earlier, there was actually a second copy of Hearn’s Selected Writings. I took the book in better shape.
Hearn is one of those characters who seems to have been born at exactly the right time. He could have populated a Mark Twain story, or even that of a Jules Verne. He was born in Greece in 1850, of Greek and Irish extraction- his full name being Patricio Lafcadio Tessima Carlos Hearn, raised in Dublin by a great aunt, schooled in England and France, until his family was broke, then led a life of hand-to-mouth travel people today would envy, until he settled down and married in Japan. He was a short ugly man, blind in one eye, but led a rich life as a writer, critic, amateur engraver, and journalist. He wrote extensively about the cultures of Louisiana, the Caribbean, and is considered the earliest Western chronicler of Japanese culture. In 1890 he moved to Japan, for Harper’s Weekly, married into a samurai family, took a Japanese name- Yakumo Koizumi, and wrote of Japanese culture in 12 books, becoming renowned for his teaching as an English literature professor with the Imperial University of Tokyo. He died on September 26, 1904, from a heart ailment, and was given a Buddhist burial.
But, in that little more than a half century he was surely, after only the immortal Twain, America’s most cosmopolitan writer of the 19th Century- not as good a writer, but even better traveled. The book opens with a lengthy introduction by the estimable Malcolm Cowley, then gives the reader a full immersion in the best known of his works, the short story collection of seventeen reworked fables of Japan, Kwaidan, later made into a classic film centered on a handful of the best stories. While there is definite literary merit to most of the tales, it is their cultural import that is supreme. In this way, Hearn does for Japanese culture in the West what Isaac Bashevis Singer and Zora Neale Hurston do for Eastern European Jewish and Dixie black culture. In a weird way, though, the tales also remind me of Tu Fu’s Chinese poetry, although Kwaidan lacks the modernity of the poetry which preceded it by over an eon. Yet, there is plenty here, and lovers of martial arts films will recognize many of the tropes within. This very lack of pretense is the work’s greatest asset, and Hearn does not, like so many other more modern interpreters of foreign cultures, like Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Bly, or W.S. Merwin, impose too much of himself in the works. The Story of Mimi-Nashi Hoichi and Yuki Onna are among the better and more famous tales. These tales of the supernatural, mostly ghost tales, blend the primitivism of Washington Irving’s tales with a deeper philosophic center.
Some Chinese Ghosts evokes similar feelings and Chita explores Louisiana’s bayous with an interesting mix of journalism and memoir. The rest of the book chronicles much of the depth and breadth that makes Hearn so invaluable a cultural treasure. Yes, some of the writing is poor, and that’s represented, but what a service the publisher, Citadel Press, has done by rescuing this 1949 imprint from the dungeons of America’s more easily disposed of past. From 1878-1888 Hearn lived in New Orleans, and some of his New Orleans Sketches of Creole culture are priceless, and still echo through the writings of journalists like Pete Hamill and Charlie LeDuff. After that he moved to the Caribbean.
It is an absolute shame that a century on Lafcadio Hearn is not more widely known and read. Give me one of him for every hundred David Foster Wallaces and I’ll call it even. There is a great empathy and insight that Hearn brings to his subject matter- even in trifling pieces and throwaway sketches, that is devoid in almost all contemporary published writing. That he, a white man, felt this for black and Third World cultures, is even more the remarkable over a century ago. Twain is his only real rival in that regard, yet not even he could get inside the shoes of a non-white person as well. Hearn did better than that, as a notorious miscegenist.
Wherever he lived, he wrote
sketches of local life- the common people, their language, folktales, songs, how
they lived and died. He also wrote novels, translations, and essays on things
ranging from literature to astronomy, entomology to Buddhism. He was also a keen
political observer- reviled as a reactionary by the Left, and as a poseur
iconoclast by the Right. Instead, he was a surprisingly modern agnostic and
critic of industrial abuses, who hated corporations, but saw capitalism on a
small scale as the engine that creatively drove societies. He was, in short,
pardon the pun, a little guy for little guys. He also saw, decades before World
War Two, the coming clash of cultures between Japan and the West. In the essay Japan
he correctly predicted Japan’s Occidentalization, and growing problems with
crime and corruption, even as improved diets made the populace healthier. In the
essay Industrial Danger he notes that Japan’s rapid industrial
modernization, over a few decades versus several centuries in Europe, was
getting too far ahead of the nation’s cultural axis, and this portended grave
Now the absence of individual freedom in modern Japan would certainly appear to be nothing less than a national danger. For those very habits of unquestioning obedience, and loyalty, and respect for authority, which made feudal society possible, are likely to render a true democratic régime impossible, and would tend to bring about a state of anarchy. Only races long accustomed to personal liberty—liberty to think about matters of ethics apart from matters of government—liberty to consider questions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, independently of political authority—are able to face without risk the peril now menacing Japan.
Given the fact that contemporaries of his like Twain, Rudyard Kipling, and George Bernard Shaw, also predicted the future, it’s worth noting that only H.G. Wells, it could be argued, even came near the real world prescience of Hearn- one of the many reasons he’s still a near-deity in Japan. Would that he would only read here, with a tenth the passion he is there and this country’s literary heritage would be infinitely richer.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the The Simon website.]
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