Charles Bush Hearn, surgeon-major in the British army, was ordered to duty on the Grecian island of Santa Maura. This was one of the Ionian Islands west of Greece, known in ancient times as Leucadia. Charles’ forebears were originally of English origin, who settled in Ireland, and were reputed to have a gypsy strain in their blood. On Santa Maura, Charles met and married Rosa Tessima, a native of one of the islands, also of Maltese extraction, whose family probably had a strain of Arab and Moorish blood. Their first child died at birth. Their second child was named Patricio Lafcadio Carlos Tessima Hearn. His birth was recorded in August, 1850, though he always maintained that he was born on June 27. “Lafcadio” was an approximation of the modern Greek pronunciation of Leucadia, and it was the name he chose to use most of his life.
When Lafcadio was two, his father, ordered to the West Indies, returned first to Ireland with his wife and son. One biography says that Mrs. Hearn abandoned her family outright, fleeing with a former lover; another says that the marriage was “dissolved by mutual consent” in 1856, when Lafcadio was six, at which time Mrs. Hearn traveled east and remarried. Charles Hearn later also remarried and sailed for India. Lafcadio never saw either alive again, his father dying of fever in 1866 on his return trip. Lafcadio would have been sixteen at that time.
Lafcadio was left, upon his mother’s departure, in the care of his father’s aunt, the widow Mrs. Justine Brenane. He was to become her heir if she were allowed to raise him a Catholic.
At the age of 13, he was sent to St. Cuthbert’s college in England, where he spent three years. He excelled in English composition and won a prize, and acquired a knowledge of Greek and Latin and a hostility toward Catholicism. One day, while playing a game, the handle on the end of a rope flew back, struck him in the face, and destroyed the sight in his left eye, leaving the iris “covered with a milky film.” He was already nearsighted and, being an avid reader, so overused his remaining eye that it swelled to twice its normal size, impairing its vision. The swelling and impairment were permanent. He had a nervous breakdown, and developed an obsession about being physically repulsive, especially to women.
Justine Brenane turned over most of her assets to a businessman friend, who went bankrupt and lost the bulk of her fortune. This happened at about the time of Charles Hearn’s death. Lafcadio left St. Cuthbert’s and was sent to London on the small allowance his aunt could manage, where he lived some of the time with a former servant of his aunt’s and some of the time in the workhouse.
Mrs. Brenane sent Lafcadio to France, to a Jesuit institution near Rouen, but he ran away to Paris. During his time in France he mastered the French language, from which he later published translations of modern works.
In 1869, when Hearn was 19, Mrs. Brenane paid his passage to New York. By that summer, he was in Cincinnati. Mrs. Brenane sent him what money she could, but he often slept in the streets and haylofts, and worked as a servant, shovelled fires, waited tables, and (briefly) sold mirrors. He was fired from a job at the Public Library for reading more than he worked.
At last he made a real friend–Henry Watkin, a printer, who let him sleep in the shop, taught him to set type, and got him his first editorial job with a paper, a business weekly called the Trade List.
In 1872 or 1873, he began selling articles to the Cincinnati Inquirer, and joined its regular staff. He wrote “not in journalese but in pure literary English and gave evidence of indefatigable reading.” Hearn made a reputation for himself with his “tanyard murder” story, “Violent Cremation,” giving a gruesome description of the charred remains of a murder victim.
During this time he made friends with Henry Edward Krehbiel, who later became music critic of the New York Tribune.
Hearn lived openly with a woman who had an unspecified amount of African American ancestry. He was dismissed from his paper because of the scandal, but was immediately hired by the Cincinnati Commercial. His first translations of stories from Gautier and Flaubert were done in Cincinnati.
A description of him at this time is:
Only five feet three inches tall; the peajacket he affected was much too large and his very low collar with its black string tie much too big, giving him the appearance of a miniature but serious-minded scarecrow. His hands were delicate and well-bred, and his coarse boots could not quite hide the fact that his feet were small. A species of railroad conductor’s cap concealed his intellectual forehead, the visor casting into friendly shadow his abnormal eyes. The nose was hawklike, with nostrils finely chiseled, and a long brown mustache hid a sensuously sensitive mouth. He suggested a small, shy, studious, shipwrecked sailor.
In 1877, at 27 years of age, he traveled to New Orleans, where the Commercial commissioned him to write articles on political conditions in Louisiana. Of the 14 articles he sent his paper, written under the name of Ozias Midwinter, only the last three contained any mention of politics; the rest were his impressions of the city. He was dismissed.
He nearly died in the yellow-fever epidemic that broke out in New Orleans; surviving that, he nearly starved. His sufferings enhanced his sympathies with the helpless and, when he did find newspaper work, he wrote many editorials against police extortion, child labor, vivisection, lynching, and anti-Semitism.
Finally, he was hired by the Item, to which he contributed almost daily for the next three-and-a-half years, writing editorials, scientific and literary articles, a series of eerie prose poems, sketches of life among the creoles, translations from Spanish and French, book reviews, and a column of advice to young people. He started a five-cent restaurant called the “Hard Times,” but his partner ran off with the funds and the cook.
In 1880, Hearn began writing for the Times-Democrat, where he contributed editorials and translations from the French, sketches in poetic prose, and stories adopted from foreign sources. Two of his earliest works, Strange Leaves from Stray Literature (1884) and Some Chinese Ghosts (1887) were in this vein. He wrote essays and articles on Buddhism and subjects of Arabic interest. He wrote on French and Russian literature. He wrote articles on everything from astronomy to archaeology, a collection of proverbs in the French/African patois of Louisiana and the West Indies, and a book on Creole cookery, for which he supplied the recipes. He wrote his first novel, Chita, based on the devastation of a tidal wave which hit an island on which he vacationed.
By this time, he was becoming known and published in New York. He went to New York and stayed with his friend Krehbiel, but soon obtained a commission to write a series of articles on the West Indies. He spent the summer there, came back to New York, didn’t like it, and returned to the West Indies on the same steamer that had brought him. This time he stayed for two-and-a-half years, during some of that time dependent on the charity of the islanders. He published a series of articles in Harpers Magazine, later collected as Two Years in the French West Indies, called the best book he published in America. He also wrote his second novel, Youma, a story of the slave insurrection.
Hearn returned to New York in 1889 and stayed for a few months, long enough to translate a book from the French, negotiate a business trip to Japan, and quarrel with his old friend Henry E. Krehbiel.
He had no sooner arrived in Japan than Hearn “developed one of the delusions of persecution to which he was subject.” He imagined that the man with whom he traveled and Harper’s Magazine, which had sent him to Japan, were plotting to make him a literary slave on starvation wages in a foreign land. He severed his connections with both, and found a position teaching Middle School in Matsue, after some time of making pilgrimages and living in temples. He began his teaching duties in 1890, when he was 40 years old.
The following year, he married Setsuko Koizumi, the 22-year-old daughter of a high-ranking but impoverished samurai family. He adopted Japanese dress in his home. He began to write a series of articles on Japan which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and the Times-Democrat. They were later collected and published as Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan. Between his past privations and excesses and the cold winters of Matsue, Hearn became ill, and had himself transferred to the Government College at Kumamoto. He was unhappy there, feeling that he was ostracized by the other teachers, and that one in particular gave information about him to his enemies, the missionaries.
Hearn praised old Japan, but violently attacked modern Japan. For instance, he found that if he formally registered his wife as his wife, she would be considered a foreigner. If he died, she would be confined to the open ports and unable to visit her family. Setsuko gave birth to a son, Kazuo, in 1893, and Lafcadio learned that the boy, too, would suffer legal drawbacks as the son of foreigners. Hearn’s solution was to become a Japanese citizen, being adopted by his wife’s family, and taking the name of Koizumi (little spring) Yakumo (many clouds). True to form, Hearn’s salary was then reduced, as he was now a native teacher, not a foreign one.
In 1894, Hearn–that is, Koizumi–resigned his teaching post and joined the staff of the Kobe Chronicle, then resigned that and took the chair of English Literature at the Imperial University of Tokyo. His lectures on English literature were taken down by a number of students, and were posthumously published in four volumes of interpretation and criticism. He prepared a series of lectures to give at Cornell University; when the invitation to speak was withdrawn due to lack of funds, he published these lectures as Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation.
Between 1897 and 1904, he averaged a book a year. During his life in Japan, a period of fourteen years, he wrote twelve books detailing the life and customs, flora, and fauna of a country whose language he had never learned.
“Of all modern writers in English, his prose was possibly the most polished, beautiful, lyrical.” It was said that he once worked eight months to perfect seventy-three lines. His great flaw was that “his judgments were too often the children of his prejudices, and… he lacked too much in breadth of view, ordinary common sense, and knowledge of human nature for his message to be of first importance to mankind.”
He died from a heart attack on September 26, 1904. Though he was an agnostic, he was buried according to Buddhist rites. His body was cremated and the ashes buried in Japan. He was survived by his widow, three sons, and one daughter. He was 54.
Pearl Buck, in her introduction to a 1963 collection of his Japanese tales, says:
When I was in Japan not long ago, I found many Japanese children reading his stories. And I found, everywhere, people who knew his name and some old people who had known him face to face and remembered him warmly.
Hearn once said, “Literary success of any enduring kind is made by refusing to do what publishers want, by refusing to write what the public wants, by refusing to accept any popular standard, by refusing to write anything to order.”