Hearn, Lafcadio, 1850-1904
Lafcadio Hearn (Patricio Lafacadio Tessima Carlos Hearn), journalist, translator, and author, was a genuinely international figure who become an authority on many cultures, and is claimed by many nations. He was born on the Greek island of Leucadia (known from British occupation as Santa Maura). His mother, Rosa Antonia Cassimati, was a native of Cerigo, the most southern of the Ionian Islands. His father, Charles Bush Hearn, an Anglo-Irishman from Dublin, was a surgeon and officer in the British army, and met his wife while stationed on the islands. When Hearn was two, his father sent him with his mother to live with relatives in Dublin, and rarely visited. In 1854, Hearn's mother left Ireland to visit her family, gave birth in Greece to Hearn's younger brother, James, and did not return. In her absence, Hearn's father had the marriage annulled and remarried. Hearn, abandoned by both parents, was raised by his father's widowed aunt, Sarah Brenane.
A lonely child, Hearn grew into a man whose interests inclined towards the old, quiet corners of the bustling modern world, and the dreamy, otherworldly literature of ghost tales and folklore. His aunt, a convert to Catholicism, enrolled him in a French church school in Rouen, France and then a Catholic boys' school near Durham, England. After an accident in 1863, when a knotted rope struck him in the face, Hearn lost all vision in his left eye. Reportedly, the cloudy eye was not horrible to look at, but Hearn never outgrew his own repulsion at his deformity. His aunt, suffering financial losses, withdrew Hearn from school in 1867. After living, destitute, in London, he was given passage money to America, with instructions to reach a relative in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Hearn landed in New York City in 1869. His attempt to make his own way failed miserably, and after living in extreme poverty, he took the train to Cincinnati -- by some accounts, in 1871 but possibly earlier. Hearn was befriended by a printer, Henry Watkin, who gave him a place to sleep, taught him to set type, and helped him find work as a proof-reader and type-setter. Always reading and writing in his spare time, Hearn soon presented one of his stories to the editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer, and was hired as a reporter. He earned a local reputation for writing about loathsome crimes in a personal, descriptive style. But he was at work on more literary writing as well, translating contemporary French authors like Gautier and Flaubert.
He moved to New Orleans in 1877, where he lived for the next ten years, and where he would publish La Cuisine Creole (1885). Though he struggled to feed himself at first, and was seriously ill with dengue fever, he eventually began writing for a small daily paper called The Item. Given free rein, he wrote short essays about everyday New Orleans experiences, as well as "fantastics" (dreamy meditative tales) and translations of contemporary French literature. He attracted notice, and in 1881 was asked to become literary editor of the New Orleans Times-Democrat. The most productive, happy phase of his American days followed. In 1882 he published his first book, One of Cleopatra's Nights and Other Fantastic Romances, a translation of six stories by Theophile Gautier. In 1884 he published an anthology of folklore from Eskimo, Polynesian, Hindu, Jewish, Arabic and other traditions, called Stray Leaves from Strange Literature.
Since arriving in New Orleans, Hearn had been fascinated with Creole culture, both the old white Creole "elite" of French and Spanish origin, and the servant class of Creoles of mixed African and Catholic Latin origin. Developing his metier as a cultural observer, he studied the Creole French language, and collected Creole songs, stories, and sayings with the care and detachment of an ethnographer, mixing with all classes and traveling all parts of the city. His studies were incorporated into many of his newspaper essays and stories, but also formed two landmark contributions to the study of Creole culture: Gombo Zhebes: A Little Dictionary of Creole Proverbs (1885), a pioneering work of comparative linguistics in which proverbs in six Creole dialects of Louisiana and the Caribbean are transcribed and translated; and La Cuisine Creole (1885), the first book devoted to the culinary arts of New Orleans cooking. Why Lafcadio Hearn ever wrote a cookbook is an amusing question. Though he did purchase pots and pans at one point, he rarely cooked, and instead became a welcome fixture at his favorite boarding house in New Orleans, rarely missing a meal. He did attempt to start a restaurant in New Orleans, investing $100 dollars with an eating-house entrepreneur. Hearn advertised "The 5 Cent Restaurant" as "the cheapest eating-house in the South." It served coffee, hot rolls, beefsteak, soup, cold tongue and stew, all apparently not prepared by Hearn, but by his dismal partner who vanished with the first month's profits and sapped Hearn's enthusiasm for the restaurant business.
His enthusiasm for Creole cooking, however, remained as strong as his interest in its language and stories. He kept a careful record of every good recipe he had encountered in New Orleans, many of them originating from the wife of his friend, Dr. Rudolph Matas. When New Orleans hosted the World Industrial Exposition of 1884-85, Hearn used the opportunity to reach a publishing deal with his friend Will H. Coleman in New York, whereby Coleman would publish the curious Gombo Zhebes if Hearn would throw in the manuscript for a sure seller - a collection of Creole recipes, the plan being that Expo crowds would snatch up knowledgeable, authentic publications on New Orleans culture. Hearn also contributed writings to a travel guide, The Historical Sketch Book and Guide to New Orleans that Coleman printed at the same time. Though the books were published too late in 1885 to make a profit from the Exposition, the cookbook sold well anyway, and was re-published in New Orleans the same year by F.F. Hansell. Though Hearn saw little money from his cookbook, and did not want to be known as the author of a cookbook (hence the anonymous authorship), his scheme resulted in the first compilation of Creole recipes ever to appear in print. Many credit him with defining Creole cooking as a heritage worth preserving, and credit his book, along with the Times-Picayune's Creole Cookbook of 1901 (which it inspired) as still among the best sources of true Creole recipes.
Hearn left New Orleans in 1887 for the West Indies and Martinique. That same year he published a collection of legends, Some Chinese Ghosts, and placed his first novel, Chita, with Harper's Monthly. He returned to New York City and Philadelphia two years later. In 1890 he published Two Years in the French West Indies, and Youma, a novella about a slave insurrection, and translated Anatole France's Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard. He also received a commission from Harper's to travel to and write a book about Japan. He left in March of 1890, never to return. Once in Japan, Hearn began teaching English at a school in Matsue, and later in Kyushu. His articles on Japan were widely syndicated. In 1891 he wed Setusko Koizumi, and they eventually had four children. In 1894 he published his first of twelve books on Japanese culture, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, and in 1896 he became a Japanese citizen, legally changing his name to Koizumi Yakumo. (His wife, married to a British subject, would have lost her Japanese citizenry otherwise.) Though he wrote to friends in America that he wished to return someday, family concerns, financial restrictions, and cancellation of his planned 1903 lecture series at Cornell University due to a typhoid outbreak in Ithaca all prevented him from coming. He published his final book, Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation, in 1904. He died of heart disease on the island of Honshu, in September 1904, at the age of 54.
Hearn was a prolific writer, and the publications mentioned above cover less than half of his original published works, many of which were published posthumously. By the end of his life, he had become the leading Western authority on Japan and Japanese culture. A literary artist, he translated and elaborated on traditional legends and stories, and created original stories of haunting power. Considered the forerunner of multi-cultural studies, Hearn spent his life seeking to understand and express the language, stories, and cultures that were foreign to or neglected by late nineteenth century European and American modernity. In a letter dated November 1889, addressed to his friend Elizabeth Bisland (for whom his affection is quite tender) he writes:
Even now there is no more fleeing into strange countries, -- because there are no strange countries: everything is being interbound and interspersed with steel rails and lightning wires: -- there are no more mysteries, -- except what are called hearts, those points at which individualities rarely touch each other, only to feel as sudden a thrill of surprise as at meeting a ghost, and then to wonder in vain, for the rest of life, what lies out of soul-sight.
-- from The Life and Letters of Lafcadio Hearn, by Elizabeth Bisland (1906).
- Abbott, Shirley. "The Creole Heritage," from Mme. Begue and her Recipes; The Picayune's Creole Cookbook. Birmingham, Alabama: Oxmoor House, 1984.
- Bisland, Elizabeth. The Life and Letters of Lafcadio Hearn. New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1906.
- Hearn, Lafcadio. La Cuisine Creole: A Collection of Culinary Recipes, From Leading Chefs and Noted Creole Housewives, Who Have Made New Orleans Famous for its Cuisine. New Orleans: F.F. Hansell & Bros., Ltd., 1885.
- ----Leaves from the Diary of an Impressionist: Creole Sketches and Some Chinese Ghosts. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1922.
- Ronan, Sean G. Irish Writing on Lafcadio Hearn and Japan. Folkstone, Kent, UK: Global Oriental, 1997.
- Scharnhorst, Gary. American National Biography. Vol. 10. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford, 1999.
- Starr, S. Frederick. Inventing New Orleans: Writings of Lafcadio Hearn. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.
- Stevenson, Elizabeth. Lafcadio Hearn. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1961.
- Tinker, Edward Larocque. Lafcadio Hearn's American Days. London: John Lane The Bodley Head Ltd., 1925.
Written by Anne-Marie Rachman