Lafcadio Hearn (1850)
It was on this date, June 27, 1850, that the international writer Lafcadio Hearn was born Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (Πατρίκιος Λευκάδιος Χερν) on the Ionian Greek island of Lefkada, from which his Greek mother and Anglo-Irish father gave him his name. There he was baptized into the Greek Orthodox Church. While attending St. Cuthbert’s in England, at 15 he lost vision in his left eye in a playing field accident. It was also while there that Hearn shook off his Catholicism and adopted a pantheism little removed from atheism. Forced to withdraw from school following his father’s death, he pursued a journalism career in the United States, working as a reporter for the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, from which he was dismissed in 1875 for marrying a black woman—which was illegal at the time. He divorced his wife in 1877 and moved to New Orleans, writing for Daily City Item, the Times Democrat, Harper’s Weekly, Harper’s Monthly and Scribner’s Magazine. There, with his colorful, imaginative prose he virtually “invented” the city in the popular imagination as a magical and mysterious place, full of Creole culture, French Opera, Louisiana Voodoo and exotic cuisine.
After two years writing in the West Indies, between 1889 and 1890, during the Meiji period, he settled in Japan. There he spent the rest of his life, married a Japanese woman and adopted the name Koizumi Yakumo (小泉八雲). He taught English and literature, but his perceptive explanation to Western readers of pre-industrial, pre-Westernized Japanese life and culture won him Athanaeum‘s kudos as “the most brilliant of writers on Japanese life.”
Hearn was particularly adept at interpreting Japanese Buddhism, as a way of life rather than as a belief. In this he found a perfect complement to his own lack of religion—his belief in the sentience and blessedness of all Nature. After the publication of Gleanings in Buddha-Fields: Studies of Hand and Soul in the Far East (1897), Hearn observed to a correspondent, “I am getting a number of letters about the last book,—the Buddhist papers seem to have made an impression. … You will be amused at some of the religious notices,—regretting my power to debauch ‘the minds of my pupils.’” The same correspondent noted that Hearn was accused of sacrificing his religion (and other elements of Western culture) to become Japanese, saying,
Did Hearn ‘sacrifice’ or ‘change’ his religion, and become a Shintoist or a Buddhist? Nothing would be more absurd than to answer this question in the affirmative. For, first of all, Lafcadio Hearn had absolutely no religion. To say a man ‘sacrificed’ or ‘changed’ that which he had not is sheer nonsense. Being a firm believer in evolution, … Hearn was a thoroughgoing agnostic, and remained so till he died. … As [Alexander] Pope embellished his ideas with Christian tenets, so Hearn ornamented, in prose, his ideas with Buddhist and Shintoist beliefs. … Hearn was an agnostic, though he made use of Buddhism and Shintoism.*
Lafcadio Hearn died of heart failure on 26 September 1904 at the age of 54. He was buried at the Zōshigaya Cemetery in Toshima, Tokyo, Japan. He never became a Buddhist, and disagreed with some of its principles, but, as Kenneth Rexroth wrote (1977) “He passionately believed that Buddhism promoted a far better attitude toward daily life than did Christianity.”†
* Quoted from “Lafcadio Hearn, the Man” by Nobushige Amenomori, from The Atlantic Monthly, October 1905, pp. 510-524.
† Kenneth Rexroth. The Buddhist Writings of Lafcadio Hearn. Desert Hot Springs, CA: Ross-Erikson, 1977, “Introduction.”
Originally published June 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.