The Brief, Wondrous Life of Lafcadio Hearn: Tracking the Author, Journalist and 19th-Century World Traveler through Historical Newspapers
An American author and literary figure in the last quarter of the 19th century, Lafcadio Hearn was known for his fiction and his reportage from the Caribbean and Japan. His own life, however, was as fascinating as fiction itself, and his biography reads like a Charles Dickens novel that morphs into a Hemingway memoir.
Born to a Greek mother and an Irish father, Hearn was brought up in Greece, Ireland, England and France. After moving to Dublin when he was five, his parents divorced. His mother remarried and returned to Greece, while his soldier father was sent to India with his new wife. Hearn was left in Ireland with his aunt, Sarah Brenane, who sent him to a Catholic school in France on the advice of her financial advisor, Henry Molyneux.
From there, Hearn went to yet another school in England, but was forced to leave when Molyneux suffers some financial setbacks. His aunt died and Molyneux became her heir. When Hearn turned nineteen, Molyneux gave him a ticket to New York City. From there, he went to Cincinnati, Ohio, where a relative of Molyneux’s was supposed to help him, but didn’t. Hearn lived in abject poverty. But thanks to his multinational upbringing, he was literate and knew several languages.
Before long, Hearn became a journalist, working first for the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer and later for the Cincinnati Commercial. He had a romantic relationship with Alethea “Mattie” Foley, a former slave who worked at his boardinghouse. Although marrying her was illegal at the time, Hearn nonetheless did so. When news of his marriage became public, he was fired from the Enquirer. He had written about her in the article “Some Strange Experience: The Reminiscences of a Ghost-Seer,” published in the Cincinnati Commercial on September 26, 1875. It starts:
“They do say the dead never come back again,” she observed half dreamingly, “but then I have seen such queer things.”
She was a healthy, well built country girl, whom the most critical must have called good looking; robust and ruddy, despite the toil of life in boarding house kitchen, but with a strangely thoughtful expression in her large dark eyes, as though she were ever watching the motions of Somebody who cast no shadow, and was invisible to all others. Spiritualists were wont to regard her as a strong “medium,” although she had a peculiar dislike of being so regarded. She had never learned to read or write, but possessed naturally a wonderful wealth of verbal description, a more than ordinarily vivid memory, and a gift of conversation which would have charmed an Italian improvisatore. These things we learned during an idle half hour passed one summer’s evening in her company on the kitchen stairs; while the boarders lounged on the porch in the moonlight, and the hall lamp created flickering shadows along the varnished corridors, and the hungry rats held squeaking carnival in the dark dining room. To the weird earnestness of the story-teller, the melody of her low, soft voice, and the enthralling charm of her conversation, we cannot attempt to do justice; nor shall we even undertake to report her own mysterious narrative word for word, but only to convey to the reader those impressions of it which linger in the writer’s memory.
She then relates several experiences with ghosts. Christopher Benfey, who selected the content and wrote the notes for the Library of America’s 2009 volume Hearn: American Writings, identifies Mattie Foley as the subject of this piece in the note on page 839. The chronology Benfey provided is useful in tracking Hearn’s life; any article mentioned in this post that lacks a byline—which is almost all of Hearn’s original newspaper reporting—has been identified through Benfey’s efforts. When things Hearn wrote for Harper’s Magazine are reprinted by newspapers, his byline is often included.
Hearn describes the scene at a black minstrel show in the article “Black Varieties” published by the same paper on April 9, 1876:
The attractive novelty of theatricals at old Pickett’s tavern, on the levee, by real negro minstrels, with amateur dancing performances by roustabouts and their “girls,” has already created considerable interest in quarters where one would perhaps least expect to find it: and the patrolmen of the Row nightly escort fashionably dressed white strangers to No. 91 Front street. The theater has two entrances, one through the neat, spotlessly clean bar-room on the Front street side, the other from the sidewalk on the river side. The theater is also the ball-room; and when the ancient clock behind the black bar in the corner announces in senile metallically-husky tones the hour of 12, the footlights are extinguished, the seats cleared away, and the audience quickly form in picturesque sets for wild dances….
Every conceivable hue possible to the human skin might be studied in the dense and motley throng that filled the hall. There were full-blooded black women, solidly built, who were smoking stogies, and wore handkerchiefs of divers [sic] colors twined about their curly pates, after the old Southern fashion. Some of these were evidently too poor to own a whole dress, and appeared in petticoat and calico waist alone; but the waists had been carefully patched and washed, and the white petticoats were spotlessly clean and crisp with starch. Others were remarkably well dressed—excepting their ornaments, which were frequently of a character calculated to provoke a smile. One little negro woman had a flat locket with a brilliantly-colored picture painted on it, and at least six inches in diameter, suspended from her ebon neck by a golden chain. Gold or imitation, yellow and glittering, flashed everywhere in ear pendants against dusky cheeks, in massive rings upon strong black hands, in fair chains coiling about brown necks or clasping bare brown arms….
It was curious to observe the contrast of physical characteristics among the lighter-hued women; girls with almost fair skins frequently possessing wooly hair; dark mulattoes on the contrary often having light, floating, wavy locks. One mulatto girl present wore her own hair—frizzly and thick as the mane of a Shetland pony—flowing down to her waist in gypsy style. Where turbans were not worn among the fairer skinned, the hair was generally confined with a colored ribbon.
Although Hearn had only met Mattie Foley in either 1872 or 73 and married her in 1874, by 1877 the two were separated. In October of that year Hearn left Ohio for New Orleans, and sent back articles about life there to the Cincinnati Commercial. The following, from “At the Gates of the Tropics,” was published on November 26, 1877.
New Orleans, November 19.
Eighteen miles of levee! London, with all the gloomy vastness of her docks, and her “river of ten thousand masts,” can offer no spectacle of traffic so picturesquely attractive and so varied in its attraction.
In the center of this enormous crescent line of wharves and piers lie the great Sugar and Cotton Landings, with their millions of tons of freight newly unshipped, their swarms of swarthy stevedores, their innumerable wagons and beasts of burden. Above the line of depot and storehouse roofs, stretching southward, rises the rolling smoke of the cotton-press furnaces. Facing the Sugar Landing, stretching northward, extend a line of immense sugar sheds, with roofs picturesquely-peaked, Sierra-wise. Below, along the wooden levee, a hundred river boats have landed without jostling, and the smoky breath of innumerable chimneys floats, upward eddying, into the overarching blue. Here one sees a comely steamer from the Ohio lying at the landing, still panting, after its long run of a thousand miles; there a vast Mississippi boat lies groaning, with her cargo of seven thousand bales, awaiting relief by a legion of ‘long-shoremen.
Hearn frequently wrote what we would call “hard news” stories, but also contributed atmospheric “color” pieces. “New Orleans in Wet Weather” was published by the Cincinnati Commercial on December 22, 1877.
The dampness of New Orleans upon a wet day impresses one as something phenomenal. You do not know in the North what such dampness is. It descends from the clouds and arises from the soil simultaneously; it exudes from wood-work; it perspires from stone. It is spectral, mysterious, inexplicable. Strong walls and stout doors can not keep it from entering; windows and doors can not exclude it. You might as well try to lock out a ghost. Bolts of steel and barriers of stone are equally unavailing, and the stone moulders, and this steel is smitten with red leprosy. The chill sweat pouring down from the walls, soaks into plank floors, and the cunning of the paper-hanger is useless here. Carpets become so thoroughly wet with the invisible rain that they utter soughy, marshy sounds under the foot.
Eventually Hearn was hired by local papers, where he was given free rein to continue his explorations of his new city and the bayou beyond.
In the March 31,1883, issue of Harper’s Weekly, he published “Saint Malo,” an account of a boat trip south of New Orleans to a village populated with Filipinos. The article helped catapult Hearn to fame, and is the first known article about Filipinos in an American publication.
For nearly fifty years there has existed in the southeastern swamps lands of Louisiana a certain strange settlement of Malay fishermen—Tagalas from the Philippine Islands. The place of their lacustrine village is not precisely mentioned upon maps, and the world in general ignored until a few days ago the bare fact of their amphibious existence. Even the United States mail service has never found its way thither, and even in the great city of New Orleans, less than a hundred miles distant, the people were far better informed about the Carboniferous Era than concerning the swampy affairs of this Manila village….
Occasionally vague echoes of its mysterious life were borne to the civilized centre, but these were scarcely of a character to tempt investigation or encourage belief. Some voluble Italian luggermen once came to town with a short cargo of oysters, and a long story regarding a ghastly “Chinese” colony in the reedy swamps south of Lake Borgne. For many years the inhabitants had lived in peace and harmony without the presence of a single woman, but finally had managed to import an oblique-eyed beauty from beyond the Yellow Sea. Thereupon arose the first dissensions, provoking much shedding of blood. And at last the elders of the people had restored calm and fraternal feeling by sentencing the woman to be hewn in pieces and flung to the alligators of the bayou.
Possible the story is; probable it is not….
The relationship that this story established between Hearn and Harper’s Weekly would lead to the next big change in Hearn’s life—literary fame. Through his regular bylines in Harper’s, Hearn became known in the literary world, met Mark Twain, and become friends with George Washington Cable, another New Orleans author. In 1885, he wrote articles about the World Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition for both Harper’s Weekly and Harper’s Bazaar. He published translations of French works and wrote a collection of folk tales and legends from around the world. In 1887, he resigned from the New Orleans Times-Democrat, travelled in the Caribbean, and eventually relocated to the island of Martinique. He began sending non-fiction sketches back to Harper’s that eventually became the book Two Years in the French West Indies.
On January 14, 1890, the Springfield Republican republished one of Hearn’s Harper’s articles, “Complexion in Martinique”. (Porteuses are female porters.)
One whose ideas of the people of Grande Anse had been formed only by observing the young porteuses of the region on their way to the other side of the island might expect on reaching this little town to find its population yellow as that of a Chinese city. But the dominant hue is much darker, although the mixed element is everywhere visible; and I was at first surprised by the scarcity of those clear bright skins I supposed to be so numerous. Some pretty children—notably a pair of twin-sisters, and perhaps a dozen school-girls from 8 to 10 years of age—displayed the same characteristics I have noted in the adult porteuses of Grande Anse; but within town itself this bright element is in the minority. The predominating race element of the whole commune is certainly colored (Grande Anse is even memorable because the revolt of its hommes de couleur some 50 years ago); but the colored population is not concentrated in the town; it belongs rather to the valleys and the heights surround the chef-lieu…
…While watching such a procession it seemed to me that I could discern in the features and figures of the young confirmants something of a prevailing type and tint, and I asked an old planter beside me if he thought my impression correct.
“Partly.” He answered; “there is certainly a tendency towards an attractive physical type here, but the tendency itself is less stable than you imagine; it has changed during the last twenty years within my own recollection. In different parts of the island particular types appear and disappear with a generation. There is a sort of race-fermentation going on, which gives no fixed result of a positive sort for any great length of time.
Hearn continued writing fiction and forging his life in the literary world. In 1890, he arranged a journey to Japan, where he became a leading interpreter of that country for the readers of American magazines and newspapers. His first impressions of Japan were republished in the Philadelphia Inquirer on February 7, 1892, with the original credited to the N.Y. Evening Post.
“Do not fail,” said the kind English professor, who encouraged and aided me after my arrival in Japan, “do not fail to write down your first impressions as soon as possible; they are evanescent; —they will never come to you again, once they have faded out; and yet of all the strange sensations you will receive you will feel none so beautiful as these.
I am trying now to reproduce them from the hasty notes of the moment and find, alas! That they were as fugitive as beautiful. Something has evaporated—something magical which I cannot ever recall. I neglected my dear friend’s advice; —I could not, in those first weeks, resign myself to remain long enough in my room to do any serious work, while the charming streets were steeped in a soft white light unlike any other sunshine on earth, and full of sights and sound that seemed of Fairyland. But even could I recall that magical something of those first days, —that charm intangible as a perfume, delicate as a dream, —I doubt whether by any art of mine it could ever be uttered and fixed in words…
“Tis at first a deliciously odd confusion only, as you look down one of them, through an interminable flutter of flags and swaying of dark blue drapery, all made beautiful and mysterious with Japanese or Chinese lettering. For there are no immediately discernable [sic] laws of construction or decoration; each building seems to have a fantastic prettiness of its own—nothing is exactly like anything else, and all is bewilderingly, stupifyingly novel.
Hearn would stay in Japan for the rest of his life. He taught at Japanese universities, learned the language, married a Japanese woman who was the daughter of a samurai family, and had a son with her. He continued to write, ultimately publishing 14 books about Japan in his lifetime. Here, he describes the scene in Hyogo on Boy’s Day in the article “A Japanese Festival,” published in the Philadelphia Enquirer on August 13, 1896.
Hyogo this morning lies in a limpid magnificence of light, indescribable—spring light, which is vapory, and lends a sort of apparitional charm to far things seen through it. Forms remain sharply outlined, but are almost idealized by faint colors not belonging to them; and the great hills behind the town aspire into a cloudless splendor of tint that seems the ghost of azure rather than azure itself.
Over the blue-gray slope of tiled roofs there is a vast quivering and fluttering of extraordinary shapers—a spectacle not indeed new to me, but always delicious. Everywhere are floating—tied to very tall bamboo poles—immense brightly colored paper fish, which look and move as if alive. The greatest number vary from five to fifteen feet in length, but here and there I see a baby scarcely a foot long, hooked in the tail of a large one. Some poles have four or five fish attached to them at heights proportioned to the dimensions of the fish, the largest always at the top. So cunningly shaped and colored these fish are the first sight of them is always startling to a stranger. The lines holding them are fastened within the head, and the wind, entering the open mouth, not only inflates the body to perfect form, but keeps it undulating--rising and descending, turning and twisting, precisely like a real fish, while the tail pals and the fins wave irreproachably.
In 1904, Hearn published his most well-known work today, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. These ghost stories were the inspiration for the 1964 film Kwaidan, by Masaki Kobayashi.
Later that year, in the fall of 1904, Hearn died of heart failure. Mattie Foley tried to claim his estate, but it was given to his Japanese wife.
Although Hearn’s work doesn’t live on like that of his greatest contemporary authors, Mark Twain and Henry James, his writing remains a window into Japanese, Caribbean and American culture around the turn of the century. His writing style, which more closely resembles that of James than of Twain, is still evocative today, as exemplified by this phrase from the above quote: “a limpid magnificence of light … which is vapory, and lends a sort of apparitional charm to far things seen through it.”
After his death, the New Orleans Times-Picayune tried to keep Hearn’s reputation alive, publishing pieces about his New Orleans days in the years leading up to World War II. On August 15, 1926, the Times-Picayune ran the story “Lafcadio Hearn’s Louisiana Dream Life.” It covered his initial poverty-stricken days in New Orleans, his enchantment with the city; how he liked living in the French Quarter and enjoyed “seldom hearing the English tongue.” It traces his advances through the newspaper world, acceptance in the literary realm, and his eventual departure from New Orleans.
Today, Hearn remains much appreciated in Japan—his writings on a society that was undergoing great changes will probably always be read. If Hearn seems minor or forgotten, check out this ad for Kwaidan from 1904. How many of the other authors from that page are known today? And how many lived lives that could be themselves fodder for a Hollywood film?