Monday, September 20, 2004

Cincinnati shaped his style

Riverfront provided young writer with plenty of drama, gore

By Steve Kemme
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The short, thin, 19-year-old Greek-Irish immigrant with one whitish blind eye and one protruding brown eye arrived in Cincinnati in 1869 with little money, no friends and no real ambitions.

He mostly lived on the streets during his first few months in Cincinnati until a kindly printer hired him and allowed him to live in the back room of his printing shop, where he slept on a bed of paper shavings from the book-trimming department.

From these beginnings, Lafcadio Hearn launched an improbable writing career, earning international acclaim and enduring adulation in Japan, where he spent the last 14 years of his life.

In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Hearn's death, Japan this month will celebrate his life and literary legacy with a nine-day, four-city symposium that will attract Hearn scholars and aficionados from all over the world.

Hearn is being honored in other far-flung places, too. New Orleans, where Hearn worked for 10 years after leaving Cincinnati, is raising money to restore a house Hearn lived in for six years and to establish it as a Hearn museum and guest house. Tramore, Ireland, a seacoast town where he spent childhood summers with the great-aunt who raised him, held a Hearn celebration earlier this year.

Literary icon in Japan

But Hearn is most popular in Japan, where he created his most significant works and became a beloved teacher. His books of lyrically written Japanese folk tales that he had collected and his perceptive accounts of Japanese daily life and traditions led to his reputation as one of the earliest and best Western interpreters of Japanese culture.

Hearn embraced Buddhism.

He married a Japanese woman, assumed the Japanese name of Koizumi Yakumo and became a Japanese citizen.

Sylvia Metzinger, manager of the rare books and special collections department at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, has traveled twice to Japan to participate in Hearn events.

"Every town that's big enough has a Lafcadio Hearn Society," she says. "Many people there learned English by reading his folk tales in school. He preserved their culture by writing about it before they lost it by adopting Western ways."

Dr. Kinji Tanaka, a Japanese native and Hearn devotee who lives in Mason has been invited to participate in the Hearn symposium in Japan.

"Probably 90 percent of the people in Japan know of Hearn," he says. "After 100 years, people still love him. It's amazing."

The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County staged a major Hearn exhibit four years ago for the 150th anniversary of his birth.

Newspaper reporter

Hearn spent the formative years of his writing career in the 1870s with the Enquirer and another daily newspaper, the Cincinnati Commercial.

Bent over a desk, his good eye an inch or two from the paper, he wrote lurid crime stories as well as descriptive and insightful profiles of life in Cincinnati's gritty waterfront district, where saloons and brothels flourished.

Jon Hughes, a University of Cincinnati English and journalism professor who has edited two collections of Hearn's Cincinnati writings, credits Hearn with helping develop a literary style to American journalism.

"He used a lot of description, point of view and dialogue," says Hughes, former president of the Lafcadio Hearn Society USA. "In Cincinnati, he was learning and experimenting with style on a daily basis."

Hearn was born in 1850 on the Greek island of Lefkas, the source of his unusual name. His mother was Greek and his father was Irish and a surgeon and officer in the British Army.

Abandoned by both parents as a child, Hearn was raised in Dublin by a wealthy great-aunt. When he was 16, a classmate accidentally hit him in the left eye with a rock, causing permanent blindness.

When his great-aunt's finances soured, Hearn was sent to America. He came to Cincinnati, where the relative of a family friend was supposed to aid him financially until he became established. But the relative merely handed him $5 and wished him luck.

In 1872, Hearn began contributing stories to The Enquirer. Within two years, he became a full-time staff member and often shocked readers with his graphic accounts of violent crimes.

He wrote about opium addicts, seances to summon the spirits of the dead and the regular visits certain Cincinnatians paid to slaughterhouses to drink cattle blood in the belief that it would improve their health. Hearn himself drank a cup of cattle blood for his research.

He focused on the people and places on the riverfront. Hearn also recorded the words of countless songs he heard sung by black musicians, dock workers and other denizens of the levee, preserving pieces of folk culture.

In 1877, Hearn, yearning for a warmer climate, moved to New Orleans. He wrote for the newspapers there, and during his 10 years in New Orleans, he started writing for national magazines and produced his first books.

Soon after spending two months in 1887 in the West Indies to write a magazine story, Hearn returned there and lived for two years in St. Pierre, Martinique. He survived a near-fatal bout with typhoid fever in St. Pierre and wrote Two Years in the French West Indies, a vivid portrait of daily life on the island.

Japan becomes home

In 1890, Harper's Weekly sent Hearn to Japan for a year-long assignment. He never left.

He quickly immersed himself in Japan's ancient religious and cultural traditions.

In his first weeks there, he exhausted himself and the young man who pulled the rickshaw he rode in, racing from one Buddhist temple to another. He loved traveling to the more remote parts of Japan, where the ancient feudal traditions thrived.

In one village, people gathered outside the windows of an inn to watch him eat. The embarrassed proprietor shuttered the windows. But the crowd, wanting a closer look at Hearn, waited for him to finish his meal and come out.

He wrote 12 books during his time in Japan, and also became renowned for his teaching, including as an English literature professor with the Imperial University of Tokyo.

He died on Sept. 26, 1904, from a heart ailment and was given a Buddhist burial.

"The pace of Japan today is as fast as in New York City," says Metzinger. "The Japanese can sit down and read Hearn's works about the way things used to be, and it's very tranquil. He was an outsider who became as Japanese as an outsider could become."

Hearn's books

Lafcadio Hearn's books have been reprinted by many publishers over the years.

Although some books are out of print, many can be obtained through Internet book-sale Web sites, such as and The Ohio Book Store, 726 Main St., Cincinnati, has a small section of Hearn books.

A new collection of Hearn's Enquirer writings called Whimsically Grotesque has just been published in Japan. Former Enquirer reporters Owen Findsen and Cameron McWhirter researched and selected the stories and had them newly translated into Japanese. Findsen and McWhirter wrote a brief overview of Hearn's life and career and short background pieces for each Hearn story.

The book contains both the English and the Japanese versions. It's not yet available in Cincinnati book stores.

An introduction to Hearn is The Selected Writings of Lafcadio Hearn, edited by Henry Goodman and originally published in 1949. It contains pieces from each period of Hearn's career, including three complete books - Kwaidan, Some Chinese Ghosts and Chita.



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