Wandering Ghost

Wandering Ghost: The Odyssey of Lafcadio Hearn is a biography of the journalist and writer who eventually became a Japanese citizen, and who wrote so many books about the country before his death in 1904. For someone who witnessed Japan’s passage into the modern age, and did so much to inform the West about it, Hearn is strangely absent from college reading lists. His name only cropped up once in my entire university career, and that was in a folktale that would have raised a chuckle from Hearn himself. The ghost of Lafcadio Hearn is used to scare young undergraduates in Japanese, to warn them of the dangers of benevolent racism, and to prevent them from dying, as he is alleged to have done, from a broken heart when Japan failed to live up to expectations.

Jonathan Cott’s book puts paid to the broken-heart business, although he does admit that Hearn’s love for Japan was relatively short-lived. Hearn grew rapidly disenchanted with Japan’s modernisation; he preferred the rustic, cherry-blossoms-and-temples view, which he thought buildings, plumbing, education and industrial development were ruining. Hearn wanted Japan to remain in a time-slip, like his beloved West Indies. The Japanese, as far as he were concerned, were only interesting for as long as they were guileless natives, and as the country prospered, he confessed that it was only his obligation to his family that prevented him from upping stakes and running off for Samoa, which was still off the beaten track and brimming with dusky maidens.

For me, Hearn’s most interesting material has always been his ghost stories. His Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904) was eventually adapted into the film of the same name, and plundered for an episode in the Animated Classics of Japanese Literature Series (see AUK #15), under his Japanese name, Koizumi Yakumo. His largest work in the field was the five-volume Japanese Fairy Tales (1898-1922), and like all of Hearn’s other writings, these are quoted extensively in the book.

Hearn is now long out of copyright, but also out of print in many cases, so Cott has been able to reproduce some tales and articles in their entirety. Hoichi the Earless, for example, and Hearn’s excellent mood piece Kusa-hibari, make Cott’s biography double as a kind of Best of Lafcadio Hearn anthology, and I’m not complaining. A substantial part of Wandering Ghost is written in Hearn’s own words, and Cott nobly takes a back seat and lets him do a lot of the talking.

But even the admiring tone of Cott fails to obscure the crucial point, which has been a major influence upon Hearn’s exclusion from academic scrutiny. The many tales that Hearn wrote down and published in the States were often well-known in Japan, but each was filtered through both his own authorial style, and that of his wife, who would relate each one to him in pidgin Japanese while he edited and embellished. Fair enough, you might say, but it’s a process not unlike publishers commissioning books by lottery rather than talent. Hearn was in the wrong place at the right time, but his very success made it impossible for a successor to use the same route.

Although Hearn was an incredible influence on the next generation of Japanologists, many of whom were inspired to take up the language by reading his books, he himself would never have been admitted to their ranks. With an amateurish grasp of Japanese and a patriarchal agenda, Hearn would never have got through the first-year exams in a modern Japanese course. He was unquestionably a talented writer, but his wish to keep Japan in the rustic past would get short shrift today.

Cott knows this, but he also knows the value of Hearn’s talent, quoting in his introduction: ‘… [Hearn] himself, not Japan, is the interesting subject in his writings on Japan. He was so great an observer and had so powerful an imagination and such command of language… that we may say he only found in Japan the pretexts for exercising his gifts.’ With this in mind, Cott makes the brave move of writing a genuine Life of Hearn, rather than concentrating upon the ‘important’ Japan years. For this reason, Wandering Ghost is a fascinating analysis of a writer’s career in the 19th century, taking our hero from Greece to Ireland, England, France, the USA and beyond to the West Indies, before settling down in Japan for the final 100 pages. It’s also a brave move from Kodansha, since few Hearn fans are likely to want to know about anything except his Japan experience; this fair assessment of his life may have lost them a number of less open-minded readers.

He has perhaps his most perfect biographer in the form of Jonathan Cott, who, like Hearn before him, appears to prefer Japan to be a quaint Oriental curio festooned with strange words. Cott’s style, with its religious and mythological parallels is not unlike Hearn’s own. He reads deep mystical weight into commonplace events, and attempts to build his subject up into something that he wasn’t.  In the introduction alone, he manages to drop the names of Christopher Columbus, Marguerite Yourcenar, Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth, Dante Alighieri and Odysseus all of whom are supposed to have had a Hearn-ness about them. That said, Cott’s style soon starts to grow on you, as you realise that however infuriating he may be at first, he is a Hearn of our own age.

At times, Cott’s rather hagiographic approach reaps great rewards. Hearn was very much a product of his time, and Cott’s concentration on minutiae allows us to get a glimpse of some of his underlying motivations. The disowned child of a doomed union between a Greek woman and an Anglo-Irish man, Hearn would always be regarded by Victorian society as a ‘gypsy’ or, ironically, ‘slightly oriental’. But in the melting pot of America, he could pass for white, a guilty ‘secret’ that may have had a considerable influence on his penchant for black women, and his later voyage to sample the blossoms of the East. Cott also reports on Hearn’s Victorian attitude towards amateur psychology and anthropometrics, which he uses to explain the author’s attitude towards ghosts and the creative process in terms of his myopic vision and his damaged eye. There are important factors in understanding both the man and his work, and their inclusion is applauded.

Wandering Ghost is a great book, and Cott is a good writer. It comes recommended to anyone interested in Hearn, partially because it excerpts many of his best-known works, and partially because even Cott’s glowing prose cannot totally obscure the fact that Hearn was good for his time, but is rightly distrusted in ours.

(This article first appeared in Anime FX magazine, March 1996)

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