Saturday, October 12, 2019


Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

Two depictions of Yuki-Onna published in American books in the early twentieth century. Left: “Blowing her breath upon him," frontispiece by Japanese artist Takeuchi Keishū (1861–1942) for Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904). Right: Illustration by British artist Warwick Goble (1862–1943) for the story “The Cold Lady” in Grace James’s Green Willow and Other Japanese Fairy Tales (1910). In her collection, James reworked as children’s stories a number of the tales and legends that had appeared in Hearn’s books.
Who Was Lafcadio Hearn?” asks a recent headline in The New York Times Book Review. The occasion is the publication of Monique Truong’s latest novel, The Sweetest Fruits. Truong reimagines the globetrotting author’s remarkable life through the eyes of three women: his mother Rosa, who left him in Dublin at the age of six when her marriage to Hearn’s father was annulled; his first wife, Alethea Foley, a former slave who worked in the kitchen of the boardinghouse where he lived in Cincinnati as a young man; and Koizumi Setsu, Hearn’s second wife, the daughter of a samurai family living near Matsue, a local city on the western Japanese coast, where Hearn worked as a schoolteacher.

When he died in 1904 at the age of fifty-four, Lafcadio Hearn was one of the world’s most famous writers, the author of twenty-nine books, ranging from folklore collections and cookbooks to novels, translations, and travel essays—“none of which can compete, in terms of sheer Dickensian horror and pluck, with the story of his own life,” writes Jonathan Dee in The New Yorker. (You can read more about Hearn’s extraordinary early years in our introduction to “The Legend of Tchi-Niu,” a previous Story of the Week selection.)

The two decades Hearn spent in America were the formative years of his writing career. Soon after the nineteen-year-old immigrant arrived in Ohio in 1869, he found work at the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, where he wrote articles on a wide range of subjects, from Henry James to the occult. When the newspaper’s management found out about his marriage to Alethea, they fired him “for deplorable moral habits” and he went to work for the Cincinnati Commercial, where he published his articles either anonymously or under a pseudonym. In 1877 he and Alethea separated, and he moved to New Orleans. (After he died, she made an unsuccessful claim on his estate, and her role in Hearn’s life was silently omitted or pointedly denied by his early biographers.)

Hearn’s first few years in New Orleans were spent in grueling poverty, but he eventually found a home at the newly formed Times-Democrat, and in 1882 he went on a lecture tour with Mark Twain. His prospects steadily rose as his local reporting attracted a following and as he began publishing the first of his books. In 1890 Hearn received a commission from his publisher, Harper and Brothers, for books and magazine articles on Japan. Soon after he arrived in Yokohama, he convinced himself—mistakenly—that his editors were taking advantage of him financially, and he canceled his arrangement with both book publisher and magazine. Only one article, “A Winter Journey to Japan,” appeared in Harper’s Monthly, for which he received $150, and his relationship with the firm ended. Yet he remained in Japan for the rest of his life, marrying Koizumi Setsu in 1891, becoming a citizen in 1895, taking the name Koizumi Yakumo, accepting the position of chair of English Language and Literature at Tokyo Imperial University, raising three sons and a daughter, and publishing some fifteen books on Japanese subjects.

When he died of heart failure at age fifty-four, he was virtually unknown in Japan beyond the confines of the university community. “It was outside Japan that he was widely admired as the premier and true interpreter of the ways of the Japanese,” writes Roger Pulvers in The Japan Times. Over the next century, Pulvers explains, as Japan assumed a larger role in world affairs, Hearn’s adopted country used his work as “proof that the Japanese soul was more profound, more subtle and more potent in its pure spirituality than anything the materialistic West could possibly muster. They saw in him someone who had come to Japan without a hidden Western agenda, which was true. They also saw someone who loved Japan unequivocally, which was definitely not true.” Today, Lafcadio Hearn / Koizumi Yakumo, while not quite a household name, is still well known in Japan, and the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum, founded in 1933, is a popular tourist attraction in the Chūgoku region.

In 1904, the year he died, Hearn published what would become one of his most famous books, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. (Kwaidan is the Japanese word for “ghost story.”) The collection includes a story featuring Yuki-Onna (“snow woman”), an ancient spirit who appears often in Japanese fiction, plays, and movies. In his introduction, Hearn explained that he heard this particular tale from “a farmer of Chōfu, Nishitama-gori, in Musashi province, as a legend of his native village. Whether it has ever been written in Japanese I do not know; but the extraordinary belief which it records used certainly to exist in most parts of Japan, and in many curious forms.”

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In a village of Musashi Province, there lived two woodcutters: Mosaku and Minokichi. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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