An Independent Thinker Ahead of His Time
JULY 01, 2002 by FRANK LAFFITTE
Nearly a century after his death, Lafcadio Hearn is widely unknown. Kokoro: Hints and Echoes of Japanese Inner Life (1896) is being republished this year, but much of Hearn’s work is out of print, and it’s hard to find Hearn on library shelves or in used bookstores. Yet Hearn had a singular vision, and was one of the few authors of his day who correctly assessed the threat to liberty posed by socialist and nationalist movements of the nineteenth century. He wrote the following passage in 1878 in an editorial titled, “Were There Communists in Antiquity?”: “The efforts of communism had only a temporary success, and their ultimate result was the establishment of a despotism at once merciless and all-powerful. A violent outbreak of communism in this republic might lead to a change in government which would leave the riotous class everything to regret.”1
This was not the opinion of a blithe booster of the Gilded Age. Hearn lived hand-to-mouth much of his life. He was born in the Ionian isles, raised in Dublin by a great aunt, and schooled in England and France until his family was impoverished. He came to America at 19 and found himself in such dire straits he slept in doorways or stables, in an abandoned boiler, and for a time in a box of paper shavings behind a print shop. Five-foot-three, hampered by debilitating shyness and near blindness (he had lost an eye in an accident at 16 and was so nearsighted he had to hold books six inches from his good eye), at age 19 he nevertheless made his way as a reporter in Cincinnati and New Orleans. He wrote his editorial on communism while living on a salary of $10 a week. Multilingual, astonishingly multicultural in his literary allusions, Hearn scandalized society with his freethinking heresies and his liaisons with women of mixed race.
In the late 1880s he spent two years in the Caribbean. In 1890 he moved to Japan, where he married into a samurai family, took a Japanese name (Yakumo Koizumi), taught English, and wrote about Japanese culture. Wherever he lived, he wrote poetic prose sketches of life there. He wrote about common people, their language, their folktales, their songs, their ghost stories, how they lived. The stories run the gamut from lurid murders to vivid character sketches and subtle insights about cultures. Besides these sketches he wrote novels, translations, and essays on literature, proverbs, names, insects, Buddhism, astronomy, Arabic culture, and Russian, French, and English literature.
Hearn was also an astute political philosopher. To the doctrinaire leftist, he was a reactionary. To the doctrinaire rightist, he was an iconoclast. In truth, he was nothing so simple. He was a cultured bohemian, a spiritual agnostic, an anti-industrial capitalist. Hearn never felt at home in bustling cities, and was appalled by slum conditions in the newly industrialized areas of America and Japan. Yet he remained an emphatic champion of liberty, and never bought into the solutions of the pseudo-progressive doctrines of his day. In an essay that borders on prescience, written shortly before his death in 1904, he warned of Japan’s imminent slide into despotism. Noting that Japan had undergone in a generation a social revolution that took centuries in Europe, he foresaw disaster:
Now the absence of individual freedom in modern Japan would certainly appear to be nothing less than a national danger. For those very habits of unquestioning obedience, and loyalty, and respect for authority, which made feudal society possible, are likely to render a true democratic régime impossible, and would tend to bring about a state of anarchy. Only races long accustomed to personal liberty—liberty to think about matters of ethics apart from matters of government—liberty to consider questions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, independently of political authority—are able to face without risk the peril now menacing Japan.2
Many of Hearn’s politically minded contemporaries—among them Kipling, Shaw, H.G. Wells, Zola, John Dewey—have fared well in the popular memory, while Hearn has been nearly forgotten. That is a pity. Of all of them, Lafcadio Hearn may have been the farthest ahead of his time.
Frank Laffitte is a freelance writer in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
- 1. “Were There Communists in Antiquity?” editorial, New Orleans Item, August 23, 1878, quoted in Kazuo Hearn Koizumi, Re-Echo (Caldwell, Id.: Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1957).
- 2. “Industrial Danger,” in Lafcadio Hearn, Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation (New York: Macmillan, 1904), excerpted in The Selected Writings of Lafcadio Hearn, ed. Henry Goodman (New York, Citadel Press, 1949).