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Who is Lafcadio Hearn?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 23 July 2014
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Lafcadio Hearn, an author writing around the turn of the 20th century, is best known for his books on Japan, especially his collections of the country's folklore. Though he was born in Greece and raised in Ireland, Hearn spent the majority of his life in the United States and became a Japanese citizen in his later years. He fell in love with local culture during his first visit to Japan and spent the remainder of his life there, building a family with a Japanese woman and taking the name Koizumi Yakumo.

Hearn was born on the Greek island of Lefkada on 27 June 1850, the son of an Irish Surgeon Major father stationed on the island and a Greek mother. He moved to Dublin, Ireland in 1856 after his parents' divorce and spent his childhood there with a great-aunt. He briefly attended Ushaw Roman Catholic College in Durham. During his teenage years, he sustained an injury on the playground that blinded his left eye.

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At the age of 19, he moved to the United States, first settling in Cincinnati, Ohio. After struggling in poverty for a few years, he became friends with English printer Henry Watkin and secured a job on a newspaper. He worked as a reporter for the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer from 1872 to 1875. In 1874, he and painter Henry Farney collaborated on Ye Giglampz, a weekly art and literature journal that ran for nine issues. Though he was a successful reporter, his common-law marriage to Alethea Foley, a black woman, cost him his job, as interracial marriages were legally prohibited in Ohio at the time. He then began working for the Cincinnati Commercial, the rival of the Daily Enquirer.

After his marriage to Alethea broke up, he moved to New Orleans in 1877, where he lived for ten years. The Commercial had paid him meagerly, and Hearn began his stay in New Orleans the same way he had in Cincinnati — homeless. He suffered from a few serious illnesses, including yellow fever and dengue fever, and was hospitalized in a charity hospital. In 1878 he was referred to another newspaper job by a friend, this time on the Daly City Item. Hearn succeeded in transforming the unprofitable paper into a popular publication during his time on the staff.

In 1881, Hearn was offered a post on the Times Democrat. During his time in New Orleans he also wrote articles on New Orleans culture for national magazines including Harper's Weekly, along with a dictionary of Creole proverbs and a Creole cookbook. His first novella, Chita: A Memory of Last Island, was published in 1888 in Harper's Monthly. He spent two years in the West Indies as a newspaper correspondent before heading to Japan in 1890. He also wrote two books during this time.

Hearn went to Japan on assignment from Harper's, but soon broke off his deal with them. His friend Basil Hall Chamberlain helped him find work as a teacher at the Shimane Prefectural Common Middle School and Normal School in Matsue. He also worked as an English tutor in a private home.

In Matsue, Hearn adopted many Japanese customs, such as wearing kimono and sandals, and married a Japanese woman, Koizumi Yakumo, in 1891. The same year, he began teaching at Fifth Higher Middle School in Kyushu, where the climate agreed with him better than in Matsue. He and his wife had four children, the first born in 1893.

He continued his journalistic career with a post on the English-language publication Kobe Chronicle in 1894, and he taught English literature at Tokyo University from 1896 to 1903. During this time, he produced some of his most famous works, notably Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, published in 1903. Lafcadio Hearn died of heart failure on 26 September 1904.

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