No matter where he found himself, the bohemian man of letters Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) longed to be “somewhere else,” a place where life was simple, fresh, and free from the smell of the close Victorian parlor. As an unwanted child, half Greek, half Anglo-Irish, abandoned by his parents and raised by strict Dublin relatives, he spent hours alone with books of myths and legends, staring at plates depicting dryads and naiads, graces and muses. As a youthful reporter in Cincinnati he gained fame with his lurid accounts of murders and back-alley goings-on, yet his off-hours were spent reading up on Fourier’s Utopias and translating the romances of Théophile Gautier. “I ought never to have been born in this century,” he wrote in 1879, “because I live forever in dreams of other centuries and other faiths and other ethics—dreams rudely broken by curses in the street below.”

This odd and odd-looking man—he stood about five feet tall, and his left eye was blind and sunken—sought out the exotic in the ordinary, and in the 1880s came to the attention of the New York press with his curious dispatches from New Orleans. His writings on the Creole, on their folktales, dance halls, voodoo, and patois, were more than mere local-color sketches, they were cultural anthropology as literature. Harper’s sent Hearn to the French West Indies, which provided material for a travel book and a novel, and then, in 1890, to Japan. It was Japan, his home for the rest of his life, that inspired most of Hearn’s best writing—indeed, twelve of his twenty books are concerned in some way with his adopted country. But the Japan Hearn celebrated in these books—a “somewhere else” of great natural beauty, and of rich religious and folk traditions—was slipping away before his eyes as the country rushed to join the modern world. It is his nostalgic attempt to seize the ghost of the old Japan, an attempt which was so often successful, that makes him still the best-loved English-language writer in that country.

Most of Hearn’s books were patchwork affairs, so perhaps it is fitting, if rather unfortunate, that Wandering Ghost should be one, too. As Jonathan Cott explains in his introduction, the book was originally conceived as “an anthology of. . . Hearn’s articles, essays, letters, and stories, with introductory notes meant to place these writings in the context of Hearn’s career.” The notes soon grew voluminous, however, and the book took on the character of an “informal biographical reader"—which means, at least in this case, a brief life made long by the clumsy dropping-in, at irregular intervals, of whole texts by the subject, not all of them well chosen. The agreeably unpretentious Mr. Cott makes it clear that he considers himself neither biographer nor anthologist. His great virtue— indeed what carries his uneven book—is that he’s an enthusiast. Lafcadio Hearn still awaits a definitive “life,” but, in the meanwhile, we have Mr. Cott’s enthusiastic “reader” to excite us anew about his works.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 Number 7, on page 84
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