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The Man Who Invented Japan : WANDERING GHOST: The Odyssey of Lafcadio Hearn, By Jonathan Cott (Alfred A. Knopf: $24.95; 430 pp.)

January 27, 1991|Robert A. Rosenstone | Rosenstone, professor of history at Caltech, is author of "Mirror in the Shrine: American Encounters With Meiji Japan" (Harvard University Press)

He was born in 1850 on an Ionian Island of a Greek mother and a British father, reared by an old-maid aunt in Dublin, schooled in France and England, achieved prominence as a journalist in the United States, and wrote his first major book about the West Indies. But ever since his death in 1904, Lafcadio Hearn's name has always been associated with a single country--Japan.

Little wonder. The 14 volumes of essays and stories he produced while living in Japan have provided generations of Westerners with a sympathetic introduction to the life and traditions of that island nation. Writers such as Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Stephen Zweig and Kenneth Rexroth thought him a master of both prose and cultural interpretation. Henry Miller said flatly: "My passion for Japan began with Lafcadio Hearn." Even today, 100 years after his arrival in Yokohama, one can learn more about the enduring values of that culture from the work of Hearn than from a shelf of books by more recent pundits on the Japanese mind, economy and trade practices.

With his judgment, the Japanese are likely to concur. Today Hearn is far better known in his adopted homeland (he became a Japanese citizen in 1896 and took the name Koizumi Yakumo) than in the United States, where his books were first published. In the small city of Matsue on the Japan Sea, the lovely, ex-Samurai home in which he lived during 1891 is preserved as a treasure. Next to it stands a museum that displays such personal items as Hearn's desk and chair, his collection of pipes, his long johns, and the two pieces of luggage he carried across the Pacific in 1890. The nationwide Yakumo Society publishes a journal named Hearn. His renderings of traditional folk tales and ghost stories still are read by students as part of their school curriculum.

The man who became, arguably, the best of all foreign writers on Japan had 20 years of writing--and 40 of living--behind him when he landed in Asia. Which means that to understand his accomplishment as interpreter of Japan, one would do well to look at his life and career before his arrival there. Such a task is in part undertaken by "Wandering Ghost," more than half of which is devoted to his pre-Japan days. Oddly (one might say unjustly), Jonathan Cott appears as sole author of this work that is really a joint venture, what Cott calls "a biographical reader"--an anthology of Hearn's writings situated within biographically structured chapters. Of a 400-page text, three-quarters of the words belong to Hearn.

His story seems, on the surface, to be one of those heroic 19th-Century lives, the tale of an abandoned lad who by pluck, daring, and intelligence travels from the Old World to America to become a self-made success: first as a newspaperman in Cincinnati, famed for "sensationalist" stories on waterfront vice and violent crime; then as an essayist on the "local color" of Creole and Black culture in New Orleans; later as a traveler to exotic, tropical places in the Gulf and the Caribbean, and finally (though not in print) as a sensualist in love with primitive peoples and dusky maidens.

The adventures are true enough, but Hearn did not have the classic two-fisted temperament that is supposed to go with them. Sensitive and introspective, morbidly self-conscious because of a childhood accident that left him scarred on one side of his face and blind in one eye, he had the sensibility of an intellectual and a dreamer. Hearn could weep over the beauty of a sunset, or an insect crushed underfoot, or a favorite tree cut down by a woodsman.

Delicacy also marked his literary tastes. Hearn's interests were wide and often esoteric: He delved into the Cabala, loved Finnish sagas and Chinese ghost stories, revelled in the folklore and mythologies of Africa, India and Oceania, and preferred the French decadents to anything written in English. His own prose, often lush and dense as a rain forest (and difficult for any modern reader who refuses to slow down), always carried a whiff of the library. Raw experience never was his literary goal; the ultimate reason to render experience into words was to attain poetic and philosophic understanding.

What makes Hearn a fine writer makes him a tricky subject for a biographer. Cott does get the contours of the life right, but given a handful of previous biographies, this is not difficult to do. In his version of the life, Cott cannot be fully trusted for two reasons: First, he sometimes errs by taking Hearn's polished, highly literary report of his personal experiences as literal rather than fictional or symbolic renditions of events; second, he occasionally rearranges events to include a particular piece of writing.

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