Lafcadio Hearn, a talented and eccentric writer who launched his career here in the 1870s and achieved worldwide acclaim long after he left, has now returned — in a roundabout way — to the city where he learned the basics of journalism and good writing.
And, serendipitously, his arrival comes just as events are shaping up worldwide to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Greek-born Hearn’s arrival in the United States in 1869. A special exhibit, The Strange & Exotic World of Lafcadio Hearn, recently opened at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County’s main branch downtown and will continue through Aug. 20.
It features material — books, letters and more — from the personal collection of the former Library director Thomas Vickers, for whom Hearn briefly served as private secretary before leaving Cincinnati in 1877 for, first, New Orleans and then Martinique and Japan. He died in Tokyo in 1904 after having married a Japanese woman, taking the name Koizumi Yakumo and becoming a Japanese literary icon as well as one of the nation’s first and best Western interpreters.
Born in 1850 on the Greek island of Lefkada, for which he’s named, Hearn was raised in Ireland. At the age of 19, he moved to Cincinnati because a distant relative lived there. Working for The Cincinnati Enquirer and then another daily, the Cincinnati Commercial, Hearn established himself as the a star reporter and a compassionate writer. Hearn devotees worldwide are discussing possible projects to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his arrival in the United States in late 1869, and in Cincinnati several weeks afterward. Hearn’s great-grandson, Bon Koizumi, and his wife, Shoko, recently visited Cincinnati to see Hearn-related sites and to encourage the city to celebrate this anniversary in 2019.
Takis Efstathiou, a New York art dealer and a major Hearn enthusiast, accompanied them here. Efstathiou, a native of Greece, and the Koizumis have worked together to facilitate permanent Hearn memorials as well as educational projects in Japan, Ireland, Lefkada and New Orleans.
Efstathiou calls his ongoing project to promote the legacy of Hearn “The Open Mind of Lafcadio Hearn.” The title refers to Hearn’s eagerness to immerse himself in different cultures and to write about them without prejudice. Hearn first began doing this in Cincinnati when he wrote empathetically about African-Americans and others on the fringes of society.
“I think Cincinnati was very important for Hearn because that’s where his mind opened up,” Efstathiou says. “Cincinnati gave him his start. It gave him enough material to work with. It was a bit rough, but he brought out the poetry in it — even when he wrote about crimes.”
In the past two years, producers and directors of two separate upcoming documentaries about Hearn have visited Cincinnati to scout and film pertinent sites and interview Hearn aficionados. Filmmakers Constantine Giannaris, of Athens, Greece, and Hisami Kuroiwa, of New York City, are working on Lafcadio Hearn: His Journey to Ithaca. Ethan Spigland, a filmmaker and humanities/media professor at the Pratt Institute in New York City, is also making a Hearn documentary.
“For me, Hearn is a person who deserves to be recognized on a different level,” says Kuroiwa, who was born and raised in Japan and has lived in the U.S. for 41 years. “He saw through to the truth of many human problems and had the courage to write for the people who didn’t have any power.”
Throughout his life, Hearn searched for beauty and meaning in places and in people most Westerners ignored or disdained. He wrote with depth and passion about Cincinnati’s African-Americans, New Orleans’ Creoles and Japan’s ancient traditions. More than a century after his death, Hearn’s writing and life continue to enlighten.
In connection with the exhibit, there will be a presentation on his life at 2 p.m. on July 15 featuring Jon Hughes, a retired University of Cincinnati journalism professor who has written or edited four Hearn-related books, and the writer of this article, who is at work on a Hearn biography.
THE STRANGE AND EXOTIC WORLD OF LAFCADIO HEARN is on display at the Main Library through Aug. 20. More info: cincinnatilibrary.org.