President of the Lafcadio Hearn Society/USA, Steve Kemme talks about Lafcadio Hearn's legacy and his open mind

"Lafcadio Hearn’s legacy in terms of race and social consciousness is demonstrating the need for tolerance of people of different races, nations and religions. And not just to tolerate them, but to learn about them and get to know them as fellow human beings. He also displayed the importance of helping those in need."

Steve Kemme: Lafcadio Hearn's Open Mind

American writer/scholar Steve Kemme is president of the Lafcadio Hearn Society/USA, retired Cincinnati Enquirer reporter, author of yet-to-be-published Hearn biography — “Lafcadio Hearn’s Relationship with and writings about Cincinnati’s African-Americans.” The first westerner to translate Japanese stories into English was Patrick Lafcadio Hearn. Born in 1850 on the Greek island of Lefkada, and later abandoned by his parents, Hearn was sent to America. He is best remembered for his books about Japanese culture, especially his collections of legends and ghost stories, such as Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. In the United States, he is also known for his writings about New Orleans, based on his decade-long stay there.        (Steve Kemme / Photo by Liz Dufour)

In his fifty-four years among the living, Patrick Lafcadio Hearn wrote twenty-nine books in just about every conceivable genre—folktales, travelogues, novels, cookbooks, translations, dictionaries of proverbs—none of which can compete, in terms of sheer Dickensian horror and pluck, with the story of his own life. Hearn distinguished himself at the Cincinnati Enquirer (1872-1875) and the Cincinnati Commercial (1875-1877) for his sensational crime stories and his penetrating portraits of African Americans. He moved to New Orleans in 1877, where he wrote about the Creole culture. He moved to Martinique in 1887. During his two years there, he wrote two novels and a book about his experiences and observations of life on the island. Hearn went to Japan in 1890, married a woman from a samurai family, assumed the Japanese name of Yakumo Koizumi, and lived there until his death at the age of 54 in 1904.

Interview by Michael Limnios      Special Thanks: Takis Efstathiou & Steve Kemme

How started the thought of Lafcadio Hearn Society/USA? What characterize LHS philosophy and mission?

The Lafcadio Hearn Society/USA was founded in 1989. Dr. Kinji Tanaka, a Japanese native who had been living in Cincinnati for many years, and several other Hearn enthusiasts formed the Hearn Society. The founding members included Jon Hughes, then a journalism professor at the University of Cincinnati. He edited and wrote an introduction to a collection of Hearn’s more sensational Cincinnati newspaper stories called Period of the Gruesome, which was published in 1990.

The Hearn Society published a series of newsletters containing articles about Hearn’s work and life. Tanaka, who sadly died last year of Covid-19, was the primary force behind the Hearn Society’s establishment. He was my friend and mentor. The Hearn Society encourages the study of Hearn’s writing and life and strives to make more people aware of him. It is under the jurisdiction of the Japan Research Center of Greater Cincinnati, a non-profit organization that Tanaka founded and led.

How has Lafcadio Hearn's books/life influenced your views of the world and life's journeys you’ve taken?

I didn’t know about Hearn until the early 1990s. I read a review of Jon Hughes’ Period of the Gruesome shortly after it was published. Then a couple of years later I came across a Hearn book that included selections from all periods of his career. I was in my early 40s at the time and already had a keen interest in other cultures throughout the world. Hearn’s work and life deepened my curiosity and my love of exploring other cultures, primarily through the arts. I majored in English in college and have always read fiction, non-fiction, poetry from other English-speaking and non-English-speaking countries. Hearn stoked my interest specifically in ancient Japanese culture. Without knowing about Hearn, I wouldn’t have taken two trips to Japan, one in 2004 and the other in 2018. I also wouldn’t have met and become friends with people from Japan, Ireland, Greece and other countries. So Lafcadio’s influence on me has been profound.

"If he were alive today, I believe he would be appalled by the growth of racial and religious bigotry in the United States and in many parts of the world. His message to us would be a humanitarian one. He would tell us to be more tolerant, respectful and empathetic toward other people, regardless of their race, religion or national origin." (Photo: Lafcadio Hearn)

Why do you think that Lafcadio Hearn continues to generate such a devoted following in music culture?

Hearn became interested in music at an early age. When he was growing up in Ireland, he loved listening to Irish folk songs. When he came to Cincinnati, he frequented the bars and dance halls where African-Americans congregated and listened to their music, which often displayed characteristics of what we would today call gospel and blues. They radiated joy, sadness, humor and bawdiness. Hearn wrote down many of the songs’ lyrics and included some of them in stories in the two Cincinnati daily newspapers he wrote for, the Enquirer and the Commercial. He and his journalist friend, Henry Krehbiel, who later became a music critic in New York, would walk along the docks and listen to the black stevedores and other dockworkers singing. Hearn would jot down the words, and Krehbiel would notate the music.

At this early stage in his career, Hearn functioned as a folklorist.

In Japan, he absorbed the music of the ordinary people and wrote about it. The voice of a blind female street singer so entranced him that he invited her into his house and paid her to sing to his family. When construction workers spent a week or so on a project near his house, Hearn would pause from whatever he was doing and listen to them sing. He considered the chirping of many varieties of Japanese insects to be musical and enjoyable. His intense love of music of many kinds and his ability to write about it vividly continues to draw readers to his work.

How important was Afro-American and Creole music in his life? How did the music affect his inspirations?

Hearing African-Americans play and sing their music gave Hearn an appreciation for music that was differed from European classical music, which he liked, and from most of the popular tunes of the day. He loved the driving rhythms of many of the songs he heard in the black dance halls and bars in Cincinnati. In a couple of his newspaper stories, he described not only the music, but also the passion and skill of some of the black dancers. This music had an emotional dimension and intensity that he hadn’t heard in other kinds of music.

Hearn immersed himself in the Creole culture in New Orleans with the same enthusiasm that he had in the African-American culture in Cincinnati. He immediately began writing down lyrics of the Creole songs he heard. In addition to the Creoles’ music, he loved the melodiousness of their language.

The music of blacks and Creoles helped him understand their character and their history and what made them unique and set them apart from the rest of society. It inspired him to seek out the music of whatever culture he was investigating. In a broad sense, it reinforced his belief that great art must speak to the emotions as well as to the intellect.

"Hearn had a profound respect for non-Western cultures, racial minorities and people on the fringes of whatever society he was living in. In Cincinnati, he wrote about the lives of African-Americans and others struggling to survive. He wrote about rag-pickers, seamstresses who received a pittance for their work, dockworkers and prisoners." (Photo: Lafcadio Hearn's books " La Cuisine Creole" & "New Orleans")

What has made you laugh from Lafcadio Hearn's life and travels? How do you want his work to affect people?

Hearn had such an eccentric personality that he was prone to get involved in many humorous and unusual situations. In Cincinnati, he dressed up as a woman in order to be able to go to a female-only lecture by a former nun about the alleged sexual acts she witnessed in the convent. He donned a blond wig, a long dress, high-button ladies’ boots and long gloves. He made it through the lecture undetected and wrote a very funny story about it. In another incident in Cincinnati, with the help of three steeple-jacks, he climbed to the top of the steeple of St. Peter in Chains Cathedral. He wrote a hilarious story about it. Hearn’s grandson, Toki Koizumi, whom I met in 2004 in Japan, told me that he learned about this incident from his father, Kazuo Koizumi. So it made such as impression on Hearn that he passed it down to his family.

In Martinique, he once offered to pay 17 boys 10 cents each to pose for pictures with their canoes.  After the pictures were taken, the boys lined up for their reward. Hearn began paying them. But other boys broke into the line and the ones who got paid went back to the end of the line in hopes of collecting a double fee. Suddenly surrounded by dozens of naked boys wanting to be paid, Hearn ran the house of a friend and scrambled up to the building’s fourth floor. Police had to shoo the boys away from the building. When Hearn saw them later that day, the boys began to cry. Hearn felt bad for them and paid them – even those who hadn’t posed for him.

On his first trip to Japan’s Oki Islands, many of the people in the village where he was staying had never before seen a Westerner. He sparked so much interest that they formed a line up the stairs to the door of his second-floor room. One or two of them would look in his room at him, smile, bow and then leave. The next ones in line would step up and do the same. After the hotel manager chased all the villagers out, some boys climbed up to balconies on a nearby building so they could look in Hearn’s window and see him. When he walked around the village, he attracted a crowd of people who followed him at a respectful distance. Hearn was a little unsettled by all the attention but didn’t object.

What are some of the most important life lessons you have learned from your experience in Hearn's work?

One of the things I most admire about Hearn is his determination to overcome whatever obstacles faced him as he worked to build his writing career and explore the world. He was extremely self-conscious about his face, which had been disfigured by a boyhood injury that blinded his left eye. But he didn’t let that stop him from achieving his writing goals. In my own case, I had a serious stuttering problem that began in my teenage years. I related to Hearn’s fear of being ridiculed.

As a 19-year-old immigrant, he began his life in Cincinnati in dire financial straits, sleeping in haylofts and cardboard boxes for the first couple of months. He had the same economic issues when he moved to New Orleans and later to Japan. He suffered from the extreme heat and from a serious illness in Martinique. Yet through all these hardships, he didn’t give up.

Although also withstood big physical challenges in his travels. He climbed to the top of Mount Pelee in Martinique and when he was in declining health, he climbed Mount Fuji. If he wanted to see or experience something, he wouldn’t let anything get in his way.

"Hearing African-Americans play and sing their music gave Hearn an appreciation for music that was differed from European classical music, which he liked, and from most of the popular tunes of the day. He loved the driving rhythms of many of the songs he heard in the black dance halls and bars in Cincinnati. In a couple of his newspaper stories, he described not only the music, but also the passion and skill of some of the black dancers. This music had an emotional dimension and intensity that he hadn’t heard in other kinds of music." (Photo: Steve Kemme, University of Toyama Library, Japan 2018)

What is the impact of Lafcadio Hearn on the racial and socio-cultural implications? What's the legacy of Hearn?

Hearn had a profound respect for non-Western cultures, racial minorities and people on the fringes of whatever society he was living in. In Cincinnati, he wrote about the lives of African-Americans and others struggling to survive. He wrote about rag-pickers, seamstresses who received a pittance for their work, dockworkers and prisoners.

In Japan, he earned the love of his students by showing a respect for their culture that many other Western teachers there had not shown. Many Western teachers considered Japan’s culture to be inferior to the West’s and displayed an arrogance that conveyed that attitude to their students. On the other hand, Hearn considered Japanese culture superior to Western culture in many respects. He developed a personal relationship with his students and while teaching them English literature, also encouraged them to respect the traditions of their own country.

Hearn’s legacy in terms of race and social consciousness is demonstrating the need for tolerance of people of different races, nations and religions. And not just to tolerate them, but to learn about them and get to know them as fellow human beings. He also displayed the importance of helping those in need.

If he was speaking seriously to us, what do you think he would tell us? What would you like to ask Lafcadio Hearn?

If he were alive today, I believe he would be appalled by the growth of racial and religious bigotry in the United States and in many parts of the world. His message to us would be a humanitarian one. He would tell us to be more tolerant, respectful and empathetic toward other people, regardless of their race, religion or national origin.

I would like to ask him a lot of questions about his Cincinnati years. He was estranged from his great-aunt who raised him and knew of no other relatives. So, the few letters he may have written while in Cincinnati didn’t survive. I would like to know exactly how he spent his year in London, how long he stayed in New York City after coming to America and exactly when he arrived in Cincinnati.

Do you have a dream project you'd most like to accomplish? What projects are you working on at the moment? 

I’ve written a literary biography of Hearn that is being considered by a publisher. It’s not meant to be a massive, definitive biography. It’s more a concisely written book that focuses as much on his development as a writer as his personal growth from orphan to an internationally acclaimed writer. I look forward to having this book published.

In the meantime, Gary Eith, who now heads the Japan Research Society of Greater Cincinnati, and I continue to plan online Lafcadio Hearn Society/USA newsletters and work on other Hearn projects. We want to make more people aware of what a special person and writer Hearn was and encourage them to read him.

Photos: (L) Lafcadio Hearn c.1866 (R) Lafcadio Hearn c.1858 with his great-aunt Sarah Holmes Brenane

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