Hearn, Patrick Lafcadio (1850–1904), writer, translator, and journalist, was born 27 June 1850 on the island of Levkás (from which his middle name derived), Greece, second of three sons born to Charles Bush Hearn, an Irish officer-surgeon in the British army, and Rosa Antonia Cassimati, a Greek inhabitant of Cerigo. Patrick Lafcadio was brought to Dublin at the age of two, but his parents’ marriage did not last and his mother returned to Greece, leaving him in the care of an elderly great-aunt, Mrs Sarah Brenane. He suffered a disfiguring eye injury while attending a boarding school in England; his claims of having been partly educated in France cannot be substantiated. He used his Greek middle name, Lafcadio, to the exclusion of his Irish given name, from his mid twenties.
Emigrating to the USA, Hearn developed a reputation as a sensational journalist in Cincinnati (1869–77), before moving to New Orleans (1877–87). His book of translations from French, One of Cleopatra's nights (1882), reflected the dominant influence of French nineteenth-century masters. At the same time, his growing interest in the esoteric and oriental was evident in other books of his New Orleans era, Stray leaves from stray literature (1884) and Some Chinese ghosts (1886); he also fell under the influence of the philosopher Herbert Spencer at this time. Chita (1887) was a novel of Louisiana Gulf life. His first marriage (1874), to Alethea (‘Mattie’) Foley, a black woman born into slavery, was short-lived; they had no children. His sojourn in the West Indies (1887–9) provided material for Two years in the French West Indies (1890) and a novel, Youma (1890).
Hearn went to Japan in 1890 and lived there for the rest of his life, publishing thirteen books on his adopted country, and these constitute his work of enduring value. At its core was a handful of masterful essays, mostly written in his years in Matsue (1890–91), Kumamoto (1891–4), and Kobe (1894–6), which collectively form the essence of his early interpretation of Japan. These include ‘The Japanese smile’ (Glimpses of unfamiliar Japan, 1894); ‘Jiujutsu’ and ‘Of the eternal feminine’ (Out of the East, 1895); ‘The genius of Japanese civilization’ (Kokoro, 1896); and ‘About faces in Japanese art’ (Gleanings in Buddha fields, 1897). In Japan, Hearn reversed many of the radical attitudes of his youth and condemned the Westernisation of Japan, while accepting its inevitability. His outstanding achievement was to describe a country in the throes of Meiji transformation from its own perspective. Japan: an attempt at interpretation (1904) was a late effort at definitive analysis. Hearn was also an outstanding horror writer, whose work in the genre varied from the realistic descriptions of his American journalism to translations of Japanese folktales.
Hearn married (1891) Setsuko Koizumi; they had three sons and a daughter. Adopting Japanese citizenship and, with it, the Japanese name Koizumi Yakumo, he was successively a lecturer at Tokyo and Waseda Universities from 1896. He died of heart failure in Tokyo on 26 September 1904.