Letters from the Raven - Lafcadio Hearn - ebook

Letters from the RavenCorrespondence of L. Hearn with Henry WatkinByLafcadio Hearn 

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Letters from the Raven

Correspondence of L. Hearn with Henry Watkin


Lafcadio Hearn

Table of Contents


Letters from the Raven

Letters to a Lady

Letters of Ozias Midwinter


It is felt that no apology is necessary for offering to the interested public, even though it be a limited one, the letters and extracts from letters which appear in this little volume. In a day when the letters of Aubrey Beardsley—who was a draughtsman rather than a writer—are gravely offered to possible readers by a great publishing house, it is surely allowable to present for the first time epistles of a really great author. No excuse was offered for printing such things as: "Thank you so much. It was very good of you to call." If this tells us anything concerning the unfortunate young master of white and black, I am unable to discern it. I feel quite sure that no one can make the same objection to the correspondence herewith given. It tells us many things concerning Hearn's life and moods and aspirations that otherwise would have been unknown to us. He wrote to Mr. Henry Watkin as to his dearest friend. In his letters, we get what we do not find elsewhere. We have here facts without which his future biographer would be at a loss.

If there be any repetitions in the sections which follow, the indulgence of the reader is craved. Such as they are, they were written at widely separated intervals in the hope that material might be finally gathered for a "Life and Letters of Hearn." This hope has so far been frustrated, but it is felt that much is here offered that will lead to a better understanding and appreciation of this famous writer. The endeavor of the editor has been so far as possible to let Hearn tell his own story, giving only enough comment to make clear what Hearn himself had to say.

In writing of their beloved R. L. S., enthusiasts tell us Stevenson is endeared to mankind not only because of his writings, but also because of his dauntless cheerfulness in the face of incurable disease. Hearn, in another field, was equally charming in his work and, in the face of another danger, equally dauntless. From the first he was confronted by the possible fate of the sightless. At best he had but a pearly vision of the world. The mere labor of writing was a physical task with him, demanding hours for the composition of a single letter. Yet he accomplished almost two score volumes, none of which is carelessly written. Seeing as through a ghostly vapor, in his books he revelled in color as few writers of our day have been able to do. How he managed to see, or rather to comprehend, all the things he so vividly described, was one of his secrets.

The best work of his life was commenced at the age of forty, when he arrived in Japan. He had many qualifications for his chosen field. During the long, lazy two years in Martinique he had literally soaked his mind, as it were, with Oriental philosophy. When he came to Japan he was weary of wandering, and the courtesy, gentleness and kindliness of the natives soon convinced him that they were the best people in the world among whom to live. A small man physically, he felt at home in a nation of small men. It pleased his shy, sensitive nature to think that he was often mistaken for a Japanese.

To his studies and his work he brought a prodigious curiosity, a perfect sympathy, and an admirable style. He had an eye that observed everything in this delightful Nippon, from the manner in which the women threaded their needles to the effect of Shinto and Buddhism upon the national character, religion, art, and literature. Japanese folk-lore, Japanese street songs and sayings, the home life of the people,—everything appealed to him, and the farther removed from modern days and from Christianity, the stronger the appeal.

Zangwill has acutely said, in speaking of Loti's famous story of Japan, "Instead of looking for the soul of a people, Pierre Loti was simply looking for a woman."

Hearn did not fail to tell us of many women, but his most particular search was for just that soul of a people which Loti ignored; and in the hunt for that soul, he became more and more impressed by that Buddhism which enabled him the better to comprehend the people. His whole religious life had been a wandering away from the Christianity to which he was born and a finding of a faith compounded of Buddhism modified by paganism, and a leaven of the scientific beliefs of agnostics such as Spencer and Huxley, whom he never wearied of reading and quoting. In all his writings this tendency is displayed. In one of the letters we see him an avowed agnostic, or perhaps "pantheist" would be the better word. In his little-known story of 1889, published in Lippincott's, with the Buddhist title of "Karma," there is a curious tribute to a fair, pure woman. It shows the hold the theory of heredity and evolution and the belief in reincarnation already had upon him:

"In her beauty is the resurrection of the fairest past;—in her youth, the perfection of the present;—in her girl dreams, the promise of the To-Be.... A million lives have been consumed that hers should be made admirable; countless minds have planned and toiled and agonized that thought might reach a higher and purer power in her delicate brain;—countless hearts have been burned out by suffering that hers might pulse for joy;—innumerable eyes have lost their light that hers might be filled with witchery;—innumerable lips have prayed that hers might be kissed." On his first day in the Orient he visited a temple and made an offering, recording the following conversation, which gives an admirable insight into his religious beliefs:[1]

"'Are you a Christian?'

"And I answered truthfully,'No.'

"'Are you a Buddhist?'

"'Not exactly.'

"'Why do you make offerings if you do not believe in Buddha?'

"'I revere the beauty of his teaching, and the faith of those who follow it.'"

From this by degrees he reached to a pure Buddhism, tempered, however, by a strange, romantic half belief, half love for the old pagan gods, feeling himself at heart a pagan, too:

"For these quaint Gods of Roads and Gods of Earth are really living still, though so worn and mossed and feebly worshipped. In this brief moment, at least, I am really in the Elder World,—perhaps just at that epoch of it when the primal faith is growing a little old-fashioned, crumbling slowly before the corrosive influence of a new philosophy; and I know myself a pagan still, loving these simple old gods, these gods of a people's childhood. And they need some love, these naïf, innocent, ugly gods. The beautiful divinities will live forever by that sweetness of womanhood idealized in the Buddhist art of them: eternal are Kwannon and Benten; they need no help of man; they will compel reverence when the great temples shall all have become voiceless and priestless as this shrine of Koshin is. But these kind, queer, artless, mouldering gods, who have given ease to so many troubled minds, who have gladdened so many simple hearts, who have heard so many innocent prayers,—how gladly would I prolong their beneficent lives in spite of the so-called 'laws of progress' and the irrefutable philosophy of evolution."

It is the combination of the various beliefs here shadowed that explains the unique note he brought into our literature. The man who was at once a follower of Spencer and of Buddha, with a large sympathy for the old folk-religion, brought forth an embodied thought entirely new to the world. Nothing like it had ever been produced before. Its like may never be produced again. He endeavored to reconcile the evolutional theory of inherited tendencies with the Buddhist belief in reincarnation,—one lengthening chain of lives,—and with the worship of the dead as seen in pure Shinto, for "is not every action indeed the work of the Dead who dwell within us?"

It was this queer combination that gave a strange charm, a moving magic, to various passages in his books. For the rest, his work and method of labor, may best be described in his own words when speaking of Japanese artists. He writes:

"The foreign artist will give you realistic reflections of what he sees; but he will give you nothing more. The Japanese artist gives you that which he feels,—the mood of a season, the precise sensation of an hour and place; his work is qualified by a power of suggestiveness rarely found in the art of the West. The Occidental painter renders minute detail; he satisfies the imagination he evokes. But his Oriental brother either suppresses or idealizes detail,—steeps his distances in mist, bands his landscapes with cloud, makes of his experience a memory in which only the strange and the beautiful survive, with their sensations. He surpasses imagination, excites it, leaves it hungry with the hunger of charm perceived in glimpses only. Nevertheless in such glimpses he is able to convey the feeling of a time, the character of a place, after a fashion that seems magical. He is a painter of recollections and sensations rather than of clear-cut realities; and in this lies the secret of his amazing power."

It has often been asked, "These books are beautiful as prose, but do they give us Japan?" Some have said he saw Japan with the eyes of a lover and was thus deceived. Captain F. Brinkley, an authority on Oriental matters and for years editor of the most important English paper in the Orient, has expressed, to the present writer, his skepticism concerning the entire verity of some of Hearn's pictures. On the other hand, here is what two Japanese writers say: Mr. Yone Noguchi, himself a poet of no mean abilities, writes of Hearn: "I like to vindicate Hearn from the criticism that his writing is about one third Japanese and two thirds Hearn. Fortunately his two thirds Hearn is also Japanese."

This is heartily seconded by Mr. Adachi Kinnosuke: "So truly did he write of us and of our land, that the West, which is always delighted to fall in love with counterfeits in preference to the genuine, did not believe him; made merry at his expense, told him that he was a dreamer, that his accounts were too rose-colored. We of the soil only marvelled. Of him we have said that he is more of Nippon than ourselves."

No fitter close to this introduction may be given than Noguchi's prose elegy sent to America from Tokio several days after Hearn's interment:

"Truly he was a delicate, easily broken Japanese vase, old as the world, beautiful as a cherry blossom. Alas! That wonderful vase was broken. He is no more with us. Surely we could better lose two or three battle-ships at Port Arthur than Lafcadio Hearn."

[1]This and several other extracts are from that delightful book, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, Houghton, Mifflin & Co.

Letters from the Raven

Take up any book written by Lafcadio Hearn concerning Japan, and you will find the most delicate interpretation of the life of the people, their religion, their folk-songs, their customs, expressed in English that it is a delight to read. Upon further examination you will notice the calm, the serenity, the self-poise of the writer. It is as though, miraculously finding utterance, he were one of those stone Buddhas erected along the Japanese highways. He seems to have every attribute of a great writer save humor. There is hardly a smile in any of his books on Japan. One would say that the author was a man who never knew what gaiety was. One would judge that his life had lain in quiet places always, without any singular sorrow or suffering, without any struggle for existence. Judged by what Hearn told the world at large, the impression would be a correct one.

He was shy by nature. He did not take the world into his confidence. He was not one to harp on his own troubles and ask the world to sympathize with him. The world had dealt him some very hard blows,—blows which hurt sorely,—and so, while he gave the public his books, he kept himself to himself. He transferred the aroma of Japan to his writings. He did not sell the reader snap-shots of his own personality. To one man only perhaps in the whole world did the little Greek-Irishman reveal his inner thoughts, and he was one who thirty-eight years ago opened his heart and his home to the travel-stained, poverty-burdened lad of nineteen, who had run away from a monastery in Wales and who still had part of his monk's garb for clothing when he reached America.

Hearn never discussed his family affairs very extensively, but made it clear that his father was a surgeon in the crack Seventy-sixth Regiment of British Infantry, and his mother a Greek woman of Cherigo in the Ionian Islands. The social circle to which his father belonged frowned on the mesalliance, and when the wife and children arrived in England, after the father's death, the aristocratic relatives soon made the strangers feel that they were anything but welcome.

The young Lafcadio was chosen for the priesthood, and after receiving his education partly in France and partly in England, he was sent to a monastery in Wales. As he related afterwards, he was in bad odor there from the first. Even as a boy he had the skeptical notions about things religious that were to abide with him for long years after and change him to an ardent materialist until he fell under the influence of Buddhism. One day, after a dispute with the priests, and in disgust with the course in life that had been mapped out for him, the boy took what money he could get and made off to America. After sundry adventures, concerning which he was always silent, he arrived in Cincinnati in 1869, hungry, tired, unkempt,—a boy without a trade, without friends, without money. In some way he made the acquaintance of a Scotch printer, and this man in turn introduced him to Henry Watkin, an Englishman, largely self-educated, of broad culture and wide reading, of singular liberality of views, and a lover of his kind. Watkin at this time ran a printing shop.

Left alone with the lad, who had come across the seas to be as far away as possible from his father's people, the man of forty-five surveyed the boy of nineteen and said, "Well, my young man, how do you expect to earn a living?"

"I don't know."

"Have you any trade?"

"No, sir."

"Can you do anything at all?"

"Yes, sir; I might write," was the eager reply.

"Umph!" said Watkin; "better learn some bread-winning trade and put off writing until later."

After this Hearn was installed as errand boy and helper. He was not goodly to look upon. His body was unusually puny and under-sized. The softness of his tread had something feline and feminine in it. His head, covered with long black hair, was full and intellectual, save for two defects, a weak chin and an eye of the variety known as "pearl,"—large and white and bulbous, so that it repelled people upon a first acquaintance.

Hearn felt deeply the effect his shyness, his puny body, and his unsightly eye had upon people, and this feeling served to make him even more diffident and more melancholy than he was by nature. However, as with many melancholy-natured souls, he had an element of fun in him, which came out afterwards upon his longer acquaintance with the first man who had given him a helping hand.

Hearn swept the floor of the printing shop and tried to learn the printer's craft, but failed, He slept in a little room back of the shop and ate his meals in the place with Mr. Watkin. He availed himself of his benefactor's library, and read Poe and volumes on free thought, delighted to find a kindred spirit in the older man. Together they often crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky to hear lectures on spiritualism and laugh about them. Their companionship was not broken when Mr. Watkin secured for the boy a position with a Captain Barney, who edited and published a commercial, paper, for which Hearn solicited advertisements and to which he began also to contribute articles. One of these—a singular composition for such a paper—was a proposal to cross the Atlantic in a balloon anchored to a floating buoy. It was later in the year that he secured a position as a reporter on the Enquirer, through some "feature" articles he shyly deposited upon the editor's desk, making his escape before the great man had caught him in the act. It was not long before the latent talent in the youth began to make itself manifest. He was not a rapid writer. On the contrary, he was exceedingly slow, but his product was written in English that no reporter then working in Cincinnati approached. His fellow reporters soon became jealous of him. They were, moreover, repelled by his personal appearance and chilled by his steady refusal to see the fun of getting drunk. Finding lack of congeniality among the young men of his own age and occupation, among whom he was to work for seven more years, his friendship with Mr. Watkin became all the stronger, so that he came to look upon the latter as the one person in Cincinnati upon whom he could count for unselfish companionship and sincere advice. Hearn's Cincinnati experiences ended with his service on the Enquirer. Before that he had been proofreader to a publishing house and secretary to Cincinnati's public librarian. He was also for a time on the staff of the Commercial. It was while on the Enquirer that he accomplished several journalistic feats that are still referred to in gatherings of oldtime newspaper men of Cincinnati. One was a grisly description of the charred body of a murdered man, the screed being evidently inspired by recollections of Poe. The other was an article describing Cincinnati as seen from the top of a high church steeple, the joke of it being that Hearn, by reason of his defective vision, could see nothing even after he had made his perilous climb. It was in the last days of his stay in Cincinnati that he, with H. F. Farny, the painter, issued a short-lived weekly known as Giglampz. Farny, not yet famous as an Indian painter, contributed the drawings, and Hearn the bulk of the letter press for the journal, which modestly announced that it was going to eclipse Punch and all the other famous comic weeklies. Hearn, always sensitive, practically withdrew from the magazine when Farny took the very excusable liberty of changing the title of one of the essays of the former. Farny thought the title offensive to people of good taste, and said so. Hearn apparently acquiesced, but brooded over the "slight," and never again contributed to the weekly. Shortly afterwards it died. It is doubtful whether there are any copies in existence. Many Cincinnati collectors have made rounds of the second-hand book-shops in a vain search for stray numbers.

Early in their acquaintance Watkin and Hearn called each other by endearing names which were adhered to throughout the long years of their correspondence. Mr. Watkin, with his leonine head, was familiarly addressed as "Old Man" or "Dad;" while the boy, by virtue of his dark hair and coloring, the gloomy cast of his thoughts, and his deep love for Poe, was known as "The Raven," a name which caught his fancy. Indeed, a simple little drawing of the bird stood for many years in place of a signature to anything he chanced to write to Mr. Watkin. In spite of their varying lines of work, the two were often together. When "The Raven" was prowling the city for news, he was often accompanied by his "Dad." Not infrequently, when the younger man had no especial task, he would come to Mr. Watkin's office and read some books there. One of these, whose title and author Mr. Watkin has forgotten, fascinated at the same time that it repelled Hearn by its grim and ghastly stories of battle, murder, and sudden death. One night Mr. Watkin left him reading in the office. When he opened the place the next morning he found this note from Hearn:

"10 P.M. These stories are positively so horrible that even a materialist feels rather unpleasantly situated when left alone with the thoughts conjured up by this dreamer of fantastic dreams. The brain-chambers of fancy become thronged with goblins. I think I shall go home."

For signature there was appended a very black and a very thoughtful-looking raven.

It was also in these days that Hearn indulged in his little pleasantries with Mr. Watkin. Hardly a day passed without a visit to the printing office. When he did not find his friend, he usually left a card for him, on which was some little drawing, Hearn having quite a talent in this direction,-a talent that he never afterward developed. Of course some of the cards were just as nonsensical as the nonsense verses friends often write to each other. They are merely quoted to show Hearn's fund of animal spirits at the time.

A pencil sketch by Hearn left at Mr. Watkin's shop at the beginning of their friendship.

Mr. Watkin one day left a card for possible customers: "Gone to supper. H. W." Hearn passed by and wrote on the opposite side of the card: "Gone to get my sable plumage plucked." The inevitable raven followed as signature. It was Hearn's way of saying he had come to see Mr. Watkin and had then gone to a barber shop to have his hair cut. Once he omitted the raven and signed his note, "Kaw."

Facsimile of one of the cards Hearn left at Mr. Watkin's shop.