Forthcoming Publication of thr Complete Letters of Lafcadio Hearn

 Sukehiro Hirakawa, Professor Emeritus, Tokyo University

Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) has been claimed as “one of the best letter-writers of his age.” When Life and Letters of Lafcadio Hearn was published by Houghton, Mifflin & Company two years after his death, an American reviewer wrote: “In variety, eloquence, and wit―in short, in all the qualities which give to a letter that indefinable something which we call charm―Hearn’s letters have―with the possible exception of Stevenson’s―no peer in recent years, while the continually changing geographical background of the letters and the great multitude of subjects which attracted Hearn’s wide-ranging mind give them a body which few collections of letters have ever shown.”

Basil Hall Chamberlain, the founding father of Western Japan studies and Hearn’s one-time friend, wrote: “In my opinion his books are superior to his talk, and his letters superior to his books. He will live on in these charming unstudied compositions, and be remembered and reprinted as one of the best letter-writers in the English language, along with Horace Walpole, Edward Fitzgerald, and Mrs. Carlyle. His style expresses his whole manner of thinking, which was at once poetical and scientifically exact…”

The problem, however, is that the first edition of Hearn’s letters was of a product of Victorian sensibilities. They were edited by Elizabeth Bisland, Hearn’s close friend and former newspaper colleague from his New Orleans days. As has been pointed out by Hearn scholars, Bisland tried to show the world a favorable portrait of the pioneering Japan interpreter, with a protective sense of maternal affection. She sanitized his letters, cutting many parts dealing with unflattering references to certain individuals and enemies, including the editor of Houghton, Mifflin & Company. In the name of privacy and impertinence she omitted passages that she felt offended Japan and the Japanese people. Another type of omission was any passage dealing with money matters; excisions were also made because of the explicit sexual content. So much so that recently an outraged American critic complains that, like his photos, Hearn’s letters as edited by Bisland exhibit only one side of his face.

This time we have tried to compile a de-sanitized complete edition, having collected more than three times the number of his letters than those printed in the volumes Life and Letters of Lafcadio Hearn and The Japanese Letters of Lafcadio Hearn, which were reprinted by Houghton, Mifflin & Co. in 1922 as volumes XIII, XIV, XV and XVI of The Writings of Lafcadio Hearn. We have restored all omissions. This new enlarged edition will reveal another Hearn of much more complex character: his love-hate relationship with Japan will be shown in its various forms for the first time. You will find here a relentlessly controversial figure swinging sometimes violently between the East and the West.

There are about 1584 letters written by Hearn, of which about 559 were written during his stay in America (1869-1890) and 1025 during his stay in Japan (1890-1904). There is no definitive catalogue of Hearn’s letters. Ms. Kaoru Sekita has tried to locate them and has established the chronological catalogue, though still not complete, as well as an index of the addressees. As the results of her efforts, 515 of Hearn’s letters are printed for the first time in this volume[i]; and 139 letters formerly published with omissions are printed in their entirety also for the first time. The passages printed in italics are the parts formerly cut or omitted.

Of Hearn’s 1584 letters we checked 902 using copies of Hearn’s originals: we are grateful to those libraries and citizens who have kindly offered us the copies of their precious possessions. We are, however, obliged to reproduce 586 letters already printed in various books and magazines, without being able to check the originals. In sum, we will hopefully print here a total of 1584 letters of Lafcadio Hearn.

The main task of the transcription of Hearn’s letters is being accomplished by Professor Alan Rosen; Professor Susumu Kawanishi and myself are double checking it and adding footnotes. We thank Mr Steve Matsumura of Cengage Learning K.K. for publishing this volume, which is scheduled to appear in the year 2018.

[i] 515 letters of which 189 were written in his American days and 326 in his Japanese days.