Lafcadio Hearn and Mitchell McDonald

grande_insect1A reproduction of the following holographic letter was printed at the front of the first edition of Insect Literature (Hokuseido, 1921). It was written by Mitchell McDonald, a paymaster for the United States Navy and also the principal owner of the Grand Hotel in Yokohama. In addition to their close friendship until Hearn’s death in 1904, McDonald also served as the author’s literary executor. Mitchell McDonald perished in the Great Kanto Earthquake in September 1923.

The letter is addressed to R. Tanabe, T. Ochiai, and M. Otani, commending their efforts on the bilingual “Hearn Memorial Translations” series, of which Insect Literature was a part. Otani, who was also a former pupil of Hearn, translated the book into Japanese, which appeared beside Hearn’s original English texts.


Grand Hotel, Yokohama

Jan. 21, 1921

IMG_0055Dear Mr. Tanabe, Mr. Ochiai, and Mr. Ōtani,

As a friend of Lafcadio Hearn’s, and for that and other good reasons, a friend of yours, I am taking the liberty of saying that in your “Hearn Memorial Translations” you are “running true to form”—a thing to be confidently expected of course—in the proof you give that his whole-souled affection for his Japanese pupils and associates was not at all misplaced, but on the contrary was strikingly warranted in the hearty return to him in full measure of a like affection.

I want to say further that to have had as your teacher a literary star of first magnitude (now blazing alone in the literary firmament as yet without schools or satellites) is a distinction to be exceedingly proud of, but that which is something still more to be proud of is the service you are, yourselves, now in the way of rendering those of the present and rising generations of Japan, who have room in their hearts for love of country—and who are they that have more room in their hearts than the Japanese have for love of country?

Lafcadio_Hearn_and_Mitchell_McDonald
Hearn and McDonald

In that matter, Hearn must have been Hearn—sent to Japan that with his mighty pen he could acquaint your own intellectuals as well as the outside world with the virtues of the great People of that time a newly recognized member of the Family of Great Nations. Your people have long been made familiar enough with those who looked only for Japanese vices and finding, of course, some that are common to all mankind—now let them become intimately acquainted with the man who looked for, found, could see and could tell what was to be applauded in them—much more, in fact, than they themselves were even faintly aware of—to their glory be said!

The time has come when Japan should learn what it means to “know thyself” as seen in the study of Hearn’ s writings—and at the same time thus to learn English at its best, for, after all, a wide and intimate knowledge of English is a practical consideration of utmost importance. In fact, not the least important feature of what you are doing for your people is making it possible for them to participate with you in the work of the man of whom it was said by the distinguished Associate Professor of English at the Columbia University, New York—John Erskine, Ph.D.—that his (Hearn’s) lectures were “criticisms of the finest kind”, unmatched in English unless we return to the best in Coleridge, and in some ways unequaled by anything in Coleridge!

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Hearn and his pupil M. Otani

Your familiarity with the language—thanks to Hearn—qualifies you to put his incomparable English into Japanese as nearly as it can be done, but the greatest service you are doing your fellow scholars lies in giving them Hearn’s English, at the same time that you make it accessible to the Nation at large.

To speak only of the very beginning of your “Hearn Memorial Translations”—every one of the five books a gem of first water—is to invite attention to what stirs the emotions to the depths of the soul, and, any fair-minded man, having read it, who wouldn’t at once resent an unkindness—much less an injustice—to the kind of people there described, is unimaginable.

The time is bound to come when present day insanity wherever existing will be made to give way to soundness of mind, and in that time the benevolent influence of Hearn’ s work and that of his disciples will be keenly felt and fully appreciated. Haste the day, dear good friends, and believe me

Always faithfully yours,

Mitchell McDonald


IMG_0056Swan River Press’s new and expanded edition of Lafcadio Hearn’s Insect Literature is available to order here.

As Lafcadio Hearn observes in his essay “Insects in Greek Poetry”, “the capacity to enjoy the music of insects and all that it signifies in the great poem of nature tells very plainly of goodness of heart, aesthetic sensibility, a perfectly healthy state of mind.” And to this, one might add a keen sense of wonder.

Insect Literature collects twenty essays and stories written by Hearn, mostly in Japan, a land where insects were as appreciated as in ancient Greece. With a witty gentleness bordering on the eerie, Hearn describes in these pieces the song of the cricket, the spectral fly of dragon-flies, quotes the entomological haiku of classical Japan, and recalls Buddhist tales in which the souls insects and men are never far one from the other.

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Lafcadio Hearn and Mitchell McDonald

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