He created an illusion and lived his days and nights within its confines. That illusion was his Japan. He found in Japan the ideal coupling of the cerebral and the sensual, mingled and indistinguishable, the one constantly recharging the other and affording him the inspiration to write.

He came at a time when virtually all foreigners were here to instruct, pontificate and lord themselves over the Oriental upstart; yet he himself came solely to learn, to fossick, to discover what his temperament had taught him was beautiful and potent in the human spirit. Fresh off the ship in 1890, he wrote of the Japanese to his friend and subsequent biographer Elizabeth Bisland, "I believe that their art is as far in advance of our art as old Greek art was superior to that of the earliest European art-groupings. We are barbarians! I do not merely think these things: I am as sure of them as of death. I only wish I could be reincarnated in some little Japanese baby, so that I could see and feel the world as beautifully as a Japanese brain does."

It was hard for Japanese to resist such blatant adoration, focused as it was on their sheer uniqueness. One hundred and fifty years have passed since the birth of Patrick Lafcadio Hearn. This orphan of Europe -- transported at age 19 to the United States and later, aged nearly 40, to Japan -- found in this country what he had been seeking everywhere: a sanctuary for his imagination. In the decades following his death in Tokyo in 1904, the Japanese crowned him with their ultimate laurel; he became their "gaijin" laureate, the single greatest interpreter, in their eyes, of their inmost cultural secrets. Even today, Hearn is considered in this country the foreigner who understood the Japanese in the most profound way. Yet he is forgotten in the West, a footnote on the faded pages of exotica. What was the nature of this man, as wanderer, as nonnative informant of the fiendish details of American and Japanese lore (let's not forget that Hearn was to some extent a chronicler of American mores as well as Japanese)? And what were the circumstances that led to such a gap between Japanese and Western perceptions of this dutifully forlorn eccentric?