WANDERING GHOST The Odyssey of Lafcadio Hearn By Jonathan Cott Knopf. 438 pp. $24.95

LAFCADIO HEARN's literary reputation has been as erratic and as full of apparent indirections as his own wandering life. When he died in Tokyo in 1904, the London Times obituary spoke of him as "the well-known writer on Japanese subjects": "Few European writers have become so intimately acquainted with Japanese thought or handled Japanese subjects with greater appreciation." The dozen books on Japan he published between 1894 and his death were taken up in the West by connoisseurs of the odd and the Eastern, often went into several impressions, and went on having currency until about 1930.

Then, with the rise of Japanese militarism and the ascendancy both of anti-Japanese feeling and anti-romanticism, Hearn's stock fell. By the end of the Second World War, a new generation of "experts" on Japan had begun to make its mark -- American and British students of the language, culture, institutions, who were far more skillful linguistically, and whose observations were based on close academic scholarship and field-study rather than the sometimes whimsical flourishes and enthusiasms (such as paeans to "The Japanese Smile" and Fairyland) which absorbed Hearn. In the West, Hearn was seen as a faded and pathetic figure, a bit of a joke.

Only in Japan itself was he still taken seriously, at least by the educational system, which processed his texts as schoolbook fodder. Literary visitors who came to teach in Japan were regularly hailed as eminent successors to the legendary Herun-san, but those who got this treatment were often contemptuous. In 1925, Edmund Blunden (an eventual custodian of Hearn's dubious "chair" at Tokyo University) wrote to a friend: "He liked them, they liked him, he talked slosh, they liked slosh, and nobody wanted him, elsewhere . . ." In 1955, D.J. Enright, teaching in Japan, reported: "I have turned out a sore disappointment to some of my sponsors by failing . . . to rise to the role of the Second Lafcadio Hearn for which I was cast in advance."

But gradually the Hearn tide is beginning to turn. As long ago as 1961 there appeared a full-scale well-researched biography by Elizabeth Stevenson which at a stroke replaced almost all of the prolific earlier studies of the man and his work; and the Stevenson biography (simply called Lafcadio Hearn) was reissued in 1979. More recently, in 1984, Francis King published an excellently chosen and intelligently introduced anthology of Hearn's Writings from Japan. King observed: "When I first went to Japan, I prepared myself by reading a number of books on its history, its customs and its culture. Most were of a more recent date than Hearn's; but on my arrival, I realized that it was his that had given me the most accurate idea of what, superficialities apart, I should find there."

Jonathan Cott's book attempts to be a combination of both biography and anthology -- and an anthology which goes well beyond Francis King's representation of only the Japanese material. Cott began with the notion of a comprehensive Hearn anthology, but:

"I soon realized . . . that the context of the work was indissolubly linked to Hearn's literary and personal life -- one of the most remarkable and fascinating lives of any writer of the late nineteenth century. My anthology therefore began to turn into an informal biographical reader that attempted to present Lafcadio's voice from the days he emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, as a newspaper reporter in Cincinnati in 1871 until his death in Japan in 1904. . . ."

"Out of nowhere" comprehends several somewheres: Leucadia in the Ionian islands, Hearn's birthplace (and hence his name, the son of an Anglo-Irish military medico and a local girl), Ireland, Wales, Rouen, and Durham, before he was packed off to America by exasperated friends of his scattered family.

All this, and much that follows, was properly narrated by Elizabeth Stevenson. The strength of Cott's book is his choice to quote Hearn at length, from early letters, Cincinnati and New Orleans journalism, and essays written during the period in Martinique, to the copious flow of work during the 14 years in Japan. Sometimes these lengthy extracts outstay their welcome, and become tedious: Hearn himself referred disparagingly to a "period of gush," concerning what he wrote in New Orleans, but throughout his life Hearn was capable of producing ceremonious twaddle -- "of such a kind that the words call attention to themselves, and are possibly admired, but ultimately fail to produce any effect beyond themselves" (Edward Thomas, writing as early as 1912 in his short study of Hearn). On the other hand, Cott publishes some of the Cincinnati "investigative" and descriptive journalism -- about everything from slaughterhouses and steeple-climbers to accounts of "nameless crimes" -- which shows what a spectacularly audacious reporter the young Hearn could be.

Cott also gives us a little more of Hearn's roving sex life than did Stevenson, though Hearn seens to have been not notably predatory, and indeed the marriage to Setsu not long after his arrival in Japan was totally faithful. Hearn's mercurial moods, manic touchiness, inflamed aestheticism, are gently and sympathetically written about by Cott, with a protectiveness that comes naturally to a sensitive biographer, though I wished now and then that Cott (or his publisher's editor) had not allowed Hearn's rhapsodical style occasionally to color his own ("in that supernal Apollonian realm of iridescent light of sea, cliffs, and sky," etc). Nevertheless, Cott has done a thorough and well-constructed job, which can only help the rehabilitation of Hearn's reputation. Anthony Thwaite, co-editor of "The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse," taught at Tokyo University (1955-57), and since then has made many visits to Japan. His most recent book of poems is "Poems 1953-1988."