The Alleged Posthumous Writings of Great Authors

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

The Alleged Posthumous Writings of Great Authors is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle published in The Bookman (US) and in The Fortnightly Review in december 1927.


The Alleged Posthumous Writings of Great Authors

The Bookman (US) (december 1927, p. 342)
The Bookman (US) (december 1927, p. 343)
The Bookman (US) (december 1927, p. 344)
The Bookman (US) (december 1927, p. 345)
The Bookman (US) (december 1927, p. 346)
The Bookman (US) (december 1927, p. 347)
The Bookman (US) (december 1927, p. 348)
The Bookman (US) (december 1927, p. 349)

From time to time communications have come through mediums which are alleged to emanate from men who have been famous in literature. These have been set aside by the ordinary critic, who starts with the assumption that the thing is in a general sense absurd, and therefore applies the same judgment with little or no examination to the particular case. Those of us, however, who have found that many psychic claims have actually been made good may be inclined to look a little more closely into these compositions, and judge how far from internal evidence the alleged authorship is possible or absurd. I venture to say that an impartial critic who approaches the subject from this angle will be rather surprised at the result.

Let us predicate in the first instance that if the Spiritualist hypothesis is true, and if things are carried out exactly as they say, then one would expect the posthumous work to be inferior to that of the living man. In the first place, he is filtering it through another brain which may often misinterpret or misunderstand. Even a typewriter under my control causes me, I find, to lose something of my sureness of touch, and how much more would it be if it were an unstable human machine which I was endeavoring to operate. In the second place the writer has entered upon a new life with a new set of experiences, and with the tremendous episode of physical dissolution between him and the thoughts of earth. This also may well show itself in his style and diction. The most that we can hope for is something which is strongly reminiscent of the deceased writer. This, of course, might be produced by parody, and we have to ask ourselves how far such a parody is likely or even possible in the case of the particular medium. If that medium has never shown signs of the rare power of parody, if he has had no previous literary experience, and if there are other internal evidences of the author's identity, then the case becomes a stronger one. In no event could the judgment be absolutely final, but if several instances can be adduced, each of which is cogent, then the collective effect would tend to strengthen greatly the psychic proof of identity.

We will first take the well-known case where an American medium in 1873 wrote a conclusion to Charles Dickens's unfinished "Edwin Drood". I have not the whole of this work, but I have the long account of it with numerous extracts which appeared in a collection called "Rifts in the Veil", published by Harrison in 1878. According to The Boston Post (September 11th, 1873) the writer was one James,.a foreman in a printing office in Brattleboro, a village of Vermont. He was a church-going Episcopalian, a good citizen, and steady workman, unlikely to be a party to deception. He knew little about Spiritualism, but his landlady held circles, at one of which he was present. On this occasion he fell into a trance, and wrote certain things which appeared to be independent of himself, and were signed by the names of persons who had died in Brattleboro before his advent. Such names could, of course, have been easily learned by him, and were in no way evidential. Presently, however, there came a request with the signature of Charles Dickens, asking that he should be the instrument of this great spirit for the finishing of his earthly work. "Those who know the medium all agree that he could not do this work unaided even if he were ever so close a student of Dickens. He has not the power, and even if he had he has not the education. Even those who are most sceptical are acknowledging that." Such was the opinion of Brattleboro, which may, of course, have underrated the writer's ability, and powers of deception.

We learn most about the matter from an excellent examination conducted by a special correspondent of The Springfield Daily Union. He tells us that the writer had no education after the age of thirteen, and had never written so much as a newspaper paragraph in his life. That certainly does not appear to be a man with a natural turn for parody. The correspondent examined the manuscript, made copious extracts, and was evidently impressed by all that he had learned.

It was in October, 1872, that James, if The Boston Post is correct in the name, while in trance wrote a letter professing to be signed by Dickens, and announcing his intention. On November 15th the writing actually began. The medium would go into a room alone, either at six in the morning or at seven in the evening, and sit in front of his papers until he dropped into a trance. It was immaterial whether the room was dark or lit. The interval before the trance varied from one minute to half an hour, damp or stormy weather making the process more difficult. While sinking into trance he was conscious, according to his own account, of a figure like Dickens seated beside him with a sad, grave face, his head resting thoughtfully upon his hand. When after a long interval he woke from his insensibility he would find the table or floor covered with scrawled sheets.

The assertion that the medium actually saw the author simplifies the case by making the explanation of subconscious action less feasible. The subconscious power which might make him write would hardly build up visions as well. The case is surely one which is either deliberate deception or truth.

The central point of the whole discussion must be the narrative itself. It seems to me to be like Dickens — but Dickens gone fiat. The fizz, the sparkle, the spontaneity of it is gone. But the trick of thought and of manner remains. If it be indeed a parody it has the rare merit among parodies of never accentuating or exaggerating the peculiarities of the original. It is sober and restrained. I have before me as I write the original Dickens and the alleged posthumous production so far as I could get it. I will quote two passages from each, and I will ask the critic to make up his mind before I reveal it which is the real and which the sham.

1. "This lady was known as Miss Keep, and a very precise and prim maiden lady she was. If Miss Keep should be aroused at any time of the night, and should be asked where the dust brush was to be found, she would tell you to step into the basement, and behind the door you would see a row of hooks, and on the third hook from the door you would find the brush... she has what was probably intended for a blue eye, but the bluing material must have got very low, and we cannot better describe the colour than by saying it was milky-blue."

2. " I hazard the guess that her dear name is precious to him, cannot be heard or repeated without emotion, and is preserved sacred. If he has any distinguishing appellation of fondness for her it is reserved for her, and is not for common ears. A name that it would be a privilege to call her by, being alone with her own bright self, it would be a liberty, a coldness, an insensibility, almost a breach of good faith, to flaunt elsewhere."

3. "Its ancient walls were massive and its rooms rather seemed to have been dug out of them than to have been designed beforehand with any reference to them. The main door opened at once on a chamber of no describable shape, with a groined roof, which in its turn opened on another chamber of no describable shape, with another groined roof, their windows small and in the thickness of the wall."

4. "The great man... regarded it as an insult on the part of the elements thus to take liberty with anything bearing the semblance of Sapsea. He descends to his street door with slow and measured steps, and his face wears such an air of stern pomposity that one would be disposed to think the identical gust of wind that had done the mischief was still remaining at the door in a defiant attitude, and that Mr. Sapsea was going down to order it off the premises, or failing that to annihilate it on the spot."

If there is any difficulty in distinguishing these passages it is surely some argument in favor of the possible inspiration of this unlettered man, though a disembodied parodist is not an impossible conception. Apart from the general narrative, there are. many small points which support a psychic explanation. The chapter headings are pure Dickens. Here are samples: "What the Organ said", "Opens the door for Mr. Brobity", "John Jasper's nerves receive a shock", and "Mr. Sapsea's dignity receives another". Excellent parody—if parody it be!

The entire work covered twelve hundred pages of sermon paper. When one remembers that the medium was occupied for. ten hours a day at his business, and that this' work was carried out in a few months during his scanty hours of leisure, one would say that if it were a practical joke upon the public it was one for which a considerable price was paid. On the other hand, it is only fair to point out that the writer might well hope to receive in the end some recompense for his toil. The alleged spirit took this view. In one message he said: "In regard to the English publishers, as soon as the first proof sheet is done address a letter to. Sampson Low, Son, and Marston, Milton House, Ludgate Hill, London. It is very probable that they will be glad to negotiate for advance sheets". A critic might argue, therefore, that a deception was not entirely without an object.

This address of the publisher is worthy of note. It is the name of the firm as it was at the time of Dickens's connection with it, but it had been slightly altered since, the name of Searle having been added. Too much stress need not be laid upon this, as the writer might easily have taken the old style from the title-page of the British edition of any of the novels.

I should be inclined to lay more stress upon small points of style which could hardly be imitated unless the writer had a knowledge of Dickens, which, though not impossible, would be extremely rare and would be contrary to the judgment of all who knew him. The way in which the narrative suddenly changes into the present tense is a curious characteristic, both of "Edwin Drood" and of its continuation.

Thus in the latter: "Mr. Stollop has an idea that he has drunk as much already as he ought, but is pressed so hard that", etc., etc.

In the original we have continually such sentences as "Durdles is a stonemason. No man is better known in Cloisterham. He is the chartered libertine of the place". This use of the present when dealing with the past is unusual, and yet it occurs frequently in both versions.

Then, again, Dickens had a habit of giving some character a grotesque nickname, which is afterwards spelled in capitals. "This is a rare peculiarity. We find it in both versions. Mr. Grewgius in the original is always "The Angular Man". Mr. Sapsea in the sequel is "The Great Mind". The trick of style is the same. The spelling, too, in the sequel is English rather than American, "travellers", for example, being spelled with two Is. It may be noted also that there are allusions to "coals" in the plural, to "basements" and to other terms which are unfamiliar to a New England household.

One naturally examines the new script carefully for Americanisms. Their presence would not be conclusive. Had the medium been conscious or semi-conscious when writing they would certainly have been visible, for the brain of the instrument always colors a conscious communication. But here there is alleged to have been deep trance, a very rare condition in "automatic" writing, but one which would give the control more complete command over his subject. Accordingly we find in the long extracts given very few traces of the New Englander.

The great Lombroso, in his "After Death", alludes to the matter sympathetically, but I notice that a critic for whom I have a sincere respect, Mr. J. Cuming Walters, dismisses the spirit sequel as unworthy of attention. In his support he quotes Mr. George F. Gadd, who has apparently made a careful study of the whole production, while my knowledge is confined to a series of long extracts. The chief accusations are futility, illiteracy and Americanisms. One could only judge the first by reviewing the work as a whole, but on the other two counts I would acquit the script so far as I have examined it. The actual solution of the plot, as epitomized by Mr. Gadd, does certainly seem unlikely, especially as regards the personality of Datchery, and the solution of the mystery would seem unworthy of Dickens. But that is to suppose that Dickens encumbered by Mr. James, the medium, is as free in his mental processes as Dickens alone. Some allowance must be made. Altogether I should say that the actual inspiration of the great author is far from being absolutely established, and that even a psychic origin need not imply Dickens himself. No one with any real critical faculty could say, however, that the result was an entirely unworthy one, though if written by the living Dickens it would certainly not have improved his reputation. If it were a true communication it must have been intensely galling to the author that his efforts should have been met with derision. There would, however, be a certain poetic justice in the matter, as Dickens in his lifetime, even while admitting psychic happenings for which he could give no explanation, went out of his way to ridicule Spiritualism, which he had never studied or understood.

Before leaving the subject I may add that of the extracts given numbers one and four are from the sequel, while two and three are pure Dickens.

I will now turn to the alleged communications from Oscar Wilde. Wilde's style was so marked, and in some ways so beautiful, that I have never seen any admitted parody which was adequate. Yet there have been several communications alleged to be from the other side which do reproduce those peculiarities in a very marked form. One of these was a play which came through the hand of Mrs. Hester Dowden, and which exhibited both the strength and the weakness of Wilde. Another is to be found in that remarkable narrative "Both Sides of the Door", where Wilde was alleged to have interfered in order to save a family who were suffering from a peculiar psychic persecution. Wilde had a particularly fine eye for color, and a very happy knack of hitting off a tint by an allusion to some natural object. I think that all the "honey-colored" moons which have floated over recent literature had their origin in one of Wilde's adjectives. In this particular little book Wilde spoke of the Arctic seas as "an ocean of foaming jade". That struck me as a particularly characteristic phrase.

In the present essay, however, we will concentrate our attention upon the volume which has been published by Werner Laurie under the title of "Psychic Messages from Oscar Wilde". These also came through the hand of Mrs. Dowden (or Mrs. Travers Smith), and they are dignified by a preface from the father of psychic research. Sir William Barrett, who makes the general assertion concerning the script: "It does afford strong prima facie evidence of survival after the dissolution of body and brain".

The messages, it should be explained, came partly by automatic writing, while the medium was in a normal state, and partly by the ouija board. Mrs. Dowden was associated with Mr. Soal in the experiments; sometimes she worked alone and sometimes with his hands upon the ouija board. Here are some of the messages which seem to me to be most characteristic of Wilde's personality and literary style:

"In eternal twilight I move, but I know that in the world there is day and night, seedtime and harvest, and red sunset must follow apple-green dawn. Every year spring throws her green veil over the world and anon the red autumn glory comes to mock the yellow moon. Already the may is creeping like a white mist over land and hedgerow, and year after year the hawthorn bears blood-red fruit after the death of its may."

This is not merely adequate Wilde. It is exquisite Wilde. It is so beautiful that it might be chosen for special inclusion in any anthology of his writings. The adjective "apple-green" for dawn, and the picture of the may "creeping like a white mist" are two high lights in a brilliant passage. Again, as in the "foaming jade", we have the quick response to color. I have said that the posthumous Dickens was Dickens gone flat, but the posthumous Wilde in such passages as this is Wilde with an added sparkle.

In the script we find that after this passage Wilde was subjected to a long questionnaire, which he answered with great precision. When asked why he came he answered:

"To let the world know that Oscar Wilde is not dead. His thoughts live on in the hearts of all those who in a gross age can hear the flute voice of beauty calling on the hills, or mark where her white feet brush the dew from the cowslips in the morning. Now the mere memory of the beauty of the world is an exquisite pain. I was always one of those for whom the visible world existed. I worshipped at the shrine of things seen. There was not a blood stripe on a tulip, or a curve on a shell, or a tone on the sea but had for me its meaning and its mystery, and its appeal to the imagination. Others might sip the pale lees of the cup of thought, but for me the red wine of life."

This also is beautiful and rare literary work. If an artist can tell a Rubens by its coloring, or a sculptor can assign an ancient statue to Phidias, then I claim that a man with an adequate sense of the rhythm of good prose can ascribe these fine extracts to Wilde and to no one else. His hallmark is stamped upon them for all the world to see, and when it ceases to turn away its head it will see it clearly enough. Immersed in trivialities, it seems to have no leisure at present for the great questions of life and of death.

These two beautiful passages, and several others almost as fine, came in a single sitting on June 8th, 1923, and were produced by Mr. Soal writing, while Mrs. Dowden laid her hand upon his. In many forms of mediumship it is to be observed that the blending of two human atmospheres produces finer results than either alone can get.

The cynical humor of Wilde, and a certain mental arrogance which was characteristic, breaks out in these passages:—

"Being dead is the most boring experience in life. That is if one excepts being married or dining with a schoolmaster."

Again, being dissatisfied with one of his own images, he writes: "Stop! Stop! This image is insufferable. You write like a successful grocer who, from selling pork, has taken to writing poetry".

When someone alluded to an occasion when Whistler had scored him off, he wrote: "With James vulgarity always begins at home".

Again, "I do not wish to burden you with details of my life, which was like a candle that had guttered at the end. I rather wish to make you believe that I was the medium through which beauty filtered, and was distilled like the essence of a rose".

Now and again there are passages of intense interest to an instructed Spiritualist which give a glimpse of the exact sphere upon which Wilde is moving, and the reasons which retard his progress and subject him to those limitations which draw from him the constant exclamation of "Pity Oscar Wilde!" His pictures of earth are a reminiscence, and his witty, cynical chatter is a mere screen. The real bitterness of his experience, a bitterness which might, I think, have been assuaged by some sympathy and instruction from this side, flashes out in occasional passages which vibrate with his emotion.

"I am a wanderer. Over the whole world I have wandered, looking for eyes by which I may see. At times it is given to me to pierce this strange veil of darkness, and through eyes from which my secret must be forever hidden gaze once more on the gracious day."

This would mean, in our language, that from time to time, being earth-bound, he has been able to take control of a medium, and so get into-touch with physical things once more. His troubles come from the desire to struggle down rather than up. He has found strangely assorted mediums.

"I have found sight in the most curious places. Through the eyes out of the dusky face of a Tamal girl I have looked on the tea fields of Ceylon, and through the eyes of a wandering Kurd I have seen Ararat... Once on a pleasure steamer on its way to St. Cloud I saw the green waters of the Seine and the lights of Paris through the vision of a little girl, who clung wondering to her mother and wondered why."

What rational explanation can be given for such messages save the Spiritualistic one? They are there. Whence come they? Are they the unconscious cerebration of Mr. Soal? But many of them have come when that gentleman was not present, so this explanation is ruled out. Are they, then, an emanation of Mrs. Dowden? But they have come in full strength and beauty when her hands have not been on the ouija board, but have simply touched those of Mr. Soal. What, then, is the alternative explanation? I confess that I can see none. Can anyone contend that both Mr. Soal and Mrs. Dowden have a hidden strand in their own personality which enables them on occasion to write like a great deceased writer, and at the same time a want of conscience which permits that subconscious strand actually to claim that it is the deceased author? Such an explanation would seem infinitely more unlikely than any transcendental one can be.

The case might be made fairly convincing on the question of style alone. But there is much more in it than that. The actual writing, which was done at a speed which forbids conscious imitation, is often the handwriting of Wilde, and reproduces certain curious little tricks of spacing which were usual with him in life. He alludes freely to all sorts of episodes, many of them little known, which have been shown to be actual facts. He gives criticisms of authors with a sure, but rather unkind, touch, where the medium has little or no acquaintance with the writings criticized. He alludes to people whom he has known in life with the utmost facility. In the case of one, Mrs. Chan Toon, the name was so unlikely that it seemed to me that there must be some mistake. As if to resolve my doubts a letter reached me presently from the very lady herself.

To sum up, I do not think that any person who approaches this problem with an open mind can doubt that the case for Wilde's survival and communication is an overpoweringly strong one. A subsequent correspondence showed, it is true, that Mr. Soal had a comprehensive knowledge of Wilde's life and work, but that would rather give a reason for Wilde's attraction to the circle, and in no way touches the wonderful literary production.

We now turn to a third case — that of Jack London. Here, again, we are dealing with an author who had such a marked individuality and such a strong explosive method of expression that any imitation should be readily detected. The collector of the evidence is Edward Payne, who died soon after his task was completed. He was a man of considerable attainments, a close friend of London's in his lifetime, and not a Spiritualist, so we have the material for a very instructed and unprejudiced opinion. The messages came to him through a lady who has a public career, and, therefore, desires to remain anonymous. Mr. Payne answers for her bona fides and assures us she was not a professional medium, that she was a woman of considerable culture, and that she was a convinced materialist, so that no strand of her own nature, so far as can be traced, is concerned in producing messages which are in their very nature the strongest indictment of materialism that could be framed.

The messages assume two forms, the one quite unconvincing, the other most powerful. The former is an attempt at a work of fiction which was an utter failure. The fact that London could not get his story of worldly life across, and yet was most convincing in discussing his own actual condition, must make us the more charitable towards the Dickens medium. It is clear that he was attempting the most difficult of all forms of communication, a long connected narrative with characters and plot.

If London had relied upon his transmitted fiction alone he would have been deservedly set down as an impostor. But when he comes to draw not others, but himself, he is much more convincing. Apparently he was much worried after death by finding everything entirely different from anything he had expected, though if he and other materialists would deign to listen to the poor despised Spiritualists they would save themselves all such shocks, the effects of which endure often for many years.

Instead of loss of personality he found himself, like Wilde, in a mist or haze — a reflection of his own perplexed mind — with a body and mind as before, the perceptions being more acute than on earth. He quickly was forced to realize that all his teaching had been utterly wrong, that he had done harm by it, and that his immediate task was to get back if he could and set the matter right. This getting back is no easy task. The right vibration has to be found, and it is far to seek. But London was not a man to be repulsed. He found his vibration and he delivered his message.

Here are some of the communications which seem to me to bear the stamp of the man on every line of them.

"I am going to try. Trying is the life of me. Ask Aunt Netta if it is Jack who speaks that."

"Here I am alive, feeling myself to be myself, yet nothing I say or write can identify me to those who know me best."

"Death has taught me what earth held from me. My spirit is plunging forward with more vigor than wisdom, as in my earth days. But I know now the way and the life. Oh, I have much, much, that I must undo."

He sends a long connected communication which is an essay in itself, headed "What Life means to me now". In it he says, "I am a soul — a living Soul. I followed the lost trail of materialism, and sickened in the foul mists of error". The whole composition, which is too long for quotation, is most powerful, and might serve as a warning from the grave to those millions who so heedlessly tread the very path which led London to his misery.

"My soul, though I knew it not, was dyspeptic with the materialistic fodder I crammed into it... Death caught me unawares. He snapped me up when my face was not turned his way. I almost regret this. I believe it made my transition the harder.

"I awoke. Dreaming? I was sure of it. I dreamed on and on. I dreamed myself into eternity. I am vague. I was vague to myself. My powers returned. I could think. I hailed my old brain like a returned friend. I fumbled and groped. My earth blindness was on me. It hazed me about. I fought my way through it. I had no goal. I had passed the only goal I had ever admitted.I was on the other side of it. I struggle to seize the correct term. I try vainly to translate the experience into terms of earth which has no utterance for it.

"I died. I am looking at death from the other side — the tame, friendly side of him. And Life is indestructible... I see man face his destiny as I saw him on earth. I see him fall. I see him rise again and go on. He fights his way, and when his place is ready here he comes. There are no catastrophes. All is in order.

"I am a stranger to this tongue. I am but learning to speak. What faculty I possessed on earth is disrupted by a condition it was never trained to meet. I shall strive to re-establish it, and then I shall speak, and, friends of earth, you shall recognize my voice."

These short, strong, pregnant sentences are Jack London at his best. As in the case of Wilde, his posthumous work will bear comparison with anything he has done in life.

He has a horror of his old point of view.

"That which was my truth of yesterday, which I hugged to me as the quintessence of my distilled thought, becomes a volatile poison to me here, and I must... distil a new thought out of the fires of my previous experience, and by this thought shall I rise. Renaissance of soul is a labor shot with pains of remembrance, held by fetters of past error which are burst with a sweated toil while the heart strains with its propulsion... I feel that I have got right with God — I am no longer worshipping myself."

When asked what specific work he was doing, he answered, "I have to direct those lost or bewildered, as I was when I came. I labor to show them the way I would not take".

These last words seem to me to mark the beginning of Jack London's regeneration. He understands that his work is impersonal, unselfish and humble. Before that he had wished to reassert himself on the old earth terms, and the realization that he could not do so was a bitter one. He kicked hard against the pricks. "God! I am annihilated!" he cried; "my earth life is stamped out, blotted from time by this passage. I can't puzzle it out. My hand fumbles. Did Death rob me as I passed through his clutch? Did he steal the face of me that those who knew me see me strange, feeble, pitiful? Who or what has cut the tap root of my power? I am befogged."

The child still cried for its toys and refused to understand that it had left the nursery.But it cries in a voice that is familiar. The man himself never spoke in such a vital strain as does his ghost. He ends at last on the note that he is not to look back and that the future only should concern him. "The messages," he said, "come from Jack London, the damned soul, struggling out of his own hell of materialization." But there was light ahead. He had but to persevere. "I am a soldier of the eternal march." Who but Jack London would have written those words? He winds up: "What is more important than to let the world know I am busy undoing what mischief I did". Alas, Jack, the world is too busy with its games and its pleasures, too immersed in its wooden creeds and its petrified religions, to give ear to what you have learned. They, like you, will only realize when it is too late.

It may be gathered from the above that I accept Jack London's return as being a genuine one. I can see no other possible conclusion. The message is there, and it is easier to account for it by the return of London's activities to this sphere, than to torture the theory of multiple personality or subconscious activity until it is twisted to cover a case which is so much beyond its limits.

To sum up, therefore, I conclude that the cases of Wilde and of London are as complete and absolute as can possibly be obtained by such means. As to Dickens, I am content to say that it is far from final, but that it is worthy of respectful consideration. The cumulative force of the three cases is overpowering, and it is just that question of cumulative force which the opponents of our psychic explanations invariably disregard. Each case, and each witness, is treated as if he, or it, stood alone in some strange assertion which had no support or corroboration. It is only when a Bozzano or Flammarion musters his cases by the consecutive hundred that one can realize the full force of what is still called a hypothesis, but has long been a demonstration.