My father's acquaintance and correspondence with Mme. Blavatsky came about in this way. On July 15th, 1874, my sister died, my father's only daughter, and the blow to him was very great. In the religion of the Churches he found no comfort, and he turned to spiritualism for some sign and assurance of the continued existence of his child. In the end he believed that this sign had come to him, and the assurance of his daughter's continued life became very strong. The literature of spiritualism which had grown by leaps and bounds from the time of the "Rochester Knockings," appealed to him as well as his own experience in the seance room. It was all a great comfort to him, a comfort which grew with the years when he most needed it, and which culminated in the publication of his Spirit Messages.
H.P.B.'s* appearance in this country first became generally known after her visit to the Eddy brothers in Chittenden, Vermont, when she published her experiences at the seances of these mediums. Olcott first met her there, and his graphic description of this meeting became good copy for the newspapers. In an article in The New York Graphic she attacked Dr. Beard for his article against the Eddy brothers as mere frauds and tricksters. This brought her more publicity, and my father wrote to her to find out the real state of affairs, and evidently to learn more about this remarkable woman. It would have been interesting to see my father's letters to her, but the general character of them can be partly gleaned from her letters.
*It has been the custom to speak of Madame Blavatsky by her initials H.P.B., and I think this custom advisable here.
Her letters, always interesting and voluminous, had so increased his interest in her, that he and my mother invited her to be their guest at their home in Ithaca. My father at that time was professor of Anglo-Saxon and English literature at Cornell University, and had been there since 1870. He was a fine scholar, of wide interests, and had become a great authority and teacher, and especially on English poetry, a reputation which was to grow with the years, and which was to make him a great figure and personality in the University. My mother, who was French, herself a fine scholar of the most varied interests, became interested in spiritualism in a moderate way only; it never possessed her as it did my father. She had accepted the loss of her daughter with great composure and resignation, and her interest in H.P.B. was more in the woman herself than in her doctrines and mission. My mother, however, was not interested in occultism; on the contrary, she was greatly opposed to it, and we have a direct proof of this in the way she received the precipitated portrait of my sister.
My mother afterwards entered the Catholic Church, where she found great peace and comfort. She died in 1901 at the convent in Rochester, where she was in the habit of going at odd times for rest and retreat.
While H.P.B. left our home for New York after a visit of a month, outwardly friendly on my parents' part, and certainly friendly on H.P.B.'s, I think there was an unexpressed feeling of constraint. This did not interfere with some correspondence between them after H.P.B.'s return to New York and the founding of the Theosophical Society. In one letter she states that she had written three times without receiving an answer, and wonders if they are displeased with her.
Unless one were in full sympathy with the doctrines and teachings of this marvellous woman, her cyclonic temperament, her disregard of many of the conventions of ordinary life, and the many hours she spent writing at her desk, practically the whole day and half the night, precluded her from taking any part in the everyday life about her, or showing any interest in anything outside the one vital interest in her absorbing subject; and while my parents were wholly absorbed in their literary work, they still took a very active part in the society of the University and in its general interests, and may have felt that H.P.B. could at least for a little while have given a part of her time to the life of the University about her. She may have realized she had only sixteen years longer to live, and that she had an immense work before her. She seemed to be working against time; all else was nothing to her; she would have none of it.
To explain more fully the letters I must consider at some length the estrangement, temporary at least, between her and my father.
The founding of the Theosophical Society was of course conceived and accomplished by H.P.B.; her great mind and personality made it a going concern throughout her life, stormy as that life was destined to be. Even after her death her followers have continued the movement with almost equal energy and success. I have not kept in touch with this movement, and do not know really its exact status today. The entrance of Mrs. Annie Besant into the Society was a large factor in its continued existence; and I must not forget the heroic and successful efforts of Colonel Olcott. Her fine mind and her gracious personality, her extensive knowledge gained from personal contact with H.P.B., and her full sympathy with her teachings, made her work of great influence in all the branches of the Society.
H.P.B.'s selection of Olcott as her co-worker was a large part of the success of the Society in the first ten years of its existence. Yet in the first three years, up to the departure of its founders for India, the Society gave little promise of its future prominence. In 1877 Isis Unveiled was published, and was at once recognized by the public as a striking manifesto of the aims of the Society. It had, in spite of its many defects from a literary standpoint, an unmistakable power of attraction to a subject which was practically unknown to the general public.
The first great mistake that the Society made, and which was probably its greatest mistake throughout its history, was its pronounced antagonism to spiritualism as it was at that time constituted both in this country and in England.
There has been an immense progress since that time in the literature, in the character of the phenomena, and in a more critical attitude towards the investigation of the entire field of psychical research. The mental attitude was saner, and the character of the investigators was better, although there were some great minds associated with the early history of the movement. I am free to admit that the attitude of the Theosophical Society may have had an influence in this improvement. Yet the manner of the opposition, and the introduction of features which were objectionable, if not repulsive at the time, and which were not really necessary, did much to throw discredit on both spiritualism and the Theosophical Society itself. Olcott stressed this opposition in his inaugural address, and there was at once a great reaction, an uproar from the entire body of spiritualists, and from the press generally a biting ridicule. In a cartoon in The Chronicle Olcott is represented on a stage spouting his address, his left hand pointing in the air to some phantom philosopher, and his right hand pointing to "embryonic commissioners," while in front of him stand an audience up to the footlights listening with astonished faces to his outpourings of warnings against the dangers of the seance room.
Under this a quotation from his address reads: "Some of the influences which come through mediums are due to the spirits of departed human beings; some to embryonic men, foetuses waiting in the womb of our common mother to be born upon this sphere."
I found among my father's papers an Olcott letter to H.P.B., dated September 25th, 1875. In this he writes: "I hope you were at my lecture last night, for it was fit to make you die of laughter to see how I pitched into the spirits and elementaries. I mounted the highest hill I could find — so to speak — and waved the sacred banner of the Lodge in their faces. I felt the Brethren there several times. A nice lady friend of Jackson Davis's came up to me after the lecture and mournfully said: 'Colonel, you have given spiritualism its death-blow to-night.' Sothern says it was the boldest speech he ever heard or read about, and he would have talked all night of the glorious event as he calls it. The enclosed report from The Sun is very meagre and stupid. Judge Westbrook said if I would print the speech he would take one hundred copies. . . . Things are red-hot here, I tell you. Thank God I have lived long enough to sound the trumpet once for the holy Lodge." I think we may forgive the mistakes of Olcott's early enthusiasm; it was at least genuine.
All of this effervescence was ill-advised at that time. In Old Diary Leaves Olcott writes, speaking of his inaugural: "Yet it reads a bit foolish after seventeen years of hard experience." He had become a saner and a wiser man.
Now this was not all Olcott, of course; H.P.B. had much to do with it. Both in her spoken word and in her writings she continually stressed the point of the danger of the ordinary seance except under the most rigid conditions of the medium, and the manner of the proceedings. We must admit that the modern critical attitude and methods of psychical research are along the same lines of her caution and warnings.
The idea of the elementals, of undeveloped spirits, of gnomes and sprites and cobalds — the fairies of the mines and woods — was not only not accepted by the great majority of people, but was unacceptable. These half-human or non-human spirits were considered simply as the hallucinations of a disordered mind, even if described in the ancient tongues or mediaeval Latin. Official science, and even psychical research societies, were still more defiant of this form of demonology.
H.P.B. in her attacks upon the materialism of the day did not hesitate to quote from the ancient and mediaeval writers in support of these spirit entities. Her books are full of these quotations; full of her subject and eager to refute her opponents she adduced these records as arguments in support of her thesis; attacking fanaticism in the Churches in philosophy, and in the sciences, she failed to see that she was herself a fanatic. The word has lost its noble original meaning and has come to be a term of reproach.
As a matter of fact, the fanatic has come to have a very important function in the world's work and progress, and we owe much to this so-called "insane enthusiasm"; it reaches heights which the cool-headed moderate fails to reach. The great thing is to apply this enthusiasm at the right time, in the right place, and on the right occasion, when it may work wonders.
In her early letters she repeatedly emphasized the fact, that while she was a spiritualist it was not in the modern sense but in that of the occultist. My father should have kept this ever in mind. In the reaction following Olcott's address he sided with the body of the spiritualists and hastily accused H.P.B., and even of imposture. He so wrote to the Banner of Light a sharp attack on the Theosophical Society. So much for running counter to one's religious feelings!
As H.P.B. before the founding of the Society had taken a most active part in the examination of mediums and in the investigation of their phenomena, and having pronounced certain mediums as genuine, and bitterly and publicly attacked those she regarded as frauds, she was classed by the public as an ordinary spiritualist, and quite naturally so, before she had publicly stated her exact position. She was bitterly opposed to the materialism of the day, and looked upon the genuine phenomena of the seance room, even with their limitations, as a stepping-stone to a higher spiritualism and occultism, where the phenomena in every form she declared could be produced by the conscious will-power of the adept who had learned some of the deeper secrets of the laws of both matter and spirit. I therefore feel that the criticism and abuse heaped on her as a renegade, as simply following the line of least resistance, utterly false; these letters, I think, show this. My father was quite too hasty in his revulsion of feeling; he later realized it and was quite willing to admit it. His sorrow and his state of mind at the time may well explain the error he had fallen into. Her future detractors and defamers who claimed that she had jumped from the spirit "John King" and the elementals to the "Master," the Adept of the East, to suit the exigencies of the time and her own profit, were absolutely mistaken and did her a grevious wrong. Even with her absolute faith and confidence in her "Master," she still admitted the help of the elementals in some of her phenomena. This is shown very clearly in her New York letter alluding to the precipitated portrait of my sister.
My father followed the future history of the Theosophical Society with great interest; he bought H.P.B.'s books as well as a number of works which were the direct outcome of the Society in India.