On July 8th 1913, after months of experimentation, a St. Louis housewife named Pearl Curran finally had a breakthrough with her Ouija board. From this initial correspondence, Pearl Curran wrote (or depending on your perspective, transcribed) millions of words she attributed to a seventeenth-century poet who called herself Patience Worth. Historical novels, religious tracts, and lyric poems were published and embraced by mainstream scholars as authentic examples of early American literature mediated from beyond the grave. The figure of Patience Worth was commended as an exemplary writer by organizations such as the Joint Committee of Literary Arts of New York. She was included in journals alongside such future canonical authors as Edna St. Vincent Millay and she appeared in collections such as the Anthology of Magazine Writing and the Yearbook of American Poetry. All the more amazingly, readers and critics agreed that this was new work by a woman who claimed to have been dead for more two and a half centuries.
These writings were either authentic documents that provided astounding evidence of humanity’s survival after death, or an intricate and impressive hoax that hoodwinked scholars, critics, and editors. There is also another possibility, that these works were the improvisational literary productions of a prodigy who believed herself to be a conduit of some muse from the hereafter. Questions of authorship and intention aside, what remains are the books, plays and poems – once popular literature, and now forgotten. Curran’s output prompts us to ask some fundamental questions about history, genre, intention, affect, authorship, and why we choose to read what we read. Furthermore, her writings are a fascinating curio of an era in American literary history when academics and quacks, the rational and the occult, scholarship and magic all mingled together in popular discourse.
Pearl Curran was born in 1883, towards the end of a century that saw the national landscape and the Unites States’ position in the world radically altered. She and her audience were inheritors of the sometimes bizarre religious diversity of the American nineteenth century. It was a century that began with the religious anarchism of the Second Great Awakening, was defined by an apocalyptic Civil War, and which moved into the bourgeois and respectable spiritualism of the late Victorian era. Occult experimentation was embraced by leading thinkers and writers like William James who with other leading scientists founded the American Society for Psychical Research. Curran was enmeshed in a culture of esoterica that she would have encountered during a Victorian adolescence. And the figure of Patience Worth “revealed” herself at a perfect time, just as the rising international power that was the United States began to critically re-evaluate its seventeenth century Puritan origins.
Although we do not need to explain such a prolific career framed in such a bizarre manner by suggesting that Patience Worth was a real person, there exists the possibility that Curran understood authorship in a more unconventional way than the wider culture frequently does. Between the possibilities of Patience Worth’s reality and Pearl Curran’s duplicity there exists a third option: that Pearl Curran transcribed these works believing Patience Worth to be real, a creation of her own mind communicating these words back to her. An internal muse if you will, whose existence serves to reevaluate the simple individual models of authorship we conventionally hold to. As such, her corpus provides an occasion for thinking about where inspiration comes from, how authors generate their writings, and the ways in which something as seemingly well understood as writing still contains a kernel of mystery at its core.
Adapted from Ed Simon, Ghostwriter and Ghost: The Strange Case of Pearl Curran & Patience Worth @ 2014 by The Public Domain Review.
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