The Paris Review blog notes a recent feature on five books dictated from beyond the grave, with the remark, “Dead Mark Twain was especially prolific,” which is true enough as it goes–though certainly Twain was not the only restless author to seek creative outlet from beyond the veil. Certainly, O. Henry, one of Twain’s latter day rivals in the realm of popular fiction and no stranger to writing for easy money, must have decided that the success of Jap Herron had proven the market could absorb fresh material even when the author found himself where moth and rust could no longer corrupt his royalties, since the in the following year he produced (with the apparent help of Valta Parma) My Tussle with the Devil and Other Stories by O. Henry’s Ghost (New York 1918).
While Parma may have been spoofing this minor spiritualist literary craze, other authors maintained their seriousness of purpose. The same year O. Henry published his putative collection, the medium Sarah Taylor Shatford pulled out her own Ouija board and established contact with William Shakespeare himself. An original work by Shakespeare of course deserves wider circulation, and Shatford published on his behalf the quite credibly-titled Shakespeare’s Revelations by Shakespeare’s Spirit: Through the medium of his pen Sarah Shatford Taylor dictated exactly as herein found. No illiteracies, no obliterations, chargeable to the Medium. My hand and seal hereon. W. S. In spirit (New York: Torch Press, 1919). As the Bard himself therein notes,
To pettifoggers who declaim and spume at length a mess of balderdash to befuddle the seeker of truth, proclaiming no advance where worlds divide, I say, who spell through her these lines, Avaunt dissembler: you who know the truth and lie to shield your muggy braincells under a cloak of Science, you fool not any but yourself.
I would suggest that the only contemporary rival for eccentricity in Shakespeare studies that this title might find is Phillip Samuels’ Man v’ Ape in the Play of Ear-Ce-Rammed (Boston: Samuels-Bacon, ‘sam ls-ot, 1933), in which Samuels deploys a numeric cipher on the text of Hamlet to prove that Francis Bacon had prophesied the coming of Philip Samuels as the incarnation of Jehovah who will lead the Jews to an independent state in Palestine–though as this falls outside the scope of this survey, I mention it only in passing.
Of course, other great poets seem content with the obscurity of death and venture forth only to do a favor for a fellow student of the muse. Poet George Cathcart Bronson published in 1920 his 73-page epic poem Flow’r-of-the-Mist; in a coup any publicist might envy, Bronson managed to include in this slim volume favorable notices from two champions of the craft, with a few commendatory words from the deceased poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox, as well as both a foreword and an afterword from that champion of the vernacular himself, Dante–who notes in part “This is such a statement as should preface your ‘Mist Flower’; says this one writing: Mist Flower Now!”
But the literary realm is not the only one to have produced notable posthumous authors. C. A. Dawson Scott published Is This Wilson? with the reputable house Dutton in 1929, and among the messages dictated to her by the late President Woodrow Wilson was his assurance that even after death, he “has a good time, so he says, and is delighted to have got rid of an ailing body and to be able to go on in pursuit of knowledge without the impediment of flesh.”
Forceful statesmen of course had always been impatient with the arbitrary separation of the planes. George Washington delivers a message in Abraham P. Pierce’s The Revelator (Bangor, Maine, 1857) and Pierce–who had been a dragoon in the Mexican War–vouches for its authenticity as characteristic of a military genius like Washington. And while it isn’t a literary contribution, it is worth remembering that the Great Emancipator himself chose to reveal himself posthumously in a photo snapped by the famed spirit photographer William Mumler.
But aside from some additional scattered works from dead Methodist bishops who have changed their tune on Spiritualism (Gilbert Haven’s posthumous Immortality Demonstrated. Appeals to Methodists, Springfield, Mass.: Star Publishing Co., 1890) or scientists who underwent a similar change of heart after their demise and now can offer proof of a sort (Michael Faraday’s Dissolution or Physical Death, and How Spirit Chemists Produce Materialization, also Star Publishing, 1887), perhaps the greatest collection of writings from great authors and statesmen from beyond the grave was collected by the forgotten genius, Estonian nobleman Louis, baron de Guldenstubbe.
Guldenstubbe, realizing from his first tentative experiments with spirit writing that establishing the authorship of most spirit messages was problematic at best, hit upon the idea of depositing paper and pens at the feet of statues and the tombs of historical figures around Paris; his efforts were rewarded by hundreds of responses–all appropriate to the monument selected and (to further bolster Guldenstubbe’s arguments) all written in the native language of the subject in question. He collected his responses in Pneumatologie Positive et Experimentale. La Realite des Esprits et le Phenomene Merveilleux de leur Ecriture Directe (Paris, 1857), a splendid little volume that includes 15 folding plates of lithograph facsimiles of spirit writing collected by Guldenstubbe, boasting examples from such figures as Caesar, Cervantes, and Juvenal, as well as magic symbols and Greek inscriptions collected at the feet of classic statues.
This quick survey has of course been composed in haste and cobbled together with such examples as I’ve had to hand over the years. I have left aside nearly completely such sub-genres as the question of interplanetary travel via spiritual means, as with Sarah Weiss’s account Journeys to the Planet Mars; or, Our Mission to Ento (Mars) (New York, 1903 & Rochester, 1905) and this genre’s descent through such earlier Swedenborgian-inspired titles as Mrs. Thomazine Elizabeth Wilkins’ delightful little children’s book Lessons for Children of the New Church (Boston, 1837) in which she teaches her Sunday school charges that the inhabitants of Jupiter “have a peculiar way of walking. They bend forward, and spread out their hands, almost like persons swimming, and appear to help themselves along with their hands. Their houses are low, and constructed of wood; but within they are coated over with bark, of a pale blue color.”
One suspects of course that the horrors of the Great War had awakened interest in communication with the dead (see for instance A. Conan Doyle) but the subject of course is a rich one and speaks to our uneasy fascination with creativity and death and that lovely and undervalued literary quality we might know as wackiness. Though easy enough to dismiss out of hand, perhaps it is best to remember this note from H. H. Furness (with my added emphasis) in the report of the famed Seybert Commission investigation of Spiritualism published in 1887, where he concludes that although “I have been thus thwarted at every turn in my investigations of Spiritualism, and found fraud where I had looked for honesty, and emptiness where I had hoped for fulness, I cannot think it right to pass a verdict, universal in its application.”
Updated to add: I had forgotten the pseudonymous author of They Didn’t Believe Me! The Story of a Miracle Voice by Jessica (New York: Pageant Press, 1958), whose variation on the themes above was the fact that in 1937 she was suddenly blessed with the ability to channel the voice of the departed Dame Nellie Melba. Once this blessing had been bestowed, she was of course obliged to begin her wearisome round of correspondence and visits to musical authorities, psychic researchers and various clergymen, newspaper editors and academics to press her claims in the face of near universal skepticism. The author was also subject to dark premonitions;she recounts one instance of an attempt to warn a musical colleague of imminent danger:
I spoke to her secretary on the phone. She was very antagonistic and said Miss Moore [opera singer Grace Moore] was in Europe, and ‘weren’t we all in danger all the time?’ She also confessed that all those letters written over a period of years had never reached Miss Moore.