For the last eighteen months I have been working as co-editor for a book project that resulted from an astonishing treasure trove of letters, almost all from the 1880s, rediscovered in 2013 and soon to be published. Patrick D. Bowen, Ph.D., the lead editor, tells the story of the Thomas Moore Johnson correspondence in a new blog post. He had become interested in the Johnson Library and Museum in Osceola, MO in hopes that its collections might shed light on his research on the early history of conversion to Islam in America. At the same time I had become aware of the library/museum, and was planning to visit in search of evidence about the relationship of Sarah Stanley Grimke to the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. Neither of us found much of what we had originally sought, and I was unable to make the trip to Missouri at all, but a serendipitous development led to an unforeseen collaboration. The Johnson family unearthed several hundred letters written to their distinguished ancestor by a diverse array of individuals, many of them literati, and placed them in the temporary custody of Missouri State University for preservation. Patrick traveled to Springfield to examine the letters, and was so struck by their value that he requested and obtained permission to edit them for publication. When Marc Demarest of the Typhon Press agreed to publish the letters, I volunteered to assist Patrick with transcribing and annotating them, as well as with mini-biographies of the correspondents. The subsequent collaboration has been richly educational and I feel honored to have participated in the project. Patrick’s 78 page introduction to the first volume is entirely his own work and an impressive feat of scholarship.
During the period of this correspondence, Johnson was a leading figure in the Theosophical Society and then in the H.B. of L., and the letters he received from the members of these two groups are a uniquely revealing time capsule. The import of this correspondence for Theosophical history is evident in many prominent T.S. names among the 48 letter writers, for example Olcott, Judge, and Mead. However, Johnson’s most informative and extensive lettters from a Theosophist were from Elliott B. Page, a heretofore little-known leader of the St. Louis Lodge. More than half of Johnson’s correspondents were associated with the H.B. of L., the best known among these being T.H. Burgoyne and Henry Wagner. But the most informative correspondent of all was the heretofore unknown Silas H. Randall, a Cincinnati inventor whose reading interests were as diverse and sophisticated as those of Johnson himself. The 48 authors of Letters to the Sage: Thomas Moore Johnson Selected Correspondence, Volume I: The Esotericists are a diverse cross-section of 19th century esotericism– Rosicrucians, Spiritualists, Platonists, and enthusiasts of Tarot and Mind Cure along with Hermeticists and Theosophists, and even a Hindu yogi and a Muslim novelist from India.
Editing a reprint of Grimke’s Esoteric Lessons has proceeded simultaneously with working on the Johnson correspondence, and the research has been greatly enhanced by all the new information on the American members of the Brotherhood. The second volume of Johnson correspondence, to appear in 2017, will consist almost entirely of letters from Alexander Wilder. Here the subject matter has less to do with organizational than literary shared interests, as Wilder was among Johnson’s closest allies in the world of American Platonism. Wilder, Johnson, and Grimke were all acquaintances and admirers of Bronson Alcott, so my recent Mary Baker Eddy Library research on Transcendentalism was relevant to all three forthcoming books. More will be reported on the first volume of Johnson letters when the book is available this spring.