Alexander Wilder Blog Elbert Benjamine Emma Hardinge Britten Genevieve Stebbins Norman Astley Sarah Stanley Grimké Thomas H. Burgoyne

Fact and Fiction in Occult History

The boundaries between fiction and non-fiction are often physical, as in separate sections of public libraries and bookstores. But in the world of occult literature the borders are indistinct between historical novels, authentic memoirs, and fictionalized autobiographies. Most interesting to me are authors who alternate between the genres. Emma Hardinge Britten and Mme. Blavatsky both wrote fiction that was claimed to be non-fiction (Ghost Land, the Mahatma Letters) and non-fiction that discussed some of the same people under their real names (Nineteenth Century Miracles, The Durbar in Lahore.) This has caused endless confusion among Spiritualists and Theosophists, along the same lines as legendary histories of Masonic and Rosicrucian orders. 

27 footnotes were added to the new edition of Tom Clark and His Wife, because Paschal Beverly Randolph’s Rosicrucian novel is full of literary quotes, geographical information about places the author had visited, and historical detail about then-current events during the Civil War and famous people involved in them. All these require explanation to be understood by contemporary readers. Several editions are already in print but none offers any editorial content giving historical context for the 161 year old book.

Sarah Stanley Grimke and Alexander Wilder are finally getting some notice from readers and have good prospects for increasing recognition, thanks to the editorial labors of Patrick Bowen and Ronnie Pontiac respectively as well as my own. Genevieve Stebbins has had considerably more recent scholarly attention, and the new edition of Quest of the Spirit has more new information about her life and partnership with Norman Astley than has ever appeared in print.  Thomas H. Burgoyne and Hurrychund Chintamon were targeted in recent books with outright defamation based on 19th century libels, whereas Grimke and Wilder have been unjustly ignored and forgotten.  The only way to counteract misinformation and disinformation about forgotten authors is to let them speak for themselves to modern readers, which has been the motive for publishing them in new editions. 

Discussion of esoteric groups’ history is frequently distorted by two opposing forces. Propaganda is defined by Oxford Language as “Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.” Polemics are defined by the same source as “a speech or piece of writing expressing a strongly critical attack on or controversial opinion about someone or something.” Neither correlates with historical reliability which requires a more neutral and objective tone to be credible.