The Rochester Review, University of Rochester, Rochester, New York, USA
Hester Dowden, an early 20th-century writer who claimed that her words were dictated by the famed departed, once passed on this posthumous comment from Oscar Wilde:
Hester Dowden: Cummins's mentor, she produced posthumous communications from Oscar Wilde and some "Shakespearean" plays.
"Being dead," he reported, "is the most boring experience in life. That is, if one excepts being married or dining with a schoolmaster."
Publication of this and other similarly received mots from the Irish wit brought his amanuensis brief fame in 1924, at a period when this type of literary communication was flourishing in Britain.
Hester Dowden was one of a number of middle-class women who achieved status as an author via the unorthodox route of automatic writing, in which a medium acts as scribe for a long-gone literary or historical figure who might still have something to say.
Although mediums worked in a variety of ways, the general principles were pretty much the same, says literary scholar Bette London, an associate professor of English at Rochester who has written a book on unconventional writing practices.
Generally, it worked like this:
Pencil in hand, the medium would go into a state of semi-trance. Feeling her hand moving as of its own volition, she would find herself producing page after page of script--frequently so rapidly that the words would run together and right off the end of the page. Indeed, assistants, rather like pianists' page-turners, often supplied new sheets of paper as they were needed.
More often than not, a medium would be unaware of what she was writing even as her hand produced the words, retaining no memory of the text until it was shown to her later. "I feel like a secretary automatically recording words from dictation," one such psychic, the novelist Geraldine Cummins, said. (These women nonetheless managed to put their own stamp on the messages they communicated, London notes, lending something of themselves to the style and phrasing.)
Although mediums occasionally produced automatic writings when they were alone, more often they worked in the company of others. Among those present might be the "sitter"--a person trying to contact the dead who, in effect, hires the medium to receive messages for him. Psychic investigators from groups like the Society for Psychical Research were also frequently in attendance, on the scene to determine the integrity of the medium and verify the truth of the communication.
Sometimes two mediums would work together, one holding the pencil and the second touching the other's hands, as if to help transfer psychic energy. Some mediums used a ouija board, placing their hands on a "traveler" that moves across a board and successively points to specific letters of the alphabet; in such cases, an assistant would serve as recording secretary, transcribing the words as the medium spelled them out.
London tells of Dowden's friend and fellow medium, the aforementioned novelist Geraldine Cummins, whose literary output scarcely raised a ripple when she was writing on her own. Like most women of her time, she had received limited formal education and seen little of the world, all of which restricted the reach of her fiction. When she wrote as a medium, however--on subjects it would appear that she otherwise knew nothing about--the words "just flowed."
"Cummins wrote eight volumes based on topics she didn't even enjoy," London says. Much of this was scholarly material, apocryphal writings in the words of Cleophas, an early Christian who lived during the first century A.D. Essential components of this work were the teachings of Paul, which Cummins disliked because of his views on women, and Jewish history and theology, of which she was generally ignorant. But none of that, London observes, "kept her from writing with great intensity."
Women like Dowden and Cummins were taken seriously by many of the intellectual giants of the time and moved in literary circles that included august figures like James Joyce, "A. E." (George W. Russell), H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, and W. B. Yeats.
Doctors, lawyers, clergymen, and university professors commented on the accuracy of the information that appeared in their writings. Among those who observed Cummins in the production of her Scripts of Cleophas, were, she reported, "three members of the medical profession, two Fellows of the Royal College of Physicians (Ireland), a Doctor of Law, a Doctor of Philosophy, three Doctors of Divinity, ten clergymen, a well-known historical scholar, the editor of a literary monthly, journalists, a sculptor, novelists, and representatives of English and American Societies for Psychical Research, including the late Dr. W. Franklin Prince."
The place in mainstream life of women like Dowden and Cummins, widely accepted at the time, is hard to imagine today, when psychic ruminations are generally relegated to an intellectual Never- Never Land. "Many people did indeed think these earlier women were crazy, but they actually got a lot of serious people not to dismiss them," London says.
Ask the professor how she herself feels about the authenticity of their other-worldly messages, and she is quick to respond that making this judgment was not the point of her research. (Still, she does volunteer that "when I turn on the television and see the Psychic Friends Network, I can't take those people seriously.")
Whether it was "real" or not, automatic writing provided women entrée into the mostly male world of literary prestige.
"From a historical perspective, I'm interested in the phenomenon because it gave women identity and intellectual standing," London says. "Many women mediums appear to have found in mediumship an access to otherwise unavailable knowledge and a means to intellectual recognition. And that's historical information worth having."
In her book soon to be published by Cornell University Press, Writing Otherwise: Literary Collaboration and the Practice of Modern Authorship, London writes about this and other atypical routes that women have taken to the printed page--and how they have helped scholars to widen the definition of "author."
"The modern idea of 'the author' is a fairly recent invention," she says. "Romanticism promoted the notion of the solitary artistic genius. But even among Romantics, the concept of author as a solo figure wasn't entirely accurate. And the further back historically you go, the less this model holds."
A possible case in point: For years scholars have debated the origins of some of Shakespeare's plays. Was he in fact the author of all the works attributed to him? Or might there have been others who wrote under that name?
And how about the Bible? Did Moses on his own write the first five books of the Old Testament? Or did generations of scribes add their marks in the very act of preserving the text? Were the Gospels actually written by the disciples whose names we attribute to those books? Do different translations of the Bible over many years present the same text, or do different constituencies really read a different Bible?
Does any of this matter?
Not in the sense that we should be able to identify a single author for these works, or to answer these questions definitively, London says, referring to the points she is raising. What matters rather is that these questions illuminate a continuing historical problem involving authorship. And they reveal the Pandora's boxful of problems that ensue from questioning it. It's probably no accident, she says, that automatic writings were frequently biblical or Shakespearean in origin, for these were already established sites for debating the nature and status of authorship.
And it's no accident, either, that "author" and "authority" have the same linguistic root.
Because we've inherited this idea of the solo author as the voice of authority, we have no way of making sense of other kinds of writing that have existed for an even longer time," London says. "If we say that more than one person wrote Shakespearean plays, then we have to admit that the plays are not the gift of a single genius. And the idea of multiple authors of biblical texts could force us to question claims of divine inspiration.
"These are important issues that can affect how we think about writing. They force us in a literal way to back off from the idea of the solo author as the only real contributing authority."
Looking at authorship in this way also demands that individual writers question the extent to which they write fully out of themselves, London adds.
Do our experiences write through us?" she asks. "For instance, how important is the brainstorming that a writer does with someone else before taking pen to paper? Should the brainstorming partner be considered a collaborator? What about a writer's personal relationships? We could argue that they provide material for writing, and that they support the writing process by allowing the writer the freedom to do the job."
Collaborative writing, London argues, has long been underrated. A classic (and rather curious) case concerns the W. B. Yeats prose work A Vision. The revised 1937 edition revealed that this work, the source and inspiration for much of the author's poetry, originated in the automatic writing of his wife, Georgie.
For the first couple of years of their marriage (in fact, starting four days into their honeymoon), the Yeatses spent hours every night producing automatic writing: the poet jotting down questions in a notebook, and Georgie, working in a kind of trance, inscribing answers that she believed were dictated to her by spirit guides passing on messages for her husband. Afterwards, husband and wife would together order and edit the responses they received. It was a true writing partnership.
Later in their marriage, after she gave up automatic writing, Georgie worked in a more traditional role as her husband's secretary, editor, research assistant, and proofreader. "In effect," London notes, "she moved from being the secretary to her husband's spirit teachers to being secretary directly to her husband."
After the poet's death, Georgie helped to produce new editions of his works, taking on the authority for verifying his exact words and phrasing. She also became the guardian of Yeats's literary relics, determining who would have access to manuscripts and papers. Like the medium she had once been, she thus controlled the way Yeats would speak from the dead to future generations.
Contemporary publishers didn't know what to make of all this and were uncomfortable with Georgie's active role. Scholars today continue to downplay the importance of her mediumship, some of them accusing her of practicing fake automatic writing.
"However one explains it," London says, "her automatic writing--conducted, often daily, in long, physically taxing sessions sustained over two-and-a-half years and producing more than 3,600 pages of writing--constitutes an arduous undertaking and an extraordinary exercise of wifely 'influence' on a major poetic career."
Did Georgie's original role as medium make her a true collaborator in the writing process? Or was it her later job as an editor and secretary that should have given her that standing? Does her work as a medium give us new ways to understand her secretarial position? These are some of the questions London contemplates.
In another, even more curious case, the automatic writer Geraldine Cummins faced some of these questions of "authorship" in a very practical way: She got into a copyright dispute with a fellow psychic over the right to publish a work that she had received through automatic writing and which her colleague had then transcribed and typed.
The rival medium argued that there could be no copyright in this case since the scripts had been dictated by a long-dead being; he further argued that the scripts would not have happened at all without his own connection to the afterlife, reinforced by his laying his hands on hers during the writing. Cummins countered, with some asperity, that his hand resting on hers as she wrote was more an interference than anything else. The court ruled that, since it had no jurisdiction in the afterlife, Cummins was the sole author because it was she who had held the pen.
Among Bette London's research interests are 19th- and 20th-century British literature, feminist and post-colonial theory, gender studies, and the history of authorship.
Many of these themes come together in her new book, Writing Otherwise: Literary Collaboration and the Practice of Modern Authorship. The forthcoming volume examines, in addition to the 20th-century British mediums discussed in this article, the juvenile writings of the Brontës (who as a precocious foursome, she says, "composed miniature volumes in virtually illegible handwriting") and turn-of-the-century women's novel-writing teams who published popular works under a gender-concealing pen name.
London, who received her Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley, is chair of Rochester's English department. She teaches courses in Victorian culture and ideology, modernism, the novel and narrative theory, feminist criticism, and women's writing.
These days, women don't need to collaborate with the spirit world to be regarded as authors in their own right. It is because women's writing has now become so much a part of the Western literary landscape that scholars can explore women's writing in these earlier fringe areas.
Thanks to a freer definition of authorship, we are also now in a better position to appreciate the writing practices of other cultures, London points out. Collaborations, community efforts, and authorless oral traditions--which in minority or non-Western cultures are sometimes the leading voice of literary and cultural life--are revered in these societies in the same way as the solo author in the West. And in the West today, authors are self-consciously experimenting with more collaborative modes of production.
"Mediums are kind of an extreme case of authorship," London concedes. "But they do serve to make us look at issues of authorship that we wouldn't normally pay attention to. Like writers in non-Western cultures today, mediums pulled out of themselves stores of writing and knowledge in ways you wouldn't expect."
New technologies are also raising new questions about authorship. As more writing is done on computers, scholars are asking, where does the writing of a book end and its editing begin? How do the interactive possibilities of producing electronic text transform the way we think about authors and texts? And with increasing opportunities for input from multiple collaborators, do the author's original words ultimately disappear and morph into a team effort?
The question is less about what is produced than about the process of producing it," London says. "How are our powers and capabilities accessed? Can we tap intellectual resources that aren't normally available? Are there other ways of looking at authorship?
"As we look back, we too easily dismiss what could give us crucial information about writing in the future."
Sally Parker is editor of the University's Currents newsletter.
Copyright 1998, University of Rochester