|Picture by Jessie Terwilliger|
I've been having a grand time reading Paul Collins's wonderful book Sixpence House (which I will discuss in an upcoming post). Today I want to share a story he tells about Patience Worth. "Her name is forgotten today," Collins begins, "but at one time she--or her spirit, at least--was very famous indeed."
In the early years of the 20th century, Caspar Yost claimed that he had discovered "a new poet and novelist; or rather, ... a very old poet an novelist." Using a Ouija board, Pearl Curran--a St. Louis housewife--communicated with the spirit of Patience Worth, a Puritan woman who, as Collins writes, soon became "a veritable Oprah's Book Club in spirit form."
During the 1920s, a whole Patience Worth industry arose. Worth authored a series of novels and poems, all written via Ouija board, and all of which were extremely popular. As Collins writes, "People believed it--even, amazingly, after Patience Worth wrote a Victorian family melodrama. Considering that neither Victorians nor novels had existed in Worth's day, this was an impressive achievement indeed."
I love Collins's snappy sarcasm--but his telling of this strange story is also full of insight. He points out that Worth's popularity emphasizes how much we want to believe that "all writers are somehow vessels for Truth and Beauty when they compose." He compares this to our desire to imagine characters who develop their own will and "take over a book." But as Collins points out, "The reality tends to involve a spare room, a pirated copy of MS Word, and a table bought on sale at Target. A character can no more take over your novel than an eggplant and a jar of cumin can take over your kitchen."
I am thrilled to find that there is an entire book about the Patience Worth story, written by Irving Litvag: Singer in the Shadows: The Strange Story of Patience Worth. I think this must go on my Halloween reading list. This definitely gives a whole new meaning to the genre of "spiritual" writing!