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Pearl Curran

The story of the writer and her ghostwriter (who was a ghost)


Pearl Curran and her phantom muse Patience Worth, whom she invoked at a Ouija board, tell us a lot about the relationship between an author and her ghosts.

When ‘the muse’ was still well respected and held a fundamental place in the act of writing, all writers had a ghostwriter. Literature thrived in three dimensions: the muse that dictated, the writer that mediated, and the text. The story of Pearl Curran and her phantom muse Patience Worth – whom she invoked at a Ouija board – is a great way of illustrating the relationship between a writer and their ghost (or muse), in the most exotic and literal manner.

In 1913, the writer Pearl Curran had her first successful communication with a dead person through a Ouija board. “From this initial correspondence, she wrote (or depending on your perspective, transcribed) millions of words she attributed to a 17th century poet who called herself Patience Worth,” wrote Ed Simon for the Public Domain Review. The surprising thing about the case is that the historical novels, religious tracts and lyrical poems of considerable literary note that Curran published from then on were received with open arms by academics as authentic examples of American literature transmitted from beyond the grave. Even more surprisingly, readers and critics agreed that this was the work of a woman who swore that she had been dead for more than two and a half centuries.

There is, of course, more than one possible explanation. The first is that the writings are authentic documents that provide spectacular evidence of human survival after death. The second is that there was an intriguing and incredible deception that equally fooled academics, critics and editors (which does not discredit Curran, but rather emboldens her merits). But there is a third possibility that would appear the most viable: that the texts were literary productions improvised by a genius who really believed that she was a medium for a muse in the ever after. Meaning that she inadvertently adopted the role of medium as a kind of heteronym and that gave her the courage to publish her works.

Pearl Curran was born in 1883, toward the end of a century that inherited a bizarre religious diversity. By the time she began to write, at the beginning of the 20th century, occultist experiments had been undertaken by serious writers such as William James, W.B. Yeats and Fernando Pessoa. The figure of Patience Worth appeared at the perfect time, and because, due to their passivity and pureness, women were considered ideal receptacles for receiving messages from ‘the other side’. Let’s not forget Madame Blavatsky.

But Curran’s case is different. Mediums such as Blavatsky always separated their own writings from those attributed to spirits, and the latter were short; a few verses or isolated comments. Curran, however, produced an incredible amount of work, all attributed to Patience Worth. There are hundreds of pages of poems, letters and novels, such as Telka, The Sorry Tale, Hope Trueblood, The Pot upon the Wheel, Samuel Wheaton, An Elizabethan Mask, some of which ran up to more than 600 pages. If it were all an esoteric trick, it was an extremely complex and difficult one.

Even though we don’t have to explain Curran’s prolific career, which had such a strange background, and suggest that Patience Worth was a real person, there is the possibility that Curran understood authorship in a non-conventional way and was really ahead of her time. Her work provides an occasion to ask ourselves where inspiration comes from, how do writers work (where does their work come from?) and what is important when we read a text. Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author could be a good clue (both the reader and the academic should feel comfortable with the idea that the author is fictitious).

For many years, Curran’s (or Worth’s) writings were destined to be forgotten due to their supposed origin (although, without comparing their literary worth, that never happened to W.B. Yeats, who attributed some of his poems to a spirit called Leo Africanus, and whom he also found through a Ouija board), but luckily her works are once again being revisited. The origins of her texts should not be an impediment to their rational study or to their structural qualities; they should instead be a fascinating account of the relationship between an author and her ghosts, the source of a plethora of questions regarding authorship and the reasons for which we read.

The story of Curran and Worth, that prolific supernatural duo, is a fascinating gem that recounts a forgotten moment in history when academic and charlatans, the rational and the occult, erudition and magic mixed together in one discourse. “What for the rest is subconscious, for the writer it becomes the muse, they are two names for the same thing,” well said Ray Bradbury.

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