Theosophy and the Thurian Age Revisited — Part Two: A Tale of Two Sources – Theosophy in Outline and The Story of Atlantis Essay
In Part One, I detailed my discovery of the 1923 Little Blue Book (or LBB), Theosophy in Outline, by Frederick Willis and how it appeared to be source for Howard’s use of theosophical themes in some of his early works, like “Men of the Shadows,” rather than the previously proposed source, W. Scott-Elliot’s book The Story of Atlantis. This LBB also appeared to be the source for a 1923 letter to Tevis Clyde Smith in which Howard discusses Atlantis and reincarnation. After I shared the LBB with Patrice Louinet, he noted some similarities with the 1923 untitled Bran Mak Morn story that also deals with reincarnation (Howard, “Untitled”)
But then Patrice noticed a potential problem with the chronology. Howard mentions writing the untitled reincarnation story in an October 5, 1923 letter (Collected Letters i:24), which dates it very securely. Theosophy in Outline, however, was part of the Little Blue Book’s Pocket Series, which did not begin publication until that same month: October of 1923 (Gibbs, “Dating”). Further research on the Library of Congress’s online database indicated that Theosophy in Outline was published on November 9, making it too late to have influenced either the untitled story or the Smith “Atlantis” letter.
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Still intrigued by the apparently coincidental similarities, I contacted historian Jake Gibbs, the foremost authority on the chronology of the Haldeman-Julius LBB publications to find out if there could have possibly been an earlier version of Outline. Gibbs confirmed the November 9 publication date, but he also pointed out that the material in the LBBs was often published earlier in one of several newsletters—all of which were exceedingly rare (Personal communication). Gibbs indicated that the publications Life and Letters and Know Thyself were the two that most often printed material from forthcoming Little Blue Books; of these two, the latter, which dealt primarily with philosophy and psychology, seemed like the most likely venue for a theosophy article.
I then contacted Randy Roberts, the head of special collections at the Pittsburg State University library where the largest and most complete collection of Haldeman-Julius publications is housed. Roberts graciously conducted a search of all of the newsletters for 1923 looking for references to Willis or to theosophy. Unfortunately, he was only able to locate two editorial mentions of the forthcoming Outline LBB by Haldeman-Julius himself , but with little detail beyond a brief biographical sketch of Willis (Roberts). The first of these is from Haldeman-Julius Weekly no. 1424 (March 17, 1923), 1:
I am preparing for me a booklet to be entitled “A Guide to Theosophy,” which is being written especially for the Pocket Series by F.Milton Willis, who promises delivery of the manuscript within a few weeks. The matter will be treated impartially and scientifically. We all know, of course, that the fanatical propaganda spirit is quite lacking in the real students of theosophy, just as it is in the students of any other philosophy. E. Haldeman-Julius.
The second is from Haldeman-Julius Weekly no. 1432 (May 12, 1923), 1:
I have already told my readers about Dr. F. Milton Willis agreeing to write a book for the Pocket Series which is to be known by the name of “An Outline of Theosophy.” The manuscript is in my hands and it is scheduled for early publication. Dr. Willis has long been a member of the world-wide Theosophical Society, whose headquarters is at Adyar, Madras, India. He has held prominent positions in the Society in America. He has written extensively for theosophical magazines and is accepted as a correct interpreter of these doctrines. E. P. Dutton and Company are publishing a series of his books, a fact which speaks for itself. Captain Russell Lloyd Jones, who conducts what is known as the Philosophers Book Shop, 26 West 43rd Street, New York City, writes me that he fully endorses Dr. Willis as an accurate writer on Theosophy. ‘I am myself a member of the Theosophical Society and a student of Theosophy,’ writes Captain Jones. ‘I might add that the only original work in theosophical research is being done by members of this society, of which Mrs. Annie Besant is President and of which Mr. C. W. Leadbeater is an invaluable members, a man who might be characterized as the Pythagoras of modern times.’
Unfortunately, while these passages provide some interesting background on the publication of the Theosophy in Outline LBB and on Willis himself, they offer no evidence that the content was published elsewhere. So, it appears that the similarities between Outline and Howard’s reincarnation writings from the fall of 1923 are merely coincidental, or that Willis published his material in an earlier as-yet unidentified publication, possibly one of the numerous theosophical periodicals, and that Howard encountered it there.
In any case, given Howard’s interest in Little Blue Books and in concepts like reincarnation and lost civilizations, it is not at all unlikely that he would have acquired a copy of Outline sometime after its November 1923 publication. It still appears to be a probable source for much of the information on Root Races and on Atlantis and Lemuria that appears in “Men of the Shadows.”
In “Theosophy and the Thurian Age” I argued that much of the pre-cataclysmic geography described in “Men of the Shadows,” such as the west coast of North America being partially submerged (i.e. Howard’s Pictish Isles) was influenced in part by the maps in Scott-Elliot’s The Story of Atlantis (Shanks 60-62). Recently however, I completed a study of the surviving draft pages from “Men of the Shadows,” and discovered that, in fact, much of the geography of Howard’s pre-cataclysmic world probably came from another of his known sources, E. A. Allen’s Prehistoric World, Or Vanished Races (1885), rather than the maps from The Story of Atlantis (the results of this study will be published in a forthcoming article). The similarity between the prehistoric world described by Allen and the maps by Scott-Elliot are not a coincidence, however, as Scott-Elliot and Allen, writing only a decade apart, were themselves utilizing many of the same sources, such as geologist Alexander Winchell and ethnologist Hubert Bancroft.
If Howard did acquire Scott-Elliot’s The Story of Atlantis prior to 1928 there is little evidence he did more than skim it and look at the large fold out maps (and in truth the maps are the most interesting feature of the book) and even that is now questionable as it appears that most of the theosophical elements in his early works could have come from Theosophy in Outline or from Allen’s Prehistoric World. Howard’s depiction of Atlantis itself during this early period in “Men of the Shadows,” Exile of Atlantis,” and “The Shadow Kingdom” tends to follow Lewis Spence’s stone-age model of the lost continent rather than Scott-Elliot’s advanced Atlantean civilization (though the kingdom of Valusia in the last two stories does have similarities with Scott-Elliot’s Atlantis).
In 1928, however, Howard’s depiction of Atlantis and Atlanteans in his fiction begins to change significantly. With “Skull-Face,” Howard begins to incorporate tropes such as the advanced, brown-skinned, “imperial” Atlanteans, as well as the idea of a “deep time” Atlantis hundreds of thousands of years old—tropes that do seem to have their origin with Scott-Elliot’s Story of Atlantis, and in particular Scott-Elliot’s description of the Atlantean sub-race, the Akkadians (Shanks 69-71). This new version of Atlantis would inform his next few stories on the subject in “Moon of Skulls” and “Gods of Bal-Sagoth.” The catalyst that prompted Howard to read The Story of Atlantis itself and go beyond Willis’s synopsis in Theosophy in Outline may have been the prominent mention of Scott-Elliot’s book in Lovecraft’s story “The Call of Cthulhu” (139), which was published in the February 1928 issue of Weird Tales.
The means by which Howard might have acquired a copy of Scott-Elliot’s book can be explained by Theosophy in Outline as well, as The Story of Atlantis is listed at the back of the LBB in a bibliography of suggested further reading (94). In the preface, Willis also informs the reader that they can order these books directly from the Theosophical Publishing Company and then provides the mailing address. Interestingly, Willis does not list Scott-Elliot’s second book, The Lost Lemuria. As I have noted previously, there is little or no evidence that Howard had seen or read The Lost Lemuria. This is significant as many editions of Scott-Elliot’s after 1925 had the two books combined in a single volume and Howard surely would have acquired this combined version if he had known about it.
While not conclusive, the evidence presented here suggests that Howard’s first introduction to theosophical ideas about prehistory and human evolution was not Scott-Elliot’s The Story of Atlantis, as I have argued previously, but rather the short synopsis of Scott-Elliot’s ideas in the 1923 Little Blue Book Theosophy in Outline by Frederick Milton Willis. Theosophy in Outline appears likely to have been Howard’s primary source for the theosophical ideas expressed in “Men of the Shadows” in particular. Willis’s booklet may have prompted Howard to acquire The Story of Atlantis, but the latter does not appear to have had a great impact on his work until 1928 when the manner in which Howard depicted Atlantis and Atlanteans changed dramatically. This Scott-Elliot-influenced vision of “brown” Atlanteans would remain the dominant one until Howard returned to Spence’s concept of a stone-age Atlantis with the creation of the Hyborian Age in 1932.
The identification and analysis of Howard’s influences and sources of inspiration like Willis, Scott-Elliot, Allen, and Spence in these early stories of prehistoric and antediluvian worlds, is crucial to furthering our understanding of Howard’s sub-creative methodology and of his influential role as one of the first great world-builders of modern fantasy.
Allen, A. E. The Prehistoric World, or Vanished Races. Cincinnati: Central Publishing House, 1885. Print.
Gibbs, Jake. Personal Communication. November 2011. Email.
———. ” Dating Little Blue Books. [http://www.haldeman-julius.org/haldeman-julius-resources/dating-little-blue-books/]” haldeman-julius.org. Haldeman-Julius: Pocket Series and The Little Blue Books. March 2009. Web. November 2011.
Howard, Robert E. The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard. 3 Vols.. Ed. Rob Roehm. Plano, TX: The REH Foundation Press, 2007. Print.
———. “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth.” The Black Stranger and Other American Tales. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005. 110- 145. Print.
———. “Men of the Shadows.” Bran Mak Morn: The Last King. New York: Del Rey, 2005. 1-30. Print.
———. “The Moon of Skulls.” The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane. New York: Del Rey, 2004. 99-170. Print.
———. “The Shadow Kingdom.” Kull: Exile of Atlantis. New York: Del Rey, 2006. 13-51. Print.
———. “Skull-Face.” Tales of Weird Menace. Plano, TX: Robert E. Howard Foundation Press, 2010. 3-94. Print.
———. “Untitled.” Bran Mak Morn: The Last King. New York: Del Rey, 2005. 289-320. Print.
———. “Untitled Story (Previously published as ‘Exile of Atlantis’).” Kull: Exile of Atlantis. New York: Del Rey, 2006. 3-9. Print.
Louinet, Patrice. Personal communication. November 2011. Email.
Lovecraft, H. P. “The Call of Cthulhu.” The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories. New York: Penguin, 1999. 139-169. Print.
Roberts, Randy. Personal communication. December 2011. Email.
Scott-Elliot, William. The Lost Lemuria. London: Theosophical Publishing Company, 1904. Print.
———. The Story of Atlantis. London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1896. Print.
Shanks, Jeffrey. “Theosophy and the Thurian Age: Robert E. Howard and the Works of W. Scott-Elliot.” The Dark Man 6:1-2 (2011). Print.
Spence, Lewis. The Problem of Atlantis. London: William Rider and Son. 1924. Print.
Willis, Frederick Milton. Theosophy in Outline. Little Blue Book No. 477. Girard, Kansas: Haldeman-Julius Company, 1923. Print.