I Become a Delandist

Margaret Deland 1857-1945
Since October, I’ve bought fifty books by or about Margaret Deland, most of them first-editions. I’ve never taken such an intense interest in either an author or in old books, but I’m finding it immensely gratifying to hold in my hands that which previous generations enjoyed and held in their hands. I’m also head-over-heels in love with what these people wrote in their books, inscriptions such as, For my dear little girl, Christmas 1915,” and Geo, this was Little Mamma’s book.” Then there are the beautiful old names of the books’ owners: Grace, Clara, Effie, Fanny, Alice, Lillian, Cordelia, and Adelphia.

Prior to coming across Deland’s novel, John Ward, Preacher (1888), in a St. Vincent de Paul store, I assumed that the remembrance of brilliant writers was insured, and that the world’s best reading could be found simply by seeking-out authors whose work has survived the decades if not the centuries. How fortunate I am to have come across someone who is practically forgotten but who struggled with the same issues I face, issues that people tend to dismiss with, “You think too much,” or, “You take things too seriously.”

It’s not only Deland whom I’ve discovered, but through her my clearest window into the place and era that interests me most, America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The forgotten dead speak to me so strongly that it’s a shock to suddenly recall that they are dead, and that the brevity of their lives is being mirrored in our own. I have also been forced to conclude that the educated people of the late 19th century were far better educated than ourselves in regard to scope, profundity, and the ability of even non-writers to express themselves
with depth and perception. It is so easy to dismiss past generations as somehow less-than, but my studies have convinced me that in regard to the era about which I am most interested, they were not only less-than, they were more-than.

Phillips Brooks 1835-1893
I so wish I could have known some of them, for example the psychologist William James and the Episcopal priest Phillips Brooks who was the only clergyman from whom Margaret sought counsel. When she confessed to him that she considered the Apostles’ Creed nothing more than “a beautiful, antique edifice of words,” and asked if she should continue taking communion, he wrote:

 “…I do believe that any, even the least, sense of Him gives you the right to come to Him, at any rate, to come to where He is and try to find Him. I cannot tell you how anxiously I write. But what I have written, I solemnly believe. May the great Wisdom and Love bless you and lead you.”

Brooks’ exchange with Margaret reminded me of the one I had with (Father) Brent. The fact that I, a nonbeliever in regard to the supernatural, find meaning in communion has caused both believers and nonbelievers to assure me that I need to choose one path or the other and be done with the matter. To find in Margaret a reflection of my inability to let go of that which I can not intellectually accept yet have an unwavering need to accept—by which I mean a belief in immortality that would enable me to think of life as other than tragic—is more rewarding than I can say. As she put it,

“My feeling was not just an academic perplexity about doctrines; it was a shuddering of my heart at the significance of Love in the same world with Death! ... I knew that what I wanted was a certain word, either written or spoken, which would make me sure of...immortality.”

But the problem goes beyond mortality and into the meaning of a life built upon inescapable ignorance and inadequacy, failings that the intervening providence of a sympathetic supreme being would overcome. Without such a being, we founder in weakness, desire, and loss for perhaps eight decades, and then we die. Does this not constitute a valid objection to having lived at all?

As did Margaret—who died at 87—I have long since come to feel that my most central issue is mine alone to bear, and while others have brought me hurt and alienation, no one but Brent has tried to make me feel welcome in a
“house of worship without expecting that I change. Since anything short of acceptance would constitute rejection, Brent represents my only tie to organized religion. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have any more evidence of an intervening providence or immortality than I. When Margaret asked Phillips Brooks whether he knew that we would live forever, he was silent for some time before answering:

“It must be true; life would be too terrible if it were not.”

Brooks’ admission of the baselessness of what he wanted so much to believe was admirable, but hardly more satisfying than the certainty of those who put their trust in the imagined authority of church and Bible. This leaves me, as it did Margaret, very much alone because there is no meaningful reassurance regarding that which no one can prove.

When her husband died, Margaret went the way of Conan Doyle who became a spiritualist after his son died, although she avoided the embarrassing public credulity of Doyle who became so  delusional as to believe in fairies. The post-World War I era saw millions seeking contact with their beloved dead, and her eventual acceptance of the proposition that we are all a part of the divine consciousness and therefore incapable of death is alien to me, but her questions are not, and, as did mine, they started during her fundamentalist Christian upbringing and brought her the
reprobation of those to whom she turned for answers.

Katherine Mansfield, 1888-1923
Yet, Margaret was not the first author with whom I experienced such a strong personal connection that I could not accept that she was dead. For that, I must point to New Zealander Katherine Mansfield who wrote,

“Oh, God, the sky is filled with the sun, and the sun is like music. Music comes streaming down these great beams. The wind touches the trees, shakes little jets of music. The shape of every flower is like a sound. My hands open like five petals…”

Perhaps there are those who can cheerfully accept that such beauty of spirit can appear out of frigid nothingness like a warming spark only to immediately and eternally fall back into the same, but I am not among them, and I never will be. Of all the supposed truths that there exists something more, the only one that resonates with me is my inability to accept the alternative, but I don
’t know if this suggests need or insight.

One day, while walking in the desert, I felt that Mansfield was with me, so I asked for proof of her presence. I immediately saw a painted and bejeweled stick several feet away in the sagebrush, and even a skeptical Peggy commented that I walked to it as though led. I kept the stick in my closet for years before discarding it as a teaser rather than an answer. If asked what would constitute an answer I could but say that it would have to be something that couldn
’t be explained through ordinary means, “...a certain word, either written or spoken, which would make me sure of...immortality.” 

As did my atheist father when old age robbed him of his strength, Margaret believed that she had found such a word. In the second of her two autobiographies (one about her childhood and the other about her marriage) she wrote:

Recognizing a Conscious and Infinite Universe, we know that in It we live, and move, and have our being. We are workers together with It. We are sharers in Its immortality. Oneness with Its will is Peace, and we can endure. We call It God.

I can’t know whether her courage to endure a world without hope finally failed her, or whether her decades of study and reflection provided her with a vision that is of little use to anyone but herself. I don’t believe that anyone can fairly stand in judgment. John Lennon wrote, Whatever gets you through the night, it’s alright, it’s alright,” by which I think he meant that the final test of what constitutes ultimate reality cannot be demonstrable truth because that is unattainable. Rather the final test is whether ones belief is hardening or opening, and in Magaret’s case, it was most certainly the latter. I could never put so much time and energy into a writer of whose goodness I was not completely convinced, and so it is that I put my faith in Margaret.