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The Patience of Pearl

Spiritualism and Authorship in the Writings of Pearl Curran

Daniel B. Shea

Publication Year: 2012

When St. Louis homemaker Pearl Curran began writing fiction and poetry at a Ouija board in 1913, she attributed the work to the “discarnate entity” Patience Worth, a seventeenth-century Puritan. Though now virtually forgotten, her writing garnered both critical praise and public popularity at the time. The Patience of Pearl uncovers more of Curran’s (and thus Patience Worth’s) biography than has been known before; Daniel B. Shea provides close readings of the Patience-dictated writings and explores the historical and local context, applying current cognitive and neuro-psychology research.



            Though Pearl Curran had only a ninth-grade education, Patience Worth was able to dictate a biblical novel and a Victorian novel. Echoes of Dickens and the Potters, a circle of St. Louis women writers, make clear that Patience Worth reflects literary debts that go as far back as Curran being read to as a child. Shea argues that the workings of implicit memory suggest the medium’s creative achievements were her own body’s property. Curran also had musical training, and recent developments in the field of psychology regarding the overlap between musical and linguistic rhythms of regularity, anticipation, and surprise supply a firm foundation for attributing skills both automatic and creative to Curran. Her reflections on her doubleness in her self-study anticipate the many-personed Ouija board writing of poet James Merrill.



            Shea approaches Curran/Worth as a summary figure for the Victorian-era woman writer’s buried voice at the point of its transition into modernism. He investigates many lingering questions about Curran’s fluent productivity at the Ouija board, including the “smart” versus “dumb” unconscious. Shea links unconscious memory, dissociation, and automatic writing and reconsiders problematic assumptions about individual identity and claims of personal agency. The Curran/Worth Puritan/writer figure also allows scrutiny of gendered assumptions about the dangers of female speech and the idealization of women’s passive reception of divine, or husbandly, revelation.



Novelistic in its own way, Curran’s life included three husbands and a child adopted on command from Patience Worth. Pearl Curran enjoyed a brief period of celebrity in Los Angeles before her death in 1937. The Patience of Pearl once again brings her the attention she deserves—for her life, her writing, and her place in women’s literary history.

Published by: University of Missouri Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright Page, Quotes

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xii

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Introduction: From Spiritualism to Vivisection

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pp. 1-18

It does seem odd that a woman who wrote with brief but notorious success less than one hundred years ago could still be, as Lucky Jim once put it, so strangely neglected. The kindly hand of recuperative criticism, reaching out to more movingly dispossessed and marginalized writers, has passed over the quaint enigma she seems to represent. Yet one of her more eligible works, ...

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Chapter 1: The Domestic Oracle and Her Genealogy

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pp. 19-33

As an emissary from what she called “everspace,” Patience Worth preferred that audiences think of her as ahistorical, with time-bound intertextualities no more her concern than the mélange of dialects she seemed to have assembled since her life in the seventeenth century. In the early twentieth century, her sup-porters were more committed to isolating the PW phenomenon from the his-...

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Chapter 2: From Pearl to Patience

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pp. 34-58

When Walter Franklin Prince questioned Pearl Curran about her life before Patience Worth, she wrote an “autobiographical sketch” and sat in “the witness box” for him, eager to convince the more sympathetic of the two psychologists surnamed Prince that she was not a fraud. Her aim, sometimes achieved embarrassingly, was to demonstrate her unreadiness to have produced the PW ...

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Chapter 3: Pearl vs. Patience: Medium vs. Control

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pp. 59-75

Patience Worth quickly became the dominant fact of Pearl Curran’s life as the words of PW, published or reported, became the medium’s medium to celebrity. In the months following Curran’s first production of a poem without Emily Hutchings at the board, the Currans moved from their modest flat to a large house on Union Boulevard,1 where Pearl’s Patience began to add to her ...

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Chapter 4: What Patience Wrote

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pp. 76-127

I should sing even though the winds arose and blew down my throat my song. Let PW be a subset of neural processes in Pearl Curran’s capacity for unconsciously attending to, recalling, then reconsolidating language and imagery from continuously revised forms of implicit memory; or a demonstration of oscillating flow in the hydraulics of conscious and subconscious intentionality. ...

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Chapter 5: An Occult Vocabulary and the Problem of Knowledge

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pp. 128-139

Casper Yost was the first PW observer to point to the “problem of knowledge.” How could Pearl Curran deliver up historical language and dialects, ethnic names and place names and local markers of a foreign culture out of her modest education and limited reading and do so while dictating fiction at a speed and with a fluency that amazed visitors, unless some supernormal agency ...

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Chapter 6: Dissecting a Specter

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pp. 140-163

Vivisectionist or not, attempts to explain the Patience Worth phenomenon regularly accompanied publications like Hope Trueblood and public appearances by Pearl Curran. Curran’s attempts to explain her “gift,” as in her essay “A Nut for Psychologists,” took part in this widespread conversation and should be seen in the context of arguments, sometimes reflexive, sometimes...

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Chapter 7: Pearl and Patience in the Twenties

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pp. 164-188

By the spring of 1921, when her story “Rosa Alvaro, Entrante” appeared as a film from the Goldwyn Studio, Pearl Curran had reason to believe that what-ever the economic returns from PW’s continuing dictations, her career was gaining momentum. Instead, the decade’s early years would unscroll more difficult transitions than she could have guessed. The sudden death of William ...

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Chapter 8: The City of Angels

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pp. 189-207

The story of Pearl Curran Rogers Wyman’s seven years in Los Angeles, inconstantly recorded and only intermittently public, may always be incomplete. Only scraps of biography rather than a coherent narrative can be constructed from newspaper sources, the recollections of family and friends, and the patchy record of PW sessions. Curran never stated a reason for her move to the ...

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Chapter 9: The Neural Pearl: Automaticity for All

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pp. 208-232

The function of consciousness must be in part to dummy up and shape a coherence from all the competing conflicting subsystems that processed experience. By nature it lied. Any rendition we might make of consciousness would arise from it, and was thus about as reliable as the accused serving as sole witness Although Pearl Curran told readers of “A Nut for Psychologists” that she ...


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pp. 233-256


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pp. 257-272


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pp. 273-283

E-ISBN-13: 9780826272973
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826219893

Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2012

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