On the face of it the suit of Harper & Brothers vs. Mitchell Kennerley, publisher, involves a bald question of property right; but by indirection it involves also the questions whether spirit communication with the living is demonstrable, and whether there is a life hereafter. The riddle of the universe is about to be debated, not by theologians, but by lawyers.
Harper & Brothers, publishers of the works of Samuel L. Clemens and owners of a copyright on the pen name, Mark Twain, base their action on the publication by Mitchell Kennerley of "Jap Herron," a novel which, according to the introduction, was communicated to Mrs. Emily Grant Hutchings via the ouija board. There is no direct statement that Mark Twain's spirit dictated the book. He is not named as author, and on this technicality the attorneys for Mr. Kennerley might possibly seek to evade trial. But James N. Rosenberg, who has been retained by the defendant publishers, said the other day that the case would be tried on its merits.
"We will put the issue up to the Supreme Court," he asserted. "We will have a final ruling on immortality."
Has the shade of Samuel Clemens any right to the use of a pseudonym he adopted in the flesh and permitted his publishers to copyright? What claims have The Departed on the relics of their earthly pilgrimage? These are obvious issues in the suit. And if it is established to the satisfaction of the Court that the spirit of Mark Twain did indeed communicate the novel, while the attorneys for the plaintiff are upheld in their contention that said spirit had no right to market any literary commodities except through the house of Harpers, owing to a contract made prior to his passing, by what mode of procedure can the disembodied by brought to book for such unbusinesslike, not to say immoral, conduct?
William Marion Reedy of St. Louis, who had a part in making the work of Patience Worth, (another ouija board authoress,) known to the material world, had a finger in this occult concoction, too. Emily Grant Hutchings had known Mr. Reedy for some time. She had contributed special articles to his magazine, The Mirror. But Mr. Reedy confesses he did not think much of her as a fiction writer. About three years ago she asked him to read some manuscript she had with her. He did, and he was surprised at its worth.
At that time the novel "Jap Herron" was about half-finished. Mrs. Hutchings said nothing to Mr. Reedy about how she had written it, but during the course of an evening at her home the ouija board was produced, and Mrs. Hutchings and Mrs. Hayes, who sat with her during the readings, began to work with it. Either that or it was moved by the spirit controlling it. Mr. Reedy was surprised to find that he was reading a continuation of the unfinished manuscript he had recently seen. It was then he learned that Mark Twain was declared to be dictating the story.
Mr. Reedy was in town the other day, and when he was asked whether he thought "Jap Herron" came up to Mark Twain's standard he was in doubt.
"Parts of it are good, as typical of Mark Twain as I can remember from my early readings," he said; "but other parts are sloppy--awfully sloppy and sweet and sentimental; usual best-seller stuff!"
Harper & Brothers assert in their petition that "Jap Herron" is far below the grade of anything Mark Twain wrote while alive, and that the circulation of the book would hurt is reputation.
Among the points Harper & Brothers will present are the two books Mark Twain wrote, "What Is Man?" and "The Mysterious Stranger," in which he asserted that there was no such thing as life after death. He refused to believe in a spirit world. He refused to be a spook. Judge or jury must weigh that fact.
But it is possible that the ouija board will be made to perform in court and that the shade of Mark Twain, or what purports to be his spirit, will undertake to confound Mark Twain, the unbeliever. That Mrs. Hutchings intends to get into communication with that very important witness is an assured point. In her introduction to the book she shows that she and Mark Twain are on the friendliest terms. he calls her "Emily" and she calls him "Mark." There is nothing spooky about their conversation. It does not smack of the spiritist cabinet. While the book was being revised the ouija board has occasion to chafe Mr. Hutchings, who was acting for his wife in secretarial capacity.
"Smoke up and cool off, old boy," the spook is reported as saying to Mr. Hutchings. "Perhaps I should apologize. The last secretary I had used to wear an ice-soaked towel. The girls [Mrs. Hutchings and Mrs. Hayes] and old Mark together will make the riffle. Well, we will slow up. In my ambition I have been too eager. It is hard to explain how great a thing is the power to project my mentality through the clods of oblivion. I have so long south for an opening. Be patient, please. I am not carping. I get Edwin's [Mr. Hutchings's] position. We will be easy with the new saddle, so the nag won't run away. I heard Edwin's suggestion and it is a good one. We will go straight through the story, beginning where we left off tonight. that was what I intended to do, but that second chapter nipped me."
There is, of course, ground for doubt whether testimony transmitted through a ouija board will be accepted. The court may consider it incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial. But if it is admitted, the stenographer's transcript is likely to have a liveliness uncommon in court procedure.
Related news storys about the "Jap Herron" lawsuit:
September 9, 1917 - LATEST WORKS OF FICTION (book review)
February 11, 1918 - TWAIN'S DAUGHTER SPURNS SPIRIT BOOK
February 12, 1918 - [Editorial] Annoying, but Not Dangerous.
June 9, 1918 - SUE FOR "SPIRIT" STORY.
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