Although the many stories and novels that Algernon Blackwood produced in his later years are distinguished by their spiritual character, it was a spirituality far different from that he knew as a child. Blackwood’s father, Stevenson Arthur Blackwood, was a zealous albeit loving evangelist, and Blackwood grew up fearing that his parents’ grim beliefs were true. Dreamy and impractical, he failed repeatedly at school. An institution maintained by the Moravian Brotherhood in Germany’s Black Forest offered a more positive experience, although surely it is significant that when he used a similar school for the setting of a story years later, Blackwood turned the Brothers into devil- worshipers.
Throughout his biography, Ashley proceeds in this manner, relating Blackwood’s stories and novels to particular places and events in his life, and in turn deducing the man’s mental and emotional states from the works. Some guesswork is involved here, for although Blackwood published a memoir of his early years, Episodes Before Thirty (1923), his memory for dates was unreliable and his reticence considerable. For instance, he omitted almost all mention of the several mystical and supernatural experiences he refers to obliquely in other contexts.
Blackwood senior must have despaired of his son, who was ill equipped for a life in business, but the parent never gave up. Thinking that greater opportunities might lie in Canada, where he owned land, Stevenson toured the dominion with his son and introduced him to potentially useful contacts. However, Algernon’s investments in a dairy business and (to his father’s horror) a bar proved disastrous. Yet a job as secretary and copy editor with the Canadian Methodist Magazine led to the young man’s first published writings. Among other subjects, they dealt with his sojourn in the Black Forest. A few dreamy poems also appeared—under a pseudonym—in other Canadian magazines.
By this time Blackwood had long since thrown off his father’s stultifying beliefs. Although he was later to become closely involved in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn through the auspices of Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865- 1939), he first dabbled in Buddhism and Theosophy. This latter movement was the religio-philosophical creation of Madame Helena P. Blavatsky (1831-1891), who believed in universal brotherhood and claimed to be in touch with certain Eastern spiritual masters. Ashley identifies the core of Blackwood’s beliefs in Franz Hartmann’s Theosophical work Magic, White and Black (1884), which Blackwood read in Canada. Hartmann theorized that “every living being is an organism in which the magic power of life acts,” and went on to suggest that the man who learns to employ this “magic” consciously rather than submitting to it unconsciously is a “magician.”
It was to be some years before Blackwood became that “magician.” He eventually quit Canada for New York City, but the metropolis frightened the nature-lover, who “hated the concentration of humanity.” Blackwood’s attempts at journalism brought in little remuneration at first, and he quickly fell into the clutches of amiable confidence man George Arthur Bigge. An abscess in Blackwood’s side left him increasingly debilitated, but the ensuing delirium generated ideas—for instance, the striking concept of a crack between one day and the next that might lead to the paradise lying beyond the drab veneer of everyday reality. That crack would appear years later in The Education of Uncle Paul (1909). It was also at this time that Blackwood befriended Alfred H. Louis, a cosmic philosopher and social dropout whose vibrant attitudes and beliefs buoyed the young man during many of his darkest moments.
After many trials, Blackwood became a successful journalist with The New York Times but, ever restless, he left after sixteen months to become private secretary to a banker. During this period he spent several summers at the Muskoka Lakes in the Canadian woods, out of which experience came the first...
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