“Was Blavatsky A Plagiarist?”: Sylvia Cranston dismantles Accusation

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Chapter 12 of “HPB: The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Helena Blavatsky” by Sylvia Cranston

“In 1890, when the Sun published Coue’s professed exposure of HPB, another assault on her character was being silently prepared by a man named William Emmette Coleman, who was soon to spread far and wide the accusation that in all her writings Blavatsky plagiarized on a grand scale. It is impossible to calculate how many people have refused to read Blavatsky’s writings as a result of this charge. Incidentally, it seems rather amazing that we now have another “Co” to add to Coulomb, Coues, and Collins!

Coleman was involved in both the Coulomb and the Coues-Collins cases. It was he who journeyed from the United States to London to obtain from the Scottish missionary Patterson the purportedly original HPB-Coulomb letters that Coues had hoped to use in defending himself in HPB’s libel suit; it was also he who supplied Coues with the information circulated in a Sun “interview” that HPB’s supposed illegitimate child was fathered by Wittgenstein. Coleman’s letter on this subject, dated March 31 1889, is in the Coues collection.

Why did Coleman thus involve himself? And why did he circulate the charges of plagiarism? Was he a disinterested person in pursuit of truth? One might think so when reading his credentials provided in a footnote to his research paper on the source of HPB’s writings. Yet where was this paper printed? Of all places, it appeared as Appendix C in Solovyov’s A Modern Priestess of Isis, published in 1895 on behalf of the Society for Psychical Research; (Chapter 2 of the present section). In Solovyov’s book, it achieved an immortality it was not otherwise likely to receive. Coleman’s credentials in the footnote include memberships in the American Oriental Society, the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, the Pali Text Society, and the Egyptian Exploration Fund. One would hardly imagine he was a clerk in the Quartermaster Department of the U.S. Army, first at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas and later in San Francisco. But more importantly, what the SPR carefully concealed – which ever since HPB’s detractors have refrained from mentioning – is that Coleman was a leading spiritualist of his day who wrote scathing denunciations of Theosophy and HPB in the spiritualists’ journals.

Nothing can be clearer on this than what Coleman himself wrote to Coues on July 8, 1890, on the letterhead of the Chief Quartermaster office: “I emphatically denounced and ridiculed the theory of occultism, of elementary spirits, etc., before the Theosophical Society was organized [in 1875], and from that time to this I have strenuously opposed Theosophy all the time.”

HPB’s article “My Books” speaks of the “libelous matter emanating from America” and that “it has all come from one and the same source, well known to all Theosophists, a person [Coleman] most indefatigable in attacking me personally for the last twelve years.”

As to the plagiarism charges, it should be understood that as applied to HPB, Coleman’s use of the term extends far beyond its dictionary definition: “To steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own.” This Blavatsky did not do. [When Ralston Skinner gave HPB, as a gift, his manuscript of Part Three of Source of Measures, he said she could use it as her own work. She refused, saying, “How can I quote without quotation marks? … How can I quote and let out your name?” (Feb. 17, 1886, Ralston Collection, Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard University.)] But surely she must have been guilty of something dreadful, for reading Coleman’s opening paragraph in his paper of August, 1893, we find

“During the past three years I have made a more or less exhaustive analysis of the contents of the writings of Madame H.P. Blavatsky; and I have traced the sources whence she derived – and mostly without credit being given – nearly the whole of their subject matter.”

HPB’s so-called plagiarism is a practice followed by practically every author who publishes the fruits of his research – even by Coleman himself. To understand the foregoing, one must be able to distinguish between primary sources and secondary sources. If you were to quote from an Emerson essay, for example, that essay would be your primary source. If, however, you quote Emerson quoting Shakespeare, that portion of Emerson’s essay would be called your secondary source. In Coleman’s view, you must credit right then and there – in a footnote or endnote – not only Shakespeare, but the secondary plagiarism, for you are misleading your readers into thinking you yourself found the reference in the works of Shakespeare. However, citing only primary sources is a legitimate practice that most authors of scholarship follow all the time. In Isis Unveiled, HPB frequently gave credit to the original author but not to the secondary source.

Writers today acknowledge indebtedness to secondary sources indirectly by including in their bibliographies the names of books they drew upon in their research. To list all would be unwise, for among the numerous volumes researched only a few may be considered worthy of mentioning. If Coleman were to apply to these hundreds of thousands of authors the rules he demanded HPB to abide by, he would call them all plagiarists.

As was common in books of her day, HPB’s works had no bibliographies. However, her secondary sources were often referred to in the text when quoting primary material; thus the reader became aware of the book as a worthy source of information…”


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Was Blavatsky A Plagiarist?

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