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Pulitzer Prize winning Author Offers Views on Life After Death

Posted on 20 November 2023, 8:01

If famous American author Booth Tarkington (1889-1946) can still tune in to the earth vibration, my thanks go to him for providing this blog, as extracted, edited and abridged from his introduction to the 1920 book, “Neither Dead Nor Sleeping” by May Wright Sewall. Tarkington, a Pulitzer Prize winner, was referred to as “the most important and lasting writer of his generation.” Clearly, progress has been made since he wrote this, but the “dustheap” he referred to is apparently much more dense than he had realized. 

Striving for Saneness in the Daylight

by Booth Tarkington


Man, after a million years of struggle to think, is still refusing to recognize as a fit subject for study that subject which most concerns him – death. Here he remains barbaric; he looks upon death as an ultimate horror which is “unwholesome to dwell upon.” Man is still tribal in his attitude toward war because he is still tribal in his attitude toward death.

Man regards death as so horrible that when he reaches the utmost pitch of his rage he inflicts death upon his enemies. When he feels that life is unendurable he says the worst thing about it that he can think of; he says he prefers death. It is true that individuals, here and there, unbearably anguished by their lives, do long for death; and they think of death as peace, just as in the torrid days of summer we think of January as pleasant; and, seeking peace, they seek it blindly through suicide. But they do not know what they will find.  In their utter ignorance they guess; and usually their guess is that they will find nothing.

We do not know that death is nothing. If death is nothing, then we still know nothing about nothing. We know no more about death than prehistoric man knew. We know more than he did about how to postpone it under certain conditions, and about how to alleviate the physical pain of it; and, using words interchangeably, we can make more definition of it than he could; but our ignorance of death itself is precisely equal to his.  This may be because we have preferred to cling through the ages to the superstition that we could know nothing about it.

There are minds which wrap themselves with satisfaction about a confusion of words, just as tangled thread loves to knot itself always the more inextricably. “Death is negation,” they urge. “Death is merely not life. How can you state positives of a negative? You can know only nothing about nothing, so how can you know something about nothing?” But if they knew that death is nothing, and if they knew that death is not life, they would know more than Moses or Newton or Voltaire knew, and surely that would be knowing something. Enamored of their wanderings with words, they do not even rise to the scientific height of a guess.

In man there is a profound physical distaste for death which extends itself to become a distaste for the investigation of death; he lets his mystics and priests chant of it vaguely on ceremonial days, but he really does not wish to think about it at all. Therefore, he is naturally inclined to throw discredit upon investigations and investigators; in a sense it is his instinct to do so. Moreover, certain thinkers (in their own distaste of the subject) have claimed that this very distaste is the only basis of man’s hope of personal survival after death. They wish to dispose of the matter thus briefly, defining the theory of “immortality of the soul” as merely a by-product of man’s instinct of self-preservation. And there are others who say that man got the notion that he had a soul through his savage ancestor’s dreams; the savage woke from slumber and said: “I have been in strange places, obviously far away from my sleeping body. Therefore there must be two of me – the me of my body, and the me that leaves my body and goes away.  Hence, when my body dies, the me that dreamed may still be alive.”  The civilized man’s dream of survival is only a savage’s dream, after all, the rationalists say.

Thus they claim to have demolished the theory of survival.  But plainly, they may be (for all they know) exactly like the rational argufiers who may have said, in the year 1491 Anno Domini: “The earth is flat. Columbus believes it is round because his grandfather had a passion for round fruit, such as oranges and apples; the love of rotundity is inherent in his blood.”  To imagine the origin of a desire or a conception is not to prove that the thing desired or conceived has no existence, as any hungry child will demonstrate to a doubter’s satisfaction.  But the strangest theorist is he who takes the ground that man is actually indifferent to death (because, as death approaches, some men and most dogs appear to be indifferent to life) and that therefore, since death amounts to so little, it really amounts to nothing and coincides with nothingness.


Many of the [deniers] are cock-sure, and there is no superstition so superstitious as cock-sureness…Often they speak with a fierceness that betrays them: “Idiot!” they shout. “Don’t you know it’s been proved that you can’t know anything, because there is nothing to know?” They love to make free with the word “proved.” This is the “attitude of civilization” toward death and what may lie beyond death.

[And there are people who] say they “don’t believe in spirits,” but obviously they do – even to the extent of having determined that spirits can never for instance be trivial or humorous; and with primitive naiveté they have so credulously pictured a heaven, or hell, of their own, that evidence of anything different seems to them nonsense. “Why don’t the spirits ever tell us something worthwhile?” they say.  “Why aren’t the spirits more dignified?”  The spirits they believe in, you see, are already constructed out of fancies, imaginary spirits finished in contour, gesture and temperament – and anything purporting to be a spirit, but not fulfilling the ready-made portrait, is dismissed as either fraud or delusion.

[There are] many people who say “We aren’t meant to know” [and] will deny their love of darkness. “We live by faith,” they add. “We believe in the many mansions in His Father’s house, and “If it were not so I would have told you.’” Yet they hold that there is a kind of impiety in seeking to follow this great hint of Christ’s to further understanding of what He meant. He did not forbid it; it is they who forbid. They say, “We are judged by the extent of our faith,” which may easily mean that the harder a thing is to believe, the more credit to him who believes it.

The seeker for the truth about survival (whether the truth be consolation or not) must know that his way lies through a maze, which one enters trying to find a path that will take him out on the opposite side. There are a thousand fraudulent bypaths and he must learn to recognize at their entrances the little marks which show that the way out does not lie there – and yet the true path may be disguised by these same little marks. The seeker’s heart must be steady and his head cool; he will see queer things at which he must remember to laugh, and his elbow will be plucked by hands reaching from many a curious cul-de-sac. If he becomes bewildered he will see things that do not exist, and he may begin to babble nonsense. And though he might never find the true path, he must not deny (if he would claim to have remained reasonable) that a true path may exist.

The child fears the dark, yet there is nothing in the dark that is not in the light – except the light itself – and so there may be nothing in death that is not in life, if we had the light to see. If death is life, with “progress and problems” like those in what we call life, then we should not fear it.  We fear it because we imagine it is darkness – yet that is one thing which it cannot be. Nothing is not darkness.

Strong Evidence for Survival

Now, certain men have said that they have evidence of survival, and some of these men are scientists – even scientists by profession. It they have the evidence which they say they have, then it is going to be possible to establish, before very long, the most important fact that can affect mankind.  There is no doubt that these men believe the evidence; and their critics, unable to assail their sincerity, attack them upon the point of gullibility.

But this leads a person of open mind to suspect the critics of a gullibility of their own; that is, they may be gulled by their prejudices.  They are indeed thus gulled if they declare Sir Oliver Lodge to be gullible because Sir Oliver claims to receive messages from a dead person. To show Sir Oliver gullible, the critics must prove the messages to be fraud or delusion.  They prove only their own superstition which says, by implication: “But spirits do not do thus and so; and they do not speak thus and so.”  No doubt serious investigators have been gulled; that means nothing of importance; secret service men have had lead quarters passed “on” them. The question is, whether or not the investigators have ever found true metal – if it were even a centime! Most of them believe they have; and therein is a circumstance of such significance as may give us strangely to think, if we will take leisure to note it: of all the men professionally of science who have seriously and persistently investigated and studied the alleged phenomena of “spiritualism,” the overwhelming majority have drawn the conclusion, as a result of their patient researches, that there is personal survival of death. 

Only levity sneers at them now – at these patient men who have sought truth in the dust-heap.  They have not yet failed; neither have they shown the truth – if they have found it – so that all men may see it and know that it is indeed truth. Their task is heavy, but it is the greatest one, for it is the task that must be done before civilization can begin. To lift the burden of the unknown from the human soul – to destroy the great darkness; that is the work which engages them.  Men cannot be sane in the daylight until the night becomes knowable.

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.
His latest book, No One Really Dies: 25 Reasons to Believe in an Afterlife is published by White Crow books.

Next blog post: Dec. 4


Here is a powerful out-of-body experience. - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Sat 25 Nov, 16:40

I’m rereading Sewall’s book after 25+ years.  She was listed by Encyclopedia Britannica as one of the 100 Trailblazers among women, which lends a little credibility to her and her book.  There are some very interesting phenomena discussed by Sewall and I’ll be writing about them in my next blog or two.

Michael Tymn, Wed 22 Nov, 22:17


Another nice piece of ammunition for the armory. I recall having read Tarkington’s “Penrod” when in my youth a lifetime ago. Unfortunately, I don’t recall much about it, particularly whether or not it included any musings on our topic (which probably wouldn’t have resonated much with me in those days in any event…)

Don Porteous, Tue 21 Nov, 19:08

Thank you for bringing this obscure,heartfelt and astute article to light. The decline and obscurity of his books is curious, the decline of interest in regional literature has fallen into neglect and mild disapproval accounts for some of this. Same with Elizabeth Phelps, Sarah Orne Jewett, William Dean Howells among others.
Yet Tarkington is enough of a mirror of American society, Orson Wells based his first two films on his novels.

Mark E Newbold, Mon 20 Nov, 22:55


“Men cannot be sane in the daylight until the night becomes knowable.”

That’s a nice line.

Jon, Mon 20 Nov, 22:45

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