Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Mad Man

Jul 5, 2014

The latest issue of Geist magazine (#93) is out. Along with my regular books column, it contains my feature article on Richard Maurice Bucke, the 19th century alienist and religious mystic.

I first got interested in Bucke when I was in graduate school in the 1970s. His story is fairly well known to specialists -- there is an unfortunately lifeless 1986 biography by Sam Shortt, Victorian Lunacy -- but not I suspect to the general public.

Bucke led essentially three lives: he was a religious mystic, an asylum keeper and a fanatical devotee of the American poet Walt Whitman.

In 1876 while visiting England Bucke had a transcendental religious episode during which he experienced a moment of illumination that he spent the rest of his life trying to understand. The result was his classic study of spirituality, Cosmic Consciousness, published in 1901, the year before his death. I daresay it is the most influential book on religion written by a Canadian.

Meanwhile, Bucke was also a key figure in the history of mental health care. He was a practising alienist, which is what psychiatrists were called before they were called psychiatrists, and for more than two decades he ran the mental asylum in London, Ontario.

And thirdly, Bucke became a close friend of, and medical advisor to, Walt Whitman, whom he believed was a living embodiment of his ideas about cosmic consciousness. Without exaggeration, he thought that Whitman was a god among men.

I hope the Geist article conveys something of Bucke's fascinating story. Look for the mag on your local newsstand.