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Excerpts from

  Prentice Mulford:
New Thought Pioneer
by Eva Martin

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Book Description
Prentice Mulford was instrumental in the founding of the popular philosophy, New Thought, along with other notable writers including Ralph Waldo Emerson,
Emma Curtis Hopkins, and Thomas Troward. Mulford's book, Thoughts are Things served as a guide to this new belief system and is still popular today. This ebook tells his interesting life story from ship's boy and sea cook to mystic and seer.










IT sometimes happens that there is an extreme detachment between a man's inner and outer life, or that as regards environment and occupation one period of his life differs so much from another that the two seem scarcely reconcilable. Whether this detachment was, in the case of Prentice Mulford, as complete as would appear from his own account is a matter for some doubt; but certainly the contrast between the early and later portions of his life was great enough to make it difficult, in retrospect, to weld them into a coherent whole.

So unusual and adventurous a career as his is worth considering in detail, for there is something of peculiar interest about a man who, having from early youth up endured the fatigue and drudgery of many different kinds of hard physical labour from sheer necessity and in order to livehas yet made himself known and remembered in two continents entirely by the fruits of his mind. Yet, if we study Mulford’s early years carefully, we shall see how their varied experiences and hardships gave ample opportunity for the growth of those ideas which later he expressed with so much force and vigour.

He was born on April 5, 1834, at Sag Harbour, Long Island, in the State of New York, and we can gather from his own story a fairly definite impression of his early surroundings. His birthplace was a whaling-village, where two-thirds of the male population were bred to the sea, and boys learnt to know the ropes of a ship more easily than their multiplication tables. The names of strange and distant lands were commonplaces of everyday talk, and children grew up familiar with the idea of leaving home and sailing away into unknown seas in search of fortune.

During Mulford’s boyhood the Californian gold fever was raging, but we have small in formation about these years, and he seems to have been about twenty-two when, in company with five other youths from his native place, he shipped "before the mast" on the clipper Wizard, bound for San Francisco. The first duty allotted to him was the cleaning out of the ship's pig-pen, and, while not objecting to the task in itself—"Cincinnatus on his farm," he remarks, "may have done the same thing."—the curses and abuse showered on him and his fellows, on this and similar occasions, by their superior officers, seem to have made a deep and bitter impression on his mind. It was, indeed, a rough and even brutal life, and when the miseries of storm and sea-sickness were added to other trials, the six unhappy youths thought longingly of the comfortable homes they had left so light-heartedly.

In time they grew accustomed to the harsh discipline and coarse fare, which had at first seemed unbearable, but a long voyage in the Wizard can have been no pleasure-trip. She leaked, and had to be pumped all the way round Cape Horn; she shipped huge seas unexpectedly, decks and cabins alike being swept by tons of water that often carried away their very meals from under the hungry sailors eyes; worst of all, she was undermanned to such an extent that when fifteen seamen mutinied, on being called to the pumps out of their turn in the small hours of the night, and were put in irons, they had to be released next day because it was found impossible to work the ship without them.

Mulford seems to have felt some doubts as to whether he had chosen the right calling. He was handicapped for more than half the voyage by an injured finger, but apart from this, and despite his early environment, he was found to be of little use in the continual operations of loosing or reefing sails. Though anxious to help, and quick to get into the rigging, he invariably found, when there, that he could do nothing save hold on with both hands. "On a yard in a storm," he says with characteristic humour, "I believed and lived up to the maxim: ‘Hold fast to that which is good.’ The yard was good."

The captain of the vessel apparently had no doubts in the matter, for when in August 1856, after a four months voyage, the Wizard at last lay safely at anchor in San Francisco harbour, he informed Mulford that he did not consider him "cut out for a sailor." The latter took the hint, together with his wages, and left the vessel. Nevertheless, he did not accept the captain's verdict as final, and it is at this point that we come upon the first suggestion of those strongly-held views of his on the power of thought, which were to be expanded and developed to so great an extent in later years.

"Never," he declares emphatically, "accept any person's opinion of your qualifications or capacities for any calling." And he enlarges on the numerous lives that have been spoilt and crippled by the discouraging influence of parents and relatives, which "remains within them, becomes a part of them, and chokes aspiration and effort. Years afterward I determined to find out for myself whether I was cut out for a sailor or not. As a result I made myself master of a small craft in all winds and weathers, and proved to myself that, if occasion required, I could manage a bigger one."

Mulford omits here to consider the possibility that the captain's frankly expressed opinion may have been the very stimulus that bred in him the determination to prove it wrong; and he entirely ignores the fact that many of the most successful lives of which we have record have been the fruit, not of early parental praise and encouragement, but of their exact opposites. That factor in human nature which causes it to fight best against great odds, and to achieve its finest results in the face of obstacles and difficulties, seems by him to have been left out of account altogether, though its active working in his own case is constantly suggested by the story of his life.

However that may be, it certainly seemed as though life at sea, in some capacity or other, were his destiny at this time, for after a few months "drifting round," as he puts it, in San Francisco, he shipped as cook and steward on a whaling vessel, the schooner Henry. Once at sea, his unsuitability for the post became immediately apparent. For the first two weeks he was miserably sea-sick; his culinary efforts were received by all concerned with disgust and rage; and it took him three months to learn even the rudiments of his trade. But he persevered in the face of threats, abuse, and discouragement, and at the end of a ten months voyage had attained, in his own opinion, the status of a second-class sea-cook.

The idiosyncrasies of the Henry seem to have been even more trying than those of the Wizard. She was "a most uneasy craft," says Mulford, "always getting up extra lurches, or else trying to stand on her head or stern." He had to perform acrobatic feats in his cramped cook's galley, and when whaling was actually in process he was shoved into any available corner, to be out of the way, and remarks that he "expected eventually to be hoisted into one of the tops, and left to cook aloft." He looked back on this year as the busiest of his whole life, for he was up early and late, and had to act as single-handed cook, scullery-maid, and steward for a company of twenty men. Even his stove was not a proper marine stove with a rail round it to keep pots and pans from falling off, and he had to invent an ingenious system of wires by which his cooking-pots and their lids were attached to the ceiling, so that when lurched off their holes they could not fall, but swung to and fro like so many pendulums.

What was purgatory for the cook was nothing better for the crew. We hear some grisly tales of coffee made with salt water; of a dead mouse rolled up inadvertently in a mass of dough, and served up steaming hot for breakfast"an involuntary meat-pie"; of uneatable "duffs” with the currants evincing "a tendency to hold mass meetings at the bottom"; and of terrifying sausages made of whale-meat, which "has an individuality of its own," and "will keep on asserting itself, no matter how much spice and pepper is put upon it. It is a wild, untamed steed." But the undaunted one still cooked on persistently, while, in his own words, "those I served stood aghast, not knowing what would come next." He admits with some naiveté that he was "an experimental cook," but the reader is left in doubt as to whether any ship's crew would have been quite so long-suffering as depicted, had not the cook's successes outweighed his failures.

Certain dishes which proved popular are, it is true, mentioned. They included a strange-sounding sea-mince-pie, "one of the few feathers in my culinary cap"; stewed turtle tripe, and abalone soup. Probably there were others, for it is difficult to believe that one who showed such dauntless perseverance could have been a complete failure, or that Mulford's viewsto which he returns more than onceon the extreme importance of the gastronomic art could have been held by one without some talent in that direction. He considered that the cook at sea "should come next or near to the captain. It is the cook who prepares the material that shall put mental and physical strength into human bodies. He is, in fact, a chemist . . . who prepares meat, flour, and vegetables for their invisible and still more wonderful treatment in the laboratory which every man and woman possessesthe stomachwherein they are converted not only into blood, bone, nerve, sinew, and muscle, but into thoughts. A good cook may help materially to make good poetry. An indigestible beefsteak, fried in grease to leather, may, in the stomach of a General lose a battle on which shall depend the fate of nations. A good cook might have won the battle. . . . It would be a far better and happier world were there more really good cooks on land and sea."

At a later period of his life Mulford himself seems to have suffered from the operations of one whom he describes as "an unbalanced cook." This was one of his mining partners who was apt to get anxious and flurried while cooking, and Mulford found that "an unbalanced cook puts flurries into his stews, for I felt sometimes as if trying to digest a whirl wind after eating his dinners." Further, he gives it as his opinion that "two hours work about a hot stove exhausts more than four hours work out-of-doors," and that the European women who work in the fields are better off than the American women who spend the greater part of their time in the kitchen.

All things considered, it is plain that he had not found his true métier in life among the saucepans.

But relief was not yet at hand.



THE Henry lay for four or five months in St. Barthol-omew's, or Turtle Bay, all handsexcept the cookengaged in finding and curing abalones, a kind of shell-fish. The lovely prismatic hues of the shells made them valuable for inlaid work, and the contents, when cured and dried, were intended for the Chinese market in San Francisco.

Mulford gives some vivid and arresting pictures of the sights and sounds that often drew him away from his labours during these monthsof the howling of the coyotes; of the swarms of black sea-birds that gathered on the rocks every morning at dawn, and remained "crowded thickly together, all silent and immovable, until apparently they had finished some Quaker form of morning devotion"; of the wonderful mirage, in which regularly before sunrise the towers, battlements, and spires of some ancient city seemed shadowed forth in the sky, all veiled in a mysterious purple haze. He tells of the chattering Sandwich Islanders who formed the greater part of the crew, and their interminable, monotonous Kanaka chants which haunted him for the rest of his life; and of his efforts to circumvent their thieving propensities by laying hot stove-covers on his kitchen floor, with the result that his own bare feet were burnt more frequently than theirs; of two shipwrecked American sailors rescued from a neighbouring island, one of whom was "a powerful talker"; but the other "never spoke unless under compulsion. . . . Once in a great while there came from him a slight shower of sentences and facts which fell gratefully on our parched ears, but as a rule the verbal drought was chronic. "However, the speechless one had other qualities that commanded respect. His  greatest use to mankind lay in his hands, in which all his brain power concentrated, instead of in his tongue. From splicing a cable to skinning a seal he was an ultra-proficient. Others might tell how, and tell well, but Miller did it."

During the abalone-gathering Mulford was left on the vessel all day, from dawn till sunset, "alone with my own thoughts, pots, pans, and kettles. . . . No companions save gulls in the air and sharks in the water." The gulls were sociable, and occasionally entered the cabin to pick up crumbs, and he can scarcely find words to express his amazement at their capacity for food. "A Pacific-coast gull does not feed," he says. "It seeks simply to fill up the vast, unfathomable space within. Eternity is, of course, without end, but the nearest approach to eternity must be the inside of a gull; I would say stomach, but a stomach implies metes and bounds, and there is no proof that there are any metes or bounds inside of a gull."

In the intervals of preparing an evening meal for the hungry "insides" of his absent comrades, the self-made cook had plenty of time for observing the animal and bird life surrounding him, and so entertaining are some of his comments and descriptions that one feels he must have had in him the makings of a successful naturalist. Apart from such observations, however, we are told little of the thoughts that filled his mind during these long solitary days. Knowing what we do of his later life, we may conclude that they ranged far and wide, and touched on subjects that would have astonished those who looked on him merely as the ship's provider of meals, good, bad, or indifferent.

He makes no mention of books, and probably none existed on a whaling-vessel, but this deprivation would not be a great one to a thinker of Mulford's particular type. In one of his essays he inveighs against the dangers of too much reading. "New thought," he says, "cannot come from books or from the minds of others. . . . If you depend altogether on books or people for new thought, you are living on borrowed life. . . . You must draw your own sustenance from the infinite reservoir of truthful thought." He evidently acted on this conviction, for after his death a friend wrote: "In his earlier years he was afraid of reading many books. He wished to receive all his impressions at first-hand, and not to confuse his mind with the individual ideas and impressions of many others."

No doubt the freshness and raciness that characterise his writings are partly due to this avoidance of books. Yet a closer familiarity with the great minds of the past, and with the beauty and dignity of great literature, might have given them a quality that is lacking, while enabling him to avoid the faults of confused expression, clumsy construction, and undue repetition which annoy many of his readers. A man who has something new to sayas Mulford undoubtedly hadwill not say it any the worse for having cultivated a sense of style. "To study the great masters of prose and poetry who have preceded him does not necessarily induce slavish imitation and loss of originality in the student. That is a danger only to the weak, and Mulford was not of their company, despite his emphatically expressed fear of "the rules and canons of art, which shackle and repress originality." "Genius," he says, "knows no old master," thus declaring himself, long before their day, in sympathy with those modern schools of poets, painters, and musicians who desire to escape from the trammels of classical tradition in every form of art-expression.

Whether he would have approved of the extreme forms taken, in their attempts to overthrow form, by the efforts of some of these modernists, is a question we can scarcely attempt to answer. Nor would the opinion of one who had little of the artist in his composition be of any real value.

To return to the Henry and her experimental cook, we find that the months of comparative peace in Turtle Bay were brought to an end by a passing steamer with news of a sudden fall in the market price of abalones. "So we hauled up anchor," says Mulford, "and hunted the sea-lion and the whale."

This new quest brought them to Marguerita Bay, on the Mexican coast, and here the unhappy cook's trials recommenced and even increased. In the lagoons that ran parallel with the coast for a hundred miles or more, the Henry grounded at each ebb-tide, usually keeling over at an angle of forty-five degrees. Awkward as this was for those who had to take their meals at a table set at such an angle, it was still more awkward for the cook-cum-steward-cum-butler.

His stove worked badly, and kettles and saucepans could be only half-filled, but to transfer the food from the fire to the cabin-table was the real problem. "Transit from galley to cabin," he says, "was accomplished by crawling on two legs and one arm, thus making of myself a peripatetic human triangle, while the unoccupied hand with difficulty bore aloft the soup-tureen. It was then I appreciated the great advantages afforded in certain circumstances by the prehensile caudal termination of our possible remote ancestors. With such a properly equipped appendage, the steward might have taken a close hitch round an eye-bolt, and let all the rest of himself and his dishes safely down into the little cabin. It is questionable whether man's condition has been physically improved by the process of evolution."

The lagoons of Marguerita Bay were used by the female whales, or "cows," as a nursery. Here in the spring months they gathered to bring forth their young, while the male parents remained outsideand here came man to track them down, knowing them unprotected and hampered by the half-grown "calves," whom they would never desert. Mulford often watched them "play with their young, and roll and thrash about in mammoth gambols." "There is a great deal of affection," he remarks," in that big carcass." His description of the killing of a whale is so vivid as to be almost blood-curdling, and, while fully alive to the horror and cruelty of it from the whale's point of view, he gives full credit to the human courage required for such an enterprise. "It is no skulking fight like shooting lions and tigers from the shelter of trees or rocks. It’s a fair stand-up combat between half-a-dozen men in an egg-shell of a boat and five hundred tons of flesh, bone, and muscle, which, if only animated by a few more grains of sense, could ram the whale-ship herself as effectually as an ironclad." When the great creature is at last overcome . . . "it is a mighty death," he says, "a wonderful escape of vitality, power, affection, intelligence, too, and all from the mere pin's prick of an implement in the hands of yon meddlesome, cruel, audacious, greedy, unfeeling pygmies. . . . All the while the calf lingers by the dying mother’s side." And later, when the carcass has been stripped of its blubber, when gulls and sharks have had their fill, and the vast, mutilated, gaseous, swollen mass is cast adrift, to be swept to and fro by wind and tide, the calf still keeps it company, until dead of starvation or merci fully devoured by sharks.

Mulford recounts all this with a certain pity, but it is a detached, impersonal pity. He was not, apparently, shaken by the deep passion and loathing that would have filled the hearts of many men on seeing such outrages committed in the sacred name of "Trade"; nor was he at this time inspired, like Saint Francis, with an abiding sense of the universal Divine Life in all sentient creatures. Yet certain of his later writings show a clear awareness of this, and knowing that he was always, in his own degree, a mystic, and endowed with refined and sensitive feelings, we needs must wonder how he ever endured the appalling sights, smells, and sounds of these awful days. Of the smells he has, indeed, much to say. There seems to be nothing in the universe that can be aptly compared to the smell of boiling blubber and decaying whale combined, and he even tells us how, when serving the meals, he often had to climb and crawl over the huge chunks of blubber which were piled all over the deck and up to the top of the bulwarks.

After six weeks whaling the Henry set sail for the lonely island of Guadalupe, 200 miles off the coast of Lower California. Here, says Mulford, "it was our business to murder all the mother sea-lions . . . and a boat-load of murderers was quickly sent on shore." But for once luck was on the side of the to-be-murdered, for the boat's crew disappeared, and was not seen again for three days. At the end of this time they returned to the ship in a much-battered yawl that they had found on one of the island beaches, probably left there by former sealers, and it transpired that they had lost sight of the Henry in a fog, been driven ashore, had their boat smashed to pieces in a semi-hurricane, and lived on shell fish in the interval. The cook was kept busy; they ate steadily for an hour. 

No sooner was this adventure over than the ship was caught in a treacherous current that threatened to drive her straight on to an enormous rock, five hundred feet high. Just in time a breeze sprang up and saved her, but, says Mulford, "we trifled no more with Guadalupe, but sailed straight away for our old harbour."

As the Henry thus ignominiously departed, there was heard "the howling and barking of what, judged by the sound, might have been ten thousand seals. It was as the roaring of a dozen combined menageries. . . . These seals were howling at our discomfiture. The rock was half veiled in a mist, through which we could indistinctly see their countless forms writhing and tumbling about."

This was the end of Mulford's youthful sea-experiences. He landed at San Francisco after a ten months’ cruise with a share of the proceeds amounting to 250 dollars; shipped, after a time, as cook on a coasting schooner, but was discharged before he left the wharf, his preliminary efforts having failed to please the captain’s palate. When he next set foot on the deck of a ship it was to steam eastwards to New York, after sixteen years of laborious exile.

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