Isis in America: The Classic Eyewitness Account of Mme. Blavatsky's Journey to America and the Occult Revolution She Ignited

Henry Steel Olcott
New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2014. 480 pp., paper, $15.95.

Isis in America is a new edition of one of the most fascinating books in Theosophical literature: the first volume of Henry Steel Olcott's Old Diary Leaves, first published in 1895. Olcott began his work on Old Diary Leaves a few years previously as a series of articles in The Theosophist magazine. He wrote the articles, and later the six-volume edition of Old Diary Leaves, to present an eyewitness account of his work with H.P. Blavatsky and the formation of the Theosophical Society. He felt it was important to counteract false information already being circulated about the founders and the Society. He did a masterful job: the book is not only informative, but at times entertaining and in a few instances hilariously funny.

As early as 1895 Olcott noticed that there was a tendency among some to deify Mme. Blavatsky. He knew her better than anyone other than her teachers, and he knew full well that she was a human being with amazing abilities coupled with a difficult temperament and many faults. In his foreword, Olcott writes, "It was but too evident that unless I spoke out . . . the true history of our movement could never be written, nor the actual merit of my wonderful colleague become known."

Olcott begins his narrative by telling us how he met Mme. Blavatsky. He goes on to report on her unfortunate marriage to a younger man in Philadelphia, a marriage that only lasted a few months. HPB claimed the union was the result of karma and was her punishment for "her awful pride and combativeness," which impeded her spiritual development. We learn how the Theosophical Society came to be, and we are told about Olcott presiding over the first cremation in the U.S. Blavatsky did not take part in the funeral "service," but she was heard from nonetheless, and in a most amusing way. The book goes on with the history through to the time when Blavatsky and Olcott left for India in 1878.

This new edition ends with a valuable timeline of Olcott's life, compiled by Mitch Horowitz, editor-in-chief of Tarcher/Penguin.

Ed Abdill

The reviewer is former vice-president of the TS and author of The Secret Gateway: Modern Theosophy and the Ancient Wisdom Tradition (Quest Books).