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Say “Fountaingrove” in Sonoma County these days and the most immediate reaction would be something about expensive hilltop dwellings, or the parkway or the round barn. Or maybe it would be a reminder of the dismal winery ruins that were recently wiped off the face of the hill, thereby following the rest of what was once a rich and somewhat famous Utopian community into oblivion.

Say “Thomas Lake Harris” and the response would be something about a street the goes left off the parkway.

However, there is a history to Fountaingrove that is many-faceted.

I go way back with Thomas Lake Harris. I have written columns through the years about the old devil, trying in a short space to explain his hold over the “pilgrims” who followed his teachings as members of his Brotherhood of the New Life.

It’s not an easy task. Harris’ beliefs are, well, for want of a better word, bizarre.

This has never been more clear than in a new book, to be released Tuesday, about his relationship with a British writer named Laurence Oliphant, whose global adventures took him from the Far East to Palestine, earned him a seat in the British Parliament and tossed him on top of a heap of seekers who followed Harris into his strange spiritual world.

Santa Rosans of the late 1800s didn’t even try to understand all the tenets of Harris’ “theosocialism,” which was complex beyond comprehension, borrowing from so many of the world’s religions that one scholar would term him “an ecclesiastical octopus,” reaching out for the parts that fit his vision.

He was introduced to the community by the Sonoma Democrat, Santa Rosa’s newspaper in the 19th century, as “a wealthy Eastern gentleman who has built an expensive estate “ on the old Henderson Holmes Ranch, “to entertain important visitors.”

The town’s elite, including the Episcopal minister, several physicians, the district attorney and most of the bankers and merchants dined often at Fountaingrove and rose to defend Harris when his practices were questioned by a visiting writer from Boston.

Luther Burbank went to parties at Fountaingrove. The well-known poet Edwin Markham was a regular visitor when he taught in Santa Rosa at the Christian College on B Street.

But Santa Rosans had to be intrigued by the comings and goings, particularly of the Japanese contingent, headed by Kanaye Nagasawa, arguably one of the first, if not THE first, Japanese immigrants to the United States. Still, the community was apparently treated with nothing but respect. If there were suspicions that Harris’ beliefs were a bit odd, they weren’t made public.

Truth be told — as it is in Bart Casey’s new book, Harris’ Brotherhood “guidelines” were odder than anyone imagined.

“The Double Life of Laurence Oliphant,” published by New York City’s Post Hill Press, is the result of a chance encounter Casey had in his student days, deep in the stacks of the Harvard Library, with a shelf full of books about amazing prophecies and poetry dictated to the poet from “the Celestial Sphere.”

The poet and prophet was Thomas Lake Harris and Casey was off on a lifelong exploration of his life and the stranger-than-fiction stories of those who followed him.

Casey’s original manuscript includes Nagasawa — his success as a vineyardist and vintner (Fountain Grove wines were the first from California to be sold in New York and in Britain), his subsequent ownership of Fountaingrove, his role in Japanese immigration and his honors in Japan.

As it happens, Nagasawa’s life story is being told in the current exhibit at the History Museum of Sonoma County (the Old Post Office, if you prefer).

Casey, who visited Santa Rosa a couple of years ago to see what has become of Harris’ “Eden of the West” here, has actually written two volumes about all this, the first being the Oliphant connection. The second one, still to be published, is about Harris and Nagasawa at Fountaingrove.

In a note sent with the advance copy of his book, Casey asks that we consider the Oliphant book “just the first part of the tale.”

(It should probably be noted that many of the same books that piqued Casey’s curiosity in the Harvard Library may be found in a Special Collections archive in the Schulz Library at Sonoma State University. Seekers have no need to go to Harvard to discover Harris’ divine truths.)

...

THOSE “TRUTHS” take a lot of explaining. Putting it as simply as I can, I would say that Harris’ “religion” (which it really wasn’t; he gave up any organized faith system early in his ministerial life), had several tenets:

*A male-female deity known as the Two-in-One.

*Internal Respirationism, a practice that afforded the faithful the gift of Divine Breath that provided access to the Celestial Sphere.

*Prohibition against earthly marriage (with some exceptions) in favor of a counterpart in the Celestial Sphere. Harris’ was Queen Lily of the Conjugal Angels, who bore him celestial children.

*And, finally, the firm belief that Harris was the Father and Pivot and Primate and King, the direct link between God and man.

There’s more. But that’s enough to give you the general idea.

...

WHILE THIS NEW book’s title focuses on the multiple facets of Oliphant’s diplomatic and literary careers, as well as his lifelong search for spiritual guidance, it is almost as much about Harris, his “guru “ in modern terms, and, as the Grateful Dead put it, “the long, strange trip” Harris set him on.

Casey’s work is a new, more studied, look at these subjects. Up to now, writers who have tackled this task have been academics of a religious bent, spiritualists, people related to Oliphant, devoted disciples of Harris or enterprising authors turning it all into fiction.

Casey has taken a hard look at his subjects, without the faintest intention of believing any of it.

We follow Laurence Oliphant, born in Ceylon to a diplomat father and delicate mother, as he accompanies Lord Elgin on his history-making trip to the Far East in the 1850s and becomes a diplomat, a member of Parliament, a regular contributor to London’s Blackwood’s magazine, a popular writer of books about his adventures, and a “man about town” with an affinity for the ladies, presumably mutual.

When his father dies, Laurence and his mother, Lady Catherine Oliphant, following a mutual interest in spiritualism, are introduced to Harris who has come to London on a lecture tour … and the rest? Well, that’s what Casey’s book is all about.

I’m not going to give away the plot here.

As you have probably guessed, the Oliphant-Harris relationship, although it lasts some 30 years, does not end well. Nor does Harris’ 15 year adventure at Fountaingrove, which ended abruptly in the 1891, leaving the vineyards and his hilltop heaven in the care of Nagasawa, a much different sort of man.

As Eric Stanley, history curator at the museum, pointed out in a lecture on the subject this week, there are far too many threads to weave, too many Fountaingrove stories to tell all at one time.

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