Spiritualism (American History Through Literature)
In 1848 in a Hydesville, New York, farmhouse, mysterious noises were heard in the daughters' bedroom. Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811896), author of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), would later ridicule those noises as "tippings and tappings and rappings" (p. 130). Thirteen-year-old Margaret Fox and twelve-year-old Kate Fox concluded that the noises were the ghost of a deceased peddler telling them that he had been murdered in the house and buried in the cellar. The girls tapped on the bedstead, the ghost tapped back, their mother interpreted, and this conversation with the dead inspired a vast movement that converted thousands in the United States to a metaphysical belief in the communication between the dead and the living: spiritualism. The first half of the nineteenth century was a time when many Americans had begun to doubt their Christian faith and consequently to despair of an afterlife; they looked for alternative routes. The more sensational aspects of the movement had abated by 1870, but a spiritualist influence continued in works such as William Dean Howells's critique of spiritualism, The Undiscovered Country (1880); Henry James's satire of the movement, The Bostonians (1886); Mark Twain's "Mental Telegraphy," an 1891 anecdotal essay that verified the source of psychic phenomena as natural science as opposed to the ghostly world of the supernatural; and Of One Blood; or, The Hidden Self (1901902) by the African American editor and writer Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins, who took her subtitle from an essay by the philosopher William James on the connection between the supernatural and science.
THE VOICE OF SPIRITUALISM
In its heyday spiritualism depended on "mediums," who were individuals employed by departed spirits to convey their sentiments. Mediums such as the Fox sisters were considered earthly gifted souls who both evoked and mediated the language of the dead speaking from beyond the grave; the knocks would not occur unless a medium was in the room. Women were considered especially apt mediums because mediumship was conceived as passive receivership of the spiritual worldn analog to the gender roles of the time. Nevertheless women asserted themselves through spiritualism, eventually taking to the wearing of veils and exploiting the theatricality of their position. That spiritualism gave unique opportunities to women was a fact not missed by the misogynistic satirist Q. K. Philander Doesticks (Mortimer Thomson, 1871875), who attacked those "accommodating 'spirits' [who filter] through the 'Medium' of those crack-brained masculine women, or addle-headed feminine men who profess to act as go-betweens from Earth to the Spirit World" (p. 13). Money was an especially unusual dividend for female professionals of the time; Margaret and Kate Fox earned $100 a night in mediumistic demonstrations in New York in 1850. The famous trance speaker Cora Hatch not only managed to make quite a bit of money from an early age, she had amassed enough power at age seventeen to be granted something virtually unheard of during the time divorce.
Communication with spirits took place at interpretive séances; in the early days, spirits could only say yes or no or provide a numerical answer according to a medium's predetermined code of rappings. The exception to this was the Fox sisters, who spelled out words laboriously by calling out letters and waiting for verification by a corresponding rap. By the 1860s trance speaking and spirit writing (often enhanced by the aid of the planchette) allowed for much longer and more coherent messages. Séances continued throughout the movement's heyday into the 1870s. Many famous people participated in the spirit world of table rappings. For example, Rufus Griswold, a prominent editor, held a séance with the Fox sisters and included among the guests the editor Nathaniel Parker Willis; James Fenimore Cooper, author of the Leatherstocking Tales; the poet William Cullen Bryant; and the transcendentalist philosopher George Ripley. Lest one assume that all great men of the time were skeptics, it is interesting to note that this séance made quite an impact. Willis wrote it up in the Home Journal and Ripley in the New York Tribune. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes tales, claimed that Cooper thanked the Foxes on his deathbed for the peace that they had brought him by putting him in touch with his dead sister.
THE PHILOSOPHY OF SPIRITUALISM
Whereas women were more often the mediums, men were usually the ones to argue in print for the move-ment's legitimacy. Andrew Jackson Davis (1826910), a former mesmerist, or hypnotist, wrote The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind (1847). Davis constructed an optimistic metaphysics of ever-evolving immortal spirits desirous of rapport with mortals who would themselves subsequently evolve through the contact. In ideas like his some saw a connection between spiritualism and Unitarianism and Swedenborgianism. (Mesmerism originated in the 1840s and was most notably fictionalized in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance.)
Along with Davis, another convert to spiritualism was Judge John Edmonds of the New York Supreme Court, who edited Spiritualism, a collection of séance communications in two volumes that was published in 1853. Another distinguished spiritualist was the radical reformer and educator Robert Dale Owen (1801877), although Owen rejected the more sensationalized aspects of spiritualism, such as table rapping. His introspective Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World, published in Philadelphia in 1860, sold two thousand copies in a week and four thousand in the first three months. The son of an English reformer, Owen had edited labor newspapers in the United States and was at the time the best-known American to write a spiritualist treatise. Owen was known for careful investigation and cautious conclusions. The most concrete contemporary account of the historical sequence of spiritualist table-rapping incidents is Eliab Capron's Modern Spiritualism: Its Facts and Fanaticisms, Its Consistencies and Contradictions (1855). Capron recounts a prolific number of spiritualist events that he claims to transcribe directly from sources including newspapers, journals, and direct testimony, providing his own transitions and occasional commentary on the events.
In addition to the works above, a number of spiritualist journals were published, including the Spiritual Telegraph, Light from the Spirit World, and Disclosures from the Interior and Superior Care for Mortals. Invariably these periodicals included examples of automatic writing, such as selections from Lizzie Dotten's Poems from the Inner Life (1869). Automatic writing was the involuntary transcription by the medium of often lengthy messages from those in the afterworld. Quickly the spiritualist movement diversified through automatic writing into longer treatises than the blunt question and answer sessions produced by table rappings or the planchette. Mediums who did automatic writing were frequently visited by the spirits of Romantic poets and other literary greats. Dotten, for example, alleged that her poems were transcriptions of new work as well as sage messages from Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, and Robert Burns. Thomas Lake Harris believed that his work came to him through the Romantic poets Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. The gothic caste of his own poetry, coupled with his mysterious death, made Poe a particular magnet for spiritualists. Even the spiritualist poet Thomas Holley Chivers, who had infamously accused Poe of plagiarizing "The Raven" and "Ulalume" from him, felt it necessary to defend the poet after his death from the claims of Mrs. Lydia M. Tenney that she was trance-writing Poe. Sarah Helen Whitman, Poe's onetime fiancée and the subject of his second "To Helen" poem, became a famous Poe medium with claims to legitimacy. In 1853 she published Hours of Life and Other Poems, a testament to her spiritualist attachment to Poe.
Whitman claimed that she and Poe shared a common bloodline, and she used Poe's reputation as a source by which to gain public recognition. Throughout the nineteenth century, spiritualist women extended their feminism beyond woman suffrage to include broader concerns, such as economics, women's dress, and marriage laws. By 1871, when the future suffra-gist Victoria Woodhull combined her leadership of the National Convention of Spiritualists with a meeting of the National Woman Suffrage Association, it was clear that a legendary merger between women's liberation and spiritualism had finally occurred, although spiritualist feminists would continue to push beyond the suffragists' advocacy of the woman's vote.
LITERARY ATTACKS AGAINST SPIRITUALISM
As one might expect, humorists and sometime humorists had a field day with what they alleged to be the pretensions of spiritualism, especially its pomposity, imposition on the gullible, undeserved profitability, and as seen in the quote from Mortimer Thomson above, the elevation of at least certain women to positions of power and influence during a time when men were supposed to rule the business sphere. One jibe at the movement's pomposity came from the New England sage James Russell Lowell (1819891), whose "The Unhappy Lot of Mr. Knott" was a long narrative parody of the Fox incident. In the Lowell version poor A. Gordon Knott, who has shown dubious architectural taste in fashioning his faux medieval mansion and worse judgment in choosing a certain Colonel Jones to wed his daughter Jenny, is snookered into thinking his house is haunted by "Those raps that unwrapped mysteries / So rapidly in Rochester" (p. 96). The poem is full of bad puns, including one about Knott's dead wife, who, "to rule him from her urn" might "have taken a peripatetic turn / For want of exorcising" (p. 97). Lowell pokes fun at alphabetical rapping and insinuates that the Fox sisters manufactured their sounds through toe cracking, a common accusation that Margaret ultimately confirmed in her old age. Even the Foxes' murdered peddler shows up in Lowell's poem, murdered by Colonel Jones. In the end Jenny and her real lover, Dr. Slade, marry as a result of staging the whole event.
Although the larger-than-life newspaper editor Horace Greeley vouched for spiritualism, P. T. Barnum, famous stager of spectacles and circuses, dismissed spiritualists as "humbugs" and took glee in revealing their behind-the-scenes tricks. The philosopher Oliver Wendell Holmes called spiritualism a "plague," and the editor of the Knickerbocker, Lewis Gaylord Clark, staged a hoax of his own to expose the fraudulence of séances. In "Among the Spirits," published in 1858, the humorist Artemus Ward uses a gullible narrator, so uneducated that he speaks in dialect, to mock Andrew Jackson Davis's concept of spiritual evolution in the afterlife. At a séance the narrator calls up the "Sperret" of his old pal William Tompkins to find out that, incredibly, the semiliterate Tompkins is with the seventeenth-century religious poet John Bunyan, Shakespeare, and the poet and playwright Ben Jonson in a circus. Tompkins disappears when the narrator asks about the money his dead friend owes him, to be replaced by the narrator's father, who says he is ashamed of his son's writing career because "Litteratoor is low" (p. 42). The narrator concludes that "Sperret rappers . . . air abowt the most ornery set of cusses I ever encountered in my life" (p. 43).
The longest parody of spiritualism is the story "The Apple-Tree Table; or, Original Spiritual Manifestations" (1856) by Herman Melville (1819891). The tale of a table haunted by 150-year-old bugs is based on an incident in the Berkshires that Henry David Thoreau also used in Walden as a symbol of resurrection. Hawthorne's "The Custom-House" is also evoked at the opening by the narrator's description of finding the table, upon which is a "ghostly, dismantled old quarto" (p. 9), in a closed garret of his home thought by popular sentiment to be haunted. As the narrator reads in the parlor at night from Magnalia, the Puritan minister Cotton Mather's work on witchcraft, he is terrified to observe the "cloven feet" (p. 9) of the table. Soon, after an obvious allusion to the "Fox Girls," the table begins to "tick!" (p. 21). When they hear the ticking, the narrator's daughters immediately assume the table is haunted. The narrator occupies a midway ground between doubt and credulity and establishes his wife as the commonsense skeptic whose "naturalist" perspective wins out over his irrational fears and the daughters' insistence that they "consult Madame Pazza, the conjuress" (p. 49). "Conjuress" is an intriguing possible reference to African spiritualism; the Quaker abolitionists and ardent spiritualists Amy Post and Isaac Post may have found inspiration for their beliefs in their contact with the spiritual tales of African American slaves in the Underground Railroad. The famous African American radical thinker W. E. B. Du Bois writes that all "American fairy tales and folk-lore are Indian and African" (p. 14) and that native Africans had a "profound belief in invisible surrounding influences, good and bad" (p. 141). The scholar Ann Braude notes that white spiritualists were welcomed into African American churches.
Though "The Apple-Tree Table" is lighthearted, Melville implies within it a link between spiritualism and demonism, declaring in the wife's voice that "all good Christians" have nothing to fear (p. 28). In this he echoes what many religious leaders of the time were saying about the movement. In 1854 the former transcendentalist Orestes Brownson published a novel called The Spirit-Rapper in which the first-person narrator converts from mesmerism to spiritualism and later denounces the movement as the work of Satan. Brownson reiterates here his own personal conversion to Roman Catholicism. Harriet Beecher Stowe's brother Charles also connected spiritualism with demonism in his 1853 "Review of the 'Spiritual Manifestations.'" The famous Beecher family, seldom a united front, is always interesting to watch as its members take adamant stands on cultural issues only to recant them, sometimes in ambiguous ways. Isabella Beecher Hooker was an ardent advocate of spiritualism, as she was of free love (love without legal restrictions) and feminismhree movements that were intimately associated during this period. But her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe published three condemnations of spiritualism in her brother Henry Ward Beecher's Christian Union in 1870, complaining that spiritualism's promise of easy immortality had preempted faith in "the great beneficent miracles recorded in Scripture" (p. 130). Stowe's ambivalence about spiritualism can be seen in the fact that only two years earlier Stowe had approved the planchette. Her neighbor Mark Twain echoed Stowe's later sentiments that this Ouija device was too easy a purchase of heaven.
SPIRITUALISM AND DOMESTICITY
Stowe's earlier plans to write an essay in 1868 approving the planchette did not materialize, perhaps because she was anticipated in that same year by the actress and journalist Kate Field (1838896), whose Planchette's Diary is a much more lighthearted publication than Stowe would have intended. Unlike Stowe's somber approach to the spiritualist movement, Field's work is a cheerful account of her relationship with what she drolly calls "Madam" Planchette even though the planchette is controlled by the spirit of Field's dead father. The father's staunch character serves Field in defending "Madam" against the most common accusation that spiritualism is a fraud. As he rather irascibly responds to the questions of Field's associates, the father asks how he can be expected to know the answers when they are outside his experience and unrelated to the interests and sentiments of his daughter, whom he uses as his medium. Field's entertaining accounts of a number of her soirees cleverly bat away, as if they were irritating gnats, every conceivable objection to the workings of the planchette. The planchette does not always get names right, for example, because "The mind never dwells upon names in spiritual life" (p. 16). Names do come up, however, and often the planchette reveals surprising results. Field uses only initialsr. O., Miss C.n her recounting of her numerous planchette evenings. But one clue suggests that all these evenings really happened and with famous participants. Mr. G., for example, uses initials, but the planchette is able to discern that his unused first name is Richard and his middle name is Watson; Field discloses Mr. G. is an editor, and the surmise must be that this is the then assistant editor of Century Magazine, Richard Watson Gilder.
Another possible reason for Harriet Beecher Stowe's ambivalence about spiritualism was that her good friend and fellow writer Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844911) published two works in 1868 that touched positively on spiritualist themes. Her novel The Gates Ajar features the heroine's search for consolation after the death of her brother in the Civil War and the reassurance of her aunt that the dead are still in the mortal sphere. The book does not profess spiritualism per se but certainly opens the door to communication between the living and the dead. Aunt Winifred's conviction is that the dead are still around one, aiding one, in corporeal form; the novel even suggests that Aunt Winifred can commune with her own dead husband.
Phelps treats spiritualism more overtly in "The Day of My Death," an inverted mirror image of Melville's "The Apple-Tree Table." Here the mother, Allis, is credulous about the onslaught of rappings in her new home, while her husband Fred's skepticism leads him to exhaust all natural explanations until he finally believes the rappings and levitations are actually happening. They accelerate when Allis's spiritualist cousin Gertrude arrives for a visit wearing the standard medium's garb, a green barege veil. Gertrude, interpreting the uncanny from a spiritualist perspective, predicts that Fred is to die on a particular soon-approaching day. Although Phelps writes her tale as fiction, she claims that it actually occurred and that she has reliable witnesses to verify it. In her fictionalized version, however, the husband's prophesied death is proven inaccurate. Phelps's unwillingness to turn spiritualism morbid at the end is fueled by her instincts for what will sell.
What remains most surprising about the midcentury beginnings of the spiritualist movement in America is the manner in which it captured the entire nation, both in popular culture and in the realms of the most respected writers. During these years the waning faith in traditional religion and consequent unfulfilled longing for an afterlife, together with spiritualism's tie-in between faith and the scientific empiricism engendered by burgeoning technologies equally obsessed with fields of electrical magnetism, lent an integrity and fervor to the spiritualist movement that may never have again.
See also Death; Feminism; The Gates Ajar; Journals and Diaries; Philosophy; Religion; Satire, Burlesque, and Parody; Theater
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