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3. Utopian Promise   

3. Gothic Undercurrents

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Activities: Context Activities

The Spirit Is Willing:
The Occult and Women in the Nineteenth Century

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There's a Charm
about the Old Love Still

[7053] A. J. Dewey, There's a Charm about the Old Love Still (1901),
courtesy of the Library of Congress and Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University, Durham, NC.
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The nineteenth century saw an upsurge of interest in occult and supernatural phenomena, especially attempts to contact the spirits of dead loved ones. Enlightenment reason had by now taken its toll on the Calvinist faith of early America and its belief in original sin: far fewer people believed in a God who directly intervened in the affairs of the world, dispensing generous or harmful miracles as appropriate to convey his judgment. Indeed, the "invisible world," as Cotton Mather called the realm of divinity and spirits in 1693, had by the 1850s largely receded from the daily thoughts of many Americans. The Deist God was now prominent: this was the famous "clock-maker," who established the laws of the universe at the creation, but who never interfered with the mechanism after winding it up.

Our current notions of a clear distinction between science and religion did not exist much before the twentieth century. At least until the eighteenth century, science was called "natural philosophy" and was only one way of deepening one's understanding of self, nature, and divinity. Cotton Mather had also been a scientist, fascinated by God's creation as a way of reading the attitudes of the Creator, and Sir Isaac Newton wrote a lengthy treatise on the Book of Revelation. As Ann Braude argues in her book Radical Spirits, it should not be surprising, then, that many nineteenth-century Americans saw no less reason to believe in ghosts and mediums than they did to believe in what seemed like the equally improbable idea of the telegraph: both involved communication that crossed apparently insuperable barriers. Spiritualism, as the spirit-contacting movement was called, allowed Americans who were becoming more inclined to trust science than miracles to retain a belief in the afterlife based on what appeared to be repeatable, objective evidence and experiment.

It is not accidental that women were the main agents of nineteenth-century spiritualism. A science/religion that allowed direct contact with the invisible world without institutional hierarchy, it carved a place for women to provide religious leadership. In 1848, the Fox sisters, Margaret, Leah, and Catherine, reported hearing spirit rappings in their Arcadia, New York, home and went on to be the driving force in American spiritualism. They organized "performances" in which they demonstrated their abilities as mediums and drew condemnation from some male clergy. Women interfering with established religious structures had been an American anxiety at least since Anne Hutchinson in the seventeenth century--an anxiety especially apparent in the heavily gendered accusations of the Salem witch trials. Perhaps in response to the women who attempted to cross patriarchal boundaries, a social phenomenon sometimes called the cult of true womanhood developed and began to have widespread influence in nineteenth-century America. This ideology, or set of assumptions and beliefs, solidly relegated women to the home and explicitly rejected the possibility of women engaging in public leadership. Scholar Barbara Welter suggests that, through such vehicles as women's magazines and religious literature, the cult of true womanhood prescribed four cardinal virtues for women: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Women, it was thought, had as their proper roles nurturer, comforter, and homemaker. In the public realm--whether political or religious--women, like children, were meant to be seen and not heard. "True" women in this sense were patriotic and God-fearing; anyone who opposed this ideology was seen as an enemy of God, civilization, and America itself. One of the most famous women to challenge this idea of womanhood was Victoria Woodhull, who combined a belief in spiritualism with crusades for women's suffrage and free love. She was also the first woman to address a joint session of Congress and ran for president in 1871 (an attempt that ended in failure when her past as a prostitute was exposed).

For all these reasons, we should not be surprised to see gothic writers reveal concerns about how gender relates to the spirit world. The narrator of Edgar Allan Poe's "Ligeia" imputes a witchlike, supernatural willpower to his beloved. He imagines that she is able to transcend the boundary between life and death and is therefore both exciting and threatening. Henry Ward Beecher, in his sermon "The Strange Woman," displays a similar fear as he warns against the almost supernatural power women's sexuality can wield over impressionable young men. He comes close to suggesting that prostitutes, devil-like, are capable of mesmerizing and entrapping otherwise rational males. Arguably, Emily Dickinson exploits the association of the female with the mystical as she interrogates the assumptions of the largely patriarchal nineteenth-century worldview: although one must tell the truth "slant," Dickinson implies that she has access to it. Ironically, perhaps, given Beecher's social moralizing, spiritualism, whose proponents also critiqued marriage and advocated alternative medical treatments, became closely associated with the antebellum social reform ethos in general. The reform movements had always attracted many women who had a particular interest in creating a more equitable culture. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry's sister, was the most famous nineteenth-century literary woman to argue, through Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), for social reform. It is useful to compare her reform ethos with the spiritualist one: for Stowe, it is the mystery of Christianity that shows the way to truth and justice.

  1. Comprehension: Why was spiritualism threatening to some men? In the image "The Age of Brass, or the Triumph of Women's Rights," how are the women represented? What did the social empowerment of women have to do with spiritualism?

  2. Context: What different emphases are provided by a reform movement that focuses on spirits, rather than one that focuses on traditional Christianity? What kind of reforms were Victoria Woodhull and the Fox sisters associated with? How can you relate women's reforms and spiritualism to Henry Ward Beecher's "The Strange Woman" or Edgar Allan Poe's "Ligeia"?

  3. Context: Why would women have a particular interest in social reform movements?

  4. Context: Why might spiritualism appeal to so many people (over one million Americans by 1855)? How might this popularity relate to the contemporaneous popularity of the gothic mode?

  5. Exploration: Do you believe in spirits? Is it possible to reconcile such a belief with orthodox faiths?

  6. Exploration: Is it fair to say that Dickinson presents herself as a latter-day mystic in her poems? How would this approach revise your reading of her work?
  7. Exploration: What are the similarities and differences between Poe's character Ligeia and Beecher's "Strange Woman"?

  8. Exploration: In what sense could you say all gothic literature is interested in social reform?
[2245] Alexandre-Marie Colin, The Three Witches from "Macbeth" (1827),
courtesy of the Sandor Korein.
Paintings like this resonated with the mid-nineteenth- century American interest in the occult and the fear of what some saw as the supernatural power of women.

[2498] Currier & Ives, The Age of Brass; or, The Triumphs of Women's Rights (1869),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-1921].
In this lithograph one woman scolds a cowed man, and another, in pantaloons, holds a sign reading "Vote for the Celebrated Man Tamer." Such cartoons played to predominantly male fears about the reversal of men's and women's public and private roles and were designed to reinforce the cult of true womanhood.

[2503] Unknown, The Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives Receiving a Deputation of Female Suffragists (1871),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-2023].
Victoria Woodhull, backed by a group of women suffragists, is shown reading a speech to a skeptical judiciary committee. Her speech, about the legality of women's suffrage, was based on the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Constitutional amendments.

[7053] A. J. Dewey, There's a Charm about the Old Love Still (1901),
courtesy of the Library of Congress and Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University, Durham, NC.
This sheet music illustration shows a man and a woman using a Ouija board. The nineteenth century witnessed a growing interest in spiritualism and the occult.

[7248] N. Currier, Mrs. Fish and the Misses Fox: The Original Mediums of the Mysterious Noises at Rochester, Western N.Y. (1852),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-2586].
The sisters, who claimed to communicate with the dead, are credited as the originators of modern spiritualism.

[9013] Henry Ward Beecher, The Strange Woman (1892),
from Addresses to Young Men, published by H. Altemus, Philadelphia.
In this sermon Beecher warns young men against the dangers of female sexuality, which he saw as a force possessing near-supernatural power over an unguarded man's will.

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