Codiscoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace should be recognized as one of the titans of Victorian science. Instead he has long been relegated to a secondary place behind Darwin. Worse, many scholars have overlooked or even mocked his significant contributions to other aspects of Victorian culture. With An Elusive Victorian, Martin Fichman provides the first comprehensive analytical study of Wallace's life and controversial intellectual career.
Fichman examines not only Wallace's scientific work as an evolutionary theorist and field naturalist but also his philosophical concerns, his involvement with theism, and his commitment to land nationalization and other sociopolitical reforms such as women's rights. As Fichman shows, Wallace worked throughout his life to integrate these humanistic and scientific interests. His goal: the development of an evolutionary cosmology, a unified vision of humanity's place in nature and society that he hoped would ensure the dignity of all individuals.
To reveal the many aspects of this compelling figure, Fichman not only reexamines Wallace's published works, but also probes the contents of his lesser known writings, unpublished correspondence, and copious annotations in books from his personal library. Rather than consider Wallace's science as distinct from his sociopolitical commitments, An Elusive Victorian assumes a mutually beneficial relationship between the two, one which shaped Wallace into one of the most memorable characters of his time. Fully situating Wallace's wide-ranging work in its historical and cultural context, Fichman's innovative and insightful account will interest historians of science, religion, and Victorian culture as well as biologists.
In Enchanted Ground, Sharon Hatfield brings to life the true story of a nineteenth-century farmer-turned-medium, Jonathan Koons, one of thousands of mediums throughout the antebellum United States. In the hills outside Athens, Ohio, Koons built a house where it was said the dead spoke to the living, and where ancient spirits communicated the wisdom of the ages. Curious believers, in homespun and in city attire, traveled from as far as New Orleans to a remote Appalachian cabin whose marvels would rival any of P. T. Barnum’s attractions.
Yet Koons’s story is much more than showmanship and sleight of hand. His enterprise, not written about in full until now, embodied the excitement and optimism of citizens breaking free from societal norms. Reform-minded dreamers were drawn to Koons’s seances as his progressive brand of religion displaced the gloomy Calvinism of previous generations. As heirs to the Second Great Awakening, which stretched from New York State to the far reaches of the Northwest Territory, the curious, the faithful, and Koons himself were part of a larger, uniquely American moment that still marks the cultural landscape today.
Nineteenth-century Mormonism was a frontier religion with roots so entangled with the American experience as to be seen by some scholars as the most American of religions and by others as a direct critique of that experience. Yet it also was a missionary religion that through proselytizing quickly gained an international, if initially mostly Northern European, makeup. This mix brought it a roster of interesting characters: frontiersmen and hardscrabble farmers; preachers and theologians; dreamers and idealists; craftsmen and social engineers. Althoughthe Mormon elite soon took on, as elites do, a rather fixed, dynastic character, the social origins of its first-generation members were quite diverse. The Mormon Church at its beginning provided a good study in upward mobility. George D. Watt, for instance, was a self-educated convert with both unusual, for the time and place of frontier Utah, clerical skills and ambitions to improve his status. A man with intellectual pretensions, he had little formal training but a strong will, avid curiosity, and appetite for knowledge. Those traits made up for what he lacked in schooling and drew him into what served as intellectual circles among the Mormon elite and, later, on the church’s disenchanted fringe. They also made him for a time essential to Brigham Young as a clerk and reporter but sent him into religious and social exile, due to a contest of wills with his employer that Watt had no chance of winning,.
Reputed to have been the first of the many English converts to the LDS church, Watt’s repeatedly demonstrated ability to learn quickly made him an early master of Pitman shorthand, just then coming into use. Employing this skill, he made two important contributions to Mormon literature: First, he more than anyone created, based on that shorthand, the Deseret Alphabet, which now is a curiosity but then was an innovation that, intended to create a unique Mormon orthography and pedagogy, stands well for the broad attempt to build in Utah the wholly self-sufficient culture of the Kingdom of God. Second, his efficient note taking allowed him to take down the sermons of Young and other church leaders and publish them in the Journal of Discourses, an indispensible historical record. In addition Watt learned, thought, and wrote about a variety of subjects, from horticulture to spiritualism, which helped define him as a resident Utah intellectual. He eventually left the Mormon Church, but the records of his domestic life before and after that decision provide a rich portrait of the working of polygamous households, particularly complicated ones in his case. Despite his accomplishments, because of his potential, George Watt’s story is at heart a tragedy. His breach with Young resulted in social isolation, poverty, and rejection by friends and associates. He never, though, lost his sense of independence or his avid mind. Whether facing an economic affront or pressing, in writing, his own conclusions about life and God, he engaged the challenge where he found it.
When St. Louis homemaker Pearl Curran began writing fiction and poetry at a Ouija board in 1913, she attributed the work to the “discarnate entity” Patience Worth, a seventeenth-century Puritan. Though now virtually forgotten, her writing garnered both critical praise and public popularity at the time. The Patience of Pearl uncovers more of Curran’s (and thus Patience Worth’s) biography than has been known before; Daniel B. Shea provides close readings of the Patience-dictated writings and explores the historical and local context, applying current cognitive and neuro-psychology research.
Though Pearl Curran had only a ninth-grade education, Patience Worth was able to dictate a biblical novel and a Victorian novel. Echoes of Dickens and the Potters, a circle of St. Louis women writers, make clear that Patience Worth reflects literary debts that go as far back as Curran being read to as a child. Shea argues that the workings of implicit memory suggest the medium’s creative achievements were her own body’s property. Curran also had musical training, and recent developments in the field of psychology regarding the overlap between musical and linguistic rhythms of regularity, anticipation, and surprise supply a firm foundation for attributing skills both automatic and creative to Curran. Her reflections on her doubleness in her self-study anticipate the many-personed Ouija board writing of poet James Merrill.
Shea approaches Curran/Worth as a summary figure for the Victorian-era woman writer’s buried voice at the point of its transition into modernism. He investigates many lingering questions about Curran’s fluent productivity at the Ouija board, including the “smart” versus “dumb” unconscious. Shea links unconscious memory, dissociation, and automatic writing and reconsiders problematic assumptions about individual identity and claims of personal agency. The Curran/Worth Puritan/writer figure also allows scrutiny of gendered assumptions about the dangers of female speech and the idealization of women’s passive reception of divine, or husbandly, revelation.
Novelistic in its own way, Curran’s life included three husbands and a child adopted on command from Patience Worth. Pearl Curran enjoyed a brief period of celebrity in Los Angeles before her death in 1937. The Patience of Pearl once again brings her the attention she deserves—for her life, her writing, and her place in women’s literary history.