excerpt from The Student Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne
In this excerpt from The Student Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne by Melissa McFarland Pennell, she describes the link between spiritualism and the 19th century reform movements and Hawthorne’s view of spiritualism. (courtesy of Greenwood Press)
An activity that bridged the world of reform and the world of entertainment was spiritualism.
Spiritualism encompassed many forms of activity, including spirit rappings, séances, and mesmerism
(also known as ‘animal magnetism’ or hypnotism). All of these were efforts to make contact with the
dead, the spiritual realm or the ‘higher spheres.’ Those who pursued these activities seriously
believed that the spiritual realm had wisdom to impart that would improve the quality of daily life.
Some believed that they could gain answers to troubling questions or solve mysteries by working
through a medium. The performances of mediums attracted large audiences, some of whom came to
scoff or to challenge the truthfulness of what occurred. Hawthorne was suspicious of spiritualism and
other ‘pseudo-sciences.’ He did not deny that contact with the supernatural plane was possible,
making use of aspects of the supernatural in his fiction. He felt, however, that there was a high level
of fraud and charlatanism, especially when such individuals were featured in public performances.
Ironically, women who appeared on stage as mediums and claimed that their words were ‘inspired’
gained a public voice that women in other reform movements were often denied” (125).