Henry James' The Bostonians is one of the most celebrated novels of Gilded Age America. As he wrote in his notebooks, it sprang from his desire to write an “American” tale, one dealing with what he took to be the most “characteristic” movement of the time, the “agitation” for woman's rights. Literary scholars have produced a vast literature dealing with the novel. Historians have largely ignored it. In this essay I seek to demonstrate two points. The first is that historians can, by grounding the novel in its historical context, provide insights into the work that have eluded literary scholars. The second is that The Bostonians proves a highly useful source for the historian into both the “agitation” for woman's rights and the largely unexplored role – the fascination with Victoria Woodhull and the Beecher-Tilton trial aside – Spiritualism played in that “agitation” and in the Gilded Age more generally.
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