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.
1 See, for example, the many essays in The Henry James Review. These range from Person, Leland S. Jr, “In the Closet with Frederick Douglass: Reconstructing Masculinity in The Bostonians” 16 (Fall 1995):292–98 to Kramer, David Scott, “Masculine Rivalry in The Bostonians: Henry James and the Rhetoric of “Newspaper Making” 19 (Spring 1998):139–47 to McColley, Kathleen, “Claiming Center Stage: Speaking Out for Homoerotic Empowerment in The Bostonians” 21 (Spring 2000):151–69. All references to the text of the novel are to The Library of America edition, James, Henry, Novels 1881–1886 (New York, 1985).
2 A search of the journals available through JSTOR and Project Muse, as of July 15, 2002 generated scores of hits, all of them in literary publications.
3 Wolstenholme, Susan, “Possession and Personality: Spiritualism in The Bostonians,” American Literature 49 (January 1978):580–91 discusses this topic. Wolstenholme argued that Henry James in The Bostonians anticipated his brother William's analysis in The Varieties of Religious Experience. There are a number of recent works on Victoria Woodhull, including three biographies, plus a recent monograph on the Beecher-Tilton scandal. See Goldsmith, Barbara, Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull (London, 1998); Gabriel, Mary, Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull Uncensored (Chapel Hill, 1998); Underhill, Lois Beachy, The Woman Who Ran For President: The Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull (New York, 1995); Fox, Richard Wightman, Trials of Intimacy: Love and Loss in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal (Chicago, 1999).
4 James scholars have long known that Cora L. V. Hatch served as the model for Mrs. Foat. See Wolstenholme, , “Possession and Personality: Spiritualism in The Bostonians,” and Habegger, Alfred, Henry James and the “Woman Business” (Cambridge, MA, 1989), 209.
5 Supreme Court City & County of New York, Cora L.V. Hatch agst Benjamin F. Hatch (1858), handwritten court record.
6 See, for example, New York Daily Tribune, January 4, 1859; New York Herald, January 6, 1859; Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, January 29, 1859. Horace Greeley's Tribune commented sarcastically: “It is not every man who has a witch for a wife. B.F. Hatch, M.D., seems to be in this interesting predicament, and he has sent to us a sorrowful screed, printed in another column, anent his sufferings, misfortunes, pecuniary losses, and present aggravated personal circumstances. Mrs. Hatch, well known as a witch of uncommon powers, has bolted from the arms of the Doctor, and, as it now appears, is making money on her own account, prophesying, preaching, going into trances, and coming out of them without putting a dollar into Dr.Hatch's personal and private pocket. Which seems to grieve him exceedingly. And we do not wonder at it. Mrs. Hatch was altogether too valuable a wife to be permitted to abscond.” New York Daily Tribune, January 4, 1859.
7 Hatch, B.F., The Iniquities of Spiritualism Revealed: The Facts about the Notorious Hatch Divorce Case (New York, 1859). Now thoroughly obscure, the pamphlet was notorious in its day, particularly for its accusations about Free Love among spiritualists.
8 New York Atlas, April 24, 1859, “Minor Editorials”: “DR. HATCH AND “CORA.” – Dr. Hatch, the husband of Mrs. Cora L.V. Hatch, the pretty little ‘trance medium,’ has published a card in the newspapers, in which he says he has taken our advice, and has resolved, for the future, to let his wife alone. He says: ‘I shall pay no further attention to any suit which Mrs. Hatch may institute, and would gladly aid her in obtaining a full divorce, were it in my power. Here we part, at least until she sees her injustice and wrong. I have loved her as man seldom loves woman; and if, in the future, she shall ever need a friend which she may not find elsewhere, she can rely on my forbearance.’ That is right, Doctor. Don't cry over spilt milk, but seek another ‘affinity,’ after the most approved manner of the leading spiritualists and ‘free lovers.’”
9 Supreme Court City & County of New York, Benjamin Franklin Hatch agst Cora L.V. Hatch (1863), handwritten court record.
10 “Referee's Report, 1864, New York State Supreme Court, handwritten court record.
11 James to Thomas Sargeant Perry, November 1, 1863, in Edel, Leon, ed., Henry James Utters, Vol I, 1843–1875 (Cambridge, MA, 1974), 44–45.
12 “Miss Cora Hatch, The Eloquent Medium of The Spiritualists,” Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, May 9, 1857.
14 James to Perry, Thomas Sargeant, James Letters, Vol I, November 1, 1863, 44–45.
15 In addition to Habegger, see Davis, Sara deSaussure, “Feminist Sources in The Bostoniane,” American Literature 50 (January 1979): 570–87, who suggested the popular feminist orator Anna Dickinson as a model for Verena, and Long, Robert Emmet, The Great Succession: Henry James and the Legacy of Hawthorne (Pittsburgh, 1979) who suggested Victoria Woodhull.
16 Mrs. Cora L. V. Hatch, of New York, A Discourse on the Immutable Decrees of God, and the Free Agency of Man, Delivered in the City Hall, Newburyport, Mass., Sunday, November 22d, 1857, phonographically reported by James M. Pomeroy (New York, 1858).
17 Barrett, H.D., The Life Work of Cora L. V. Richmond by (Chicago, 1895), infra.
18 Experiences of Judge J. W. Edmonds, in Spirit Life. WithaPoem, “The Home of the Spirit.” Given Through the Organism of Mrs. Cora L.V. Tappan (Chicago, 1876).
19 James, Henry Jr, The Secret of Swedenborg: Being an Elucidation of his Doctrine of the Divine Natural Humanity (Boston, 1869).
20 Quoted in Habegger, , Henry James and the “Woman Business,“ 200.
21 Pierson, George Wilson, Tocqueville and Beaumont in America (New York, 1938), 422–23.
22 Higginson, T.W., “Things New And Old: An Installation Sermon” (Worcester, 1852).
23 History of the Christian Religion and Church during the first three centuries (Philadelphia, 1843) and The Life of Jesus Christ (New York, 1848).
24 Higginson, “Things New And Old.”
25 As quoted in the New York Tribune, October 26, 1850. Mott was speaking at the First National Woman's Rights Convention. Her comments quickly became notorious. The New York Herald wrote in its October 28 issue that “Mrs. Lucretia Mott, the ruling spirit of the establishment, thought that St. Paul, being an old bachelor, was a perfect ninny, and didn't know anything about women, was no sort of judge, and was not entitled to respect….St. Paul, after all, was only a barbarian, full of the ignorance and prejudice of the day.”
26 Delivered before the Senior Class in Divinity College, Cambridge, Sunday Evening, July 15, 1838, and published in Nature; Addresses and Lectures (1849), reprinted in Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed., William H. Gilman (New York, 1965), 244–45.
27 Quoted in Habbeger, , Henry James and the “Woman Business,” 246, n24.
28 James, Henry Jr, “Concluding Remarks on A.E.F.'s Letter,” Harbinger 8 (December 23, 1848). The letter in question was provoked by James', “Love and Marriage,” Harbinger 8 (October 23, 1848).
29 Hatch was literally a self-made man, and the historical record is almost completely bare until his marriage to Cora Hatch. He apparently awarded himself his M.D. He had apparently tried his hand at a variety of “cures” before settling upon mesmerism. Then he came upon the fifteen-year-old Cora Linn Victoria Scott who was supporting her mother and brother as a trance speaker in the Buffalo-Cleveland area. Hatch saw her, correctly, as Dr. Tarrant saw his daughter, as his ticket to the big time.
30 Hatch and a partner named Harrington claimed the ability to diagnose and cure without ever seeing the patient. Their advertisement in The Spiritual Telegraph, a New York City spiritualist newspaper, of 2 Dec 1854 read: “Dr. Hatch has been a Professor of Midwifery and Diseases of Women and Children in a Medical School in Boston, and made much valuable improvement in the treatment of Female Diseases. Dr. Harrington has long been in a remarkably successful practice, and is unquestionably the most accurate clairvoyant in describing the real nature, caus [sic], and locality of disease, and its proper remedy, of any one in America. He possesses a ‘clear-seeing’ or intuitive power heretofore unequaled; and combined as it is with a very extensive Medical experience, both in himself and his associate, they have no hesitation in guaranteeing a correct description of all diseases, and a radical cure in all case [sic] where it is in the power of human agency. Patients who can not visit the city, may be assured that by writing they can have the real cause and nature of their disease fully described, and the most effectual method of treatment clearly pointed out, and with as much accuracy as if they were present in person. Those who write will be required to inclose $10. Office 712 Broadway, New York. Office hours from 10 to 12 A.M., and 2 to 4 P.M.”
Habegger, on the other hand, argues “the surprising fact that Sel ah resurrects Henry Sr.'s own buried life from before the Civil War.” Habegger, , Henry James and the “Woman Business, “ 226 ff.
31 MrsHatch, Cora L.V., A Discourse on Faith, Hope and Love. Delivered in New York, Sunday, April 23, 1857: To Which is added A REPORT OF A PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATION of the NATURE OF MEDIUMSHIP (New York, 1858).
32 “Is There Such A Thing As Sex?” The Nation 8 (February 4, 1869): 87–89.
33 Entry for April 8, 1883. The Complete Notebooks of Henry James, ed., Leon Edel and Lyall H. Powers (New York, 1987), 20.
34 Edel, Leon, Henry James, A Life (New York, 1985) is the leading work. See also The Death and Letters of Alice James: Selected Correspondence edited, with a biographical essay, by Ruth Bernard Yeazell (Berkeley, 1982) and Lewis, R.W.B., The Jameses: A Family Narrative (New York, 1991).
35 ’Is There Such A Thing As Sex?” 88.
37 This is a large literature. Perhaps the best way to gauge its worth is to quote the opening paragraph of Leland S. Person's, “In The Closet With Frederick Douglass,” from the Henry James Review: “In a brutal scene from his 1845 Narrative Frederick Douglass describes his Aunt Hester being whipped by the overseer Aaron Anthony. ‘It was the blood-stained gate,’ Douglass says, ‘the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass’ (51). Hiding in a closet, afraid to ‘venture out till long after the bloody transaction was over’ (52), Douglass has a revolutionary primal scene experience in which he identifies himself as a slave for the first time. As Eric Sundquist has argued, the scene also registers confusion in Douglass' gendered and racial self – the ‘chilling bifurcation’ of his ‘double racial identity’ (100). That is, if Douglass identifies with Aunt Hester as a slave, he identifies as a woman; being a slave means being inverted, or feminized – taking a woman's place as the object of male sado-erotic violence. If he identifies with Mr. Anthony as a man, on the other hand, he identifies with a sadistic, misogynistic – and white – manhood; being a man means being the subject rather than object of the same sado-erotic violence. I want to put several other male characters, especially Basil Ransom in The Bostonians, in the closet with Frederick Douglass, because Douglass' precarious position between races and genders offers a paradigm that can illuminate other male subjectivities.” The key is the author's acknowledgment that he wants to put male characters in the novel “in the closet.”
38 Harris, Thomas LakeAppendix to the Arcana of Christianity. The Song of Satan: A Series of Poems, Originating with a Society of Infernal Spirits, and Received, During Temptation-Combats (New York, 1858). Thomas Lake Harris was one of the more exotic figures of the mid-nineteenth century. Born in England, he was a Universalist minister who adopted Spirtualism after encountering the Harmonic theories of Andrew Jackson Davis. He helped establish the Spiritualist Utopian community of Mountain Cove which lasted from 1851 to 1853. The community soon became engulfed in scandal with charges that Harris and some others were engaging in unorthodox sexual practices. After Mountain Cove disintegrated, Harris founded his own religion with himself as Messiah. Spiritualists were, in general, tolerant of each other's claims. But the combination of scandal and Harris's insistence upon his own special calling led most to denounce him. Harris returned the favor. The Song of Satan recounts his temptations by various “infernal spirits,” even as Jesus was tempted. The temptress here is Cora L.V. Hatch, the temptation “Free Love.”
39 Each question required the “controlling spirits” to make a mathematical assumption before answering. For the first, the question of the non-parallel lines, the assumption concerned whether or not they were on the same plane. If they were, they would necessarily meet. If they were not, the correct answer would be no. For the second, the question of determining the circumference of a circle, the assumption concerned the exactitude of the answer required. The formula is: circumference = diameter × pi (22/7). Pi is a transcendental number whose exact value has never been determined. In fact, there are ongoing projects, involving super computers, still seeking the value of pi. So, while every “schoolboy” would know how to find the circumference of a circle, the answer is exact only on those occasions when the diameter is a multiple of 7. Apparently, the spirits did realize that pi was a transcendental number. The offer to produce a formula for “squaring the circle” amounted to an offer to develop the exact value of pi in thirty days.
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