Wednesday, October 27, 2010


{Photo by rocketlass.}

Lee Sandlin's endlessly interesting new book on the Mississippi, Wicked River, is a work of history, so ordinarily I would wait to write about it until October's ghosts have returned to their crypts. But one passage from its panorama of adventure and incident suits the month's theme, and thus seems worth sharing. It comes from a chapter titled "Oracles," which, in Sandlin's wonderfully meandering way, wanders through millenarian prophecies, circus boats, minstrel shows, ice jams, and steamboat explosions--but it starts firmly in October country:
It was a credulous age. . . . [People] were eager to believe in anything, no matter how strange, as long as it was bad news. They were particularly fascinated by occult portents of doom. Everybody knew that owls and whip-poor-wills were evil omens, that a dog howling in the night meant somebody was about to die, that prudent people had to carry a tuft of wool tied with thread at all times to prevent being ridden by witches. It was a time of seances and mirror divination and spirit rapping--an era when, as Melville observed in Moby-Dick, "the rumor of a knocking in a tomb will terrify a whole city."
Sandlin then turns to the truly strange example of Harriet Beecher Stowe's husband, Calvin, who
was a down-to-earth and practical man, but . . . was tormented all his life by visions of weird presences infesting the world. On the streets mingling with ordinary people, he said, was another race, "with the human form and proportion, but under a shadowy outline that seemed just ready to melt into the invisible air, and sometimes liable to the most sudden and grotesque changes." These "rational phantoms," as he called them, were hunted by yet another supernatural race, which appeared as "heavy clouds floating about overhead, of a black color, spotted with brown, in the shape of a very flaring inverted tunnel without a nozzle. . . . They floated from place to place in great numbers, and in all directions, with a strong and steady progress, but with a tremulous, quivering, internal motion that agitated them in every part." And then there were the devils--a great many devils, down every street and in every meeting place. They were "very different from the common representations," he said. "They had neither red faces, nor horns, nor hoofs, nor tails. They were in all respects stoutly built and well-dressed gentlemen. The only peculiarity that I noted in their appearance was as to their heads. Their faces and necks were perfectly bare, without hair or flesh, and of a uniform sky-blue color, like the ashes of burnt paper before it falls to pieces, and of a certain glossy smoothness.
Those descriptions come from a biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe that Charles published in 1891; although his account seems utterly bizarre to us now--and, frankly, in its specificity and insistence can’t help but seem like the product of a disordered mind--it’s not particularly strange that Stowe went pubic with his visions: 1891 was still the heyday of the spiritualist movement, which had erupted in midcentury and gained strength after the slaughter of the Civil War (as it would again after World War I). And Harriet herself was, at least in some form, an enthusiast, as shown by a letter to her from George Eliot that D J. Enright included in his Oxford Book of the Supernatural. Stowe had written to Eliot of a two-hour conversation with Charlotte Bronte that Stowe had conducted via a Ouija Board; Eliot, politely, was having none of it:
Your experience with the planchette is amazing; but that the words which you found it to have written were dictated by the spirit of Charlotte Bronte is to me (whether rightly or not) so enormously improbable, that I could only accept it if every condition were laid bare, and every other explanation demonstrated to be impossible. If it were another spirit aping Charlotte Bronte--if here and there at rare spots and among people of a certain temperament, or even at many spots and among people of all temperaments, tricksy spirits are liable to rise as a sort of earth-bubbles and set furniture in movement, and tell things which we either know already or should be as well without knowing--I must frankly confess that I have but a feeble interest in these doings, feeling my life very short for the supreme and awful revelations of a more orderly and intelligible kind which I shall die with an imperfect knowledge of. If there were miserable spirits whom we could help--then I think we should pause and have patience with their trivial-mindedness; but otherwise I don’t feel bound to study them more than I am bound to study the special follies of a particular phase of human society. Others, who feel differently, and are attracted towards this study, are making an experiment for us as to whether anything better than bewilderment can come of it. At present, it seems to me that to rest any fundamental part of religion on such a basis is a melancholy misguidance of men’s minds from the true sources of high and pure emotion.
Among those “[o]thers, who feel differently,” was another of the era’s sharpest minds, William James. Along with the Society for Psychical Research James conducted investigation after investigation into mediums, spiritualist practices, and unexplained phenomena. James himself, though interested, was skeptical--yet even as he was disappointed again and again by fraudulent mediums, he never quite gave up his willingness to be open to the idea that there are things beyond our ken. In his great biography of James, Robert D. Richardson quotes a letter from James to a family friend that, better than anything else I’ve encountered, helps me--a natural skeptic--understand the way that a piercing, inquisitive mind can be drawn by the currents of the time:
I have hitherto felt . . . as if the wonder-mongers and magnetic physicians and seventh sons of seventh daughters and those who gravitated towards them by mental affinity were a sort of intellectual vermin. I now begin to believe that that type of mind takes hold of a range of truths to which the other kind is stone blind. The consequence is that I am all at sea, with my old compass lost, and no new one, and the stars invisible through the fog.
Reflecting in another letter on the sordid trail of chicanery and falsehood he and other researchers had uncovered, James refines that “at sea” feeling to a concise statement more clearly befitting a scientist:
It is a field in which the sources of deception are extremely numerous. But I believe there is no source of deception in the investigation of nature which can compare with a fixed belief that certain kinds of phenomenon are impossible.
A perfect skeptic’s creed for October nights if ever I’ve seen one!


  1. I enjoyed reading your blog. I found it learned, erudite and inspiring. There aren't many of us book readers left.

    Free iPad

  2. What an interesting sounding book. I am going to have to go pick it up. Thanks for the blurb.

  3. I'm not familiar with Mr. William James, but, based on the quotes you have included, it seems to me that he is like so many other skeptics and cynics: he uses those attitudes as masks to hide his confusion and desire to find something he can believe in. I would argue that Mr. James wasn't looking so much to disprove the spiritualists and mentalists and mediums of his time as he was looking for that one that he couldn't disprove.

    I also wonder if his comment about, "the wonder-mongers and magnetic physicians and seventh sons of seventh daughters," wasn't a bit of sly humor on his part. In my experience, and from what I've read about it, it is the seventh son of a seventh son that is supposed to have special "powers".

  4. that photo is amazing!

  5. Huh, never been one watch a horror film let alone read one. Yes, I do believe simplistic words are, indeed, more horrifying in the end then video. Only your own imagination can picture the worst at times.

  6. I really enjoyed reading your blog! I love to read, but you are like a super reader! I also love to write poetry and I think that it is awesome that you edit poetry professionally.

    I'm just a college kid who is trying to get my new blog out there. I just write for fun, but you should check it out!

  7. Congratulations for being named a blog of note the other day! Good job!

  8. Just started following, excellent blog.

  9. Check out an author named Christopher Pike

  10. OneGirl,
    I read Christopher Pike back when I was in school and loved him--he led me to John Bellairs, who led me to Stephen King, whom I still enjoy reading once in a while. All good and scary stuff.