Exploring Other Worlds: Margaret Fox, Elisha Kent Kane, and the Antebellum Culture of Curiosity

Synopsis

Exploring Other Worlds tells the intertwined stories of the Arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane and the spiritualist medium Margaret Fox and examines their unlikely relationship. Kane, from a prominent Philadelphia family, became one of the most renowned and honored explorers of the antebellum era. Fox grew up in rural upstate New York and, as one of the Fox Sisters, became a famed and somewhat notorious "spirit rapper" whose strange "knocks" were said to be communications from the dead. The two were rumored to have had a love affair, and they may even have been secretly married. In their separate professional lives, Kane and Fox each revealed something new and strange (though not necessarily true) to their audiences--the unknown worlds of the globe and the spirit. They brought experiences to their listeners that were exotic and delightful. The burgeoning commercial mass culture of antebellum America provided a natural venue for tales of huge icebergs, fierce polar bears, and messages from the dead.Their public careers bridged the gaps between the scientific investigations of an earlier Enlightenment age and a newer form of sensational inquiry growing up in a democratic marketplace. While Kane and Fox began by generating curiosity about geography and the nature of the human soul, in time their personal relationship became the basis for what newspaperman Horace Greeley would call an "impertinent curiosity." Newspapers printed letters about their supposed romance, and eventually a book purporting to be the famous explorer's love-letters to the notorious spiritualist was published. Curiosity about the Arctic and curiosity about the fate of the soul after death were transformed into curiosityabout the private affairs of a new kind of media-driven public celebrity.