Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Free Spirits: Spiritualism, Republicanism, and Radicalism in the Civil War Era

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Free Spirits: Spiritualism, Republicanism, and Radicalism in the Civil War Era

Article excerpt

Free Spirits: Spiritualism, Republicanism, and Radicalism in the Civil War Era. By Mark A. Lause. (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2016. Pp. viii, 159, notes, index. Cloth, $95.00.)

Before 1848, engagements with magic and the supernatural, including claims to communicate with the dead, had long operated beneath the notice of most Americans. Mark A. Lause's prologue to Free Spirits reminds us of the dramatic transition in which such beliefs found collective public expression in institutions, such as séances, livelihoods (specifically, mediums for hire), and periodicals after 1848 (not beforehand) in the diffuse phenomenon called spiritualism.

Lause's signal contribution is to subject the political dimensions of spiritualism to extended primary research and scrutiny. Previous histories of spiritualism, such as Robert Cox's Body and Soul (2003, reprint 2017), have stressed spiritualism's cultural and emotional side. In six chapters, Lause explores spiritualism's affinities with northern reform movements including abolitionism and women's rights, and with early forms of socialism and utopianism by pointing to spiritualist figures within these various movements and tracing the movements' coverage in spiritualist periodicals. Religion is also a strong theme in that the author explores spiritualism's harmony with other religious heterodoxies and/or skepticism. He gives particular attention to the Republican Party's more radical reaches at a time when reformism generally defined the party's reputation. With appropriate degrees of nuance, he argues for spiritualist inclinations in President Abraham Lincoln as he and his family grieved the wartime loss of their son Willie. Lause reinterprets the famous "mystic chords of memory . . . better angels of our nature" passage from Lincoln's first inauguration, in 1861, in connection with the spiritualist premise that dead people were able and willing to communicate with the living.

Free Spirits has some needs, however, as well as strengths. Lause has recently been an astoundingly prolific author by the standards of academia. His five monographs since 2011 include two in the calendar year of 2016, including Free Spirits, followed by The Great Cowboy Strike in 2017. I hope that he will take his time on subsequent endeavors as haste may explain the weaknesses in articulating important points. His writing should do more to cause the book to hang together. …

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