Praise for Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism
Credulity is an extraordinary achievement...Very few works of scholarship are both intensely smart and deeply pleasurable to read (and most are neither), but Credulity surely is, and it repays close, careful reading and rereading.
Mesmerism is an enthralling subject, and Emily Ogden has produced a particularly subtle history of its multiple embodiments in the nineteenth-century United States...Throughout the book Ogden displays an impressive command over (and rapport with) her mesmerist archive. She uses that familiarity to question the ways in which scholars have been too enamored with enlightened notions of autonomy, agency, and empowerment to appreciate fully the mischief-making of mediums, somnambulists, and mesmeric subjects. Likewise, though, she sows doubt about the scholarly enchantment with enchantment—that it is not so much a mode of romantic resistance to rational disciplines, but another contrivance for modern operators to deploy against those who have not made similar progress toward secular modernity. Believe me, Credulity is a clever book.
From the 1830s to the Civil War, Americans could be found putting each other into trances for fun and profit in parlors, on stage, and in medical consulting rooms. They were performing mesmerism. Surprisingly central to literature and culture of the period, mesmerism embraced a variety of phenomena, including mind control, spirit travel, and clairvoyance. Although it had been debunked by Benjamin Franklin in late eighteenth-century France, the practice nonetheless enjoyed a decades-long resurgence in the United States. Emily Ogden here offers the first comprehensive account of those boom years.
Credulity tells the fascinating story of mesmerism’s spread from the plantations of the French Antilles to the textile factory cities of 1830s New England. As it proliferated along the Eastern seaboard, this occult movement attracted attention from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s circle and ignited the nineteenth-century equivalent of flame wars in the major newspapers. But mesmerism was not simply the last gasp of magic in modern times. Far from being magicians themselves, mesmerists claimed to provide the first rational means of manipulating the credulous human tendencies that had underwritten past superstitions. Now, rather than propping up the powers of oracles and false gods, these tendencies served modern ends such as labor supervision, education, and mediated communication. Neither an atavistic throwback nor a radical alternative, mesmerism was part and parcel of the modern. Credulity offers us a new way of understanding the place of enchantment in secularizing America.
What fine, fierce intelligence is here: with the deftest command of archival, literary, and theoretical sources and diamond-cut clarity of prose, Emily Ogden brings enchantment into view as a transaction by which the credulity of some ensures the modernity of others. A tool and not the vanquished other of enlightenment, the discourse of enchantment helped Americans who 'aimed at modernity' to negotiate the place of fiction, the management and monetization of labor, the conduct of colonialism, the care and company of the disabled, and the demands of secular agency. If I had a single book to recommend to students of nineteenth-century American culture, or to all who take pleasure in exquisite reading and writing, Credulity would be it.
—Tracy Fessenden, Arizona State University
Ogden’s analysis is full of surprises: strange tales culled from the archives, poignant accounts of the lives of mesmerized clairvoyants, and electrical flashes of insight into the relations between secular rationalism and the occult. As Ogden waves her wand over the period, she reanimates a number of antebellum classics, including Melville’s Moby-Dick, Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, Poe’s 'Tale of the Ragged Mountains,' and Emerson’s 'Experience.' Credulity is one of the best books in American cultural studies I’ve read in years.
—Benjamin Reiss, Emory University
Marshaling a truly astonishing array of firsthand research, Ogden’s wonderful Credulity provides the first full-scale history of the fascinating phenomenon of mesmerism in the United States. Ogden not only offers elegant and innovative readings of major nineteenth-century novels and unjustly neglected works alike, but reframes some of the most hotly contested questions in contemporary scholarship: the status of modernity as a 'secular age,' the fate within it of ‘enchantment,' and the idealization of agency. Credulity is an enormously exciting book argued with great verve, clarity, and finesse.
—Jennifer Fleissner, Indiana University, Bloomington