I was looking for a book called A Husband of No Importance by “Rita.” I’ve been looking for this book since graduate school. It’s mentioned in a couple of books I read for my thesis project on late 19th century New Women novels, and I hoped to find a copy in the Yale libraries. No luck. But they did have The Truth of Spiritualism by the same author.
So I went off into the stacks where way up on the 8th floor in a largely forgotten corner I found an entire bookcase of late 19th and early 20th century books on topics like spiritualism, phrenology, automatic writing, and a wide assortment of other long disproved pseudo-sciences. I’m here for six weeks, why not give ’em a go?
In The Truth of Spiritualism Rita is not telling the truth that Harry Houdini would tell. She is a believer, and her book is both an answer to the claims of skeptics and a reassurance to fainthearted followers. She devotes chapters to the history of the spiritual movement, to seances, to manifestations, automatic writing and materialization. After she has explained what spiritualism is and how it works, she offers several chapters dealing with the prevalence of fraud and the proof she has found to counter the charges of critics and doubters.
Of course, even someone with only a passing understanding of evidence can shoot holes in her proof. Take for instance this passage supporting the existence of a world beyond our own and of automatic writing as proof of its existence:
Recently a book of experiences entitled Letters from a Living Dead Man has made some stir in the world of psychic research. The letters are all from the “other side” and written down by the author as given. They form an interesting record of that “other side” when the spirit entity goes thither. The entity uses his automatic subject as a means for informing those he has left behind of his personal experience and condition. Not only do those letters deal with the war, with the sudden translation from life to death, but also with the laws of nature on another plane, and the possibilities of spirit communion.
“Rita” never questions the validity of the sources she cites to prove the truth of spiritualism. She simply accepts Letters from a Living Dead Man as true because its author says so and because she believes it. I doubt any professor or high school English teacher anywhere would accept such evidence in a term paper.
So why bother with a book like The Truth of Spiritualism beyond satisfying a passing curiosity? You can tell by now that I am not a believer. Not at all. But my partner C.J. has an aunt who makes part of her living as a psychic. We have a good friend who says she has the ability to communicate with pets both living and dead. A very close friend of mine is currently working with a psychic to communicate with her daughter. “Rita” does get to this profound point about spiritualism, I think accidentally, late in her book:
The converts to spiritualism have been mostly those who have suffered personal bereavement and failed to find any comfort in ordinary religious teaching.
If you’ve been there, then you know what it’s like. I doubt any church can ever provide a satisfactory answer to someone who has lost a daughter and few seem willing to treat the loss of a pet seriously enough to provide the comfort many people need. This may be why The Truth of Spiritualism is still in print, 90 years after it first appeared while so many other books gather dust on the 8th floor of the stacks at the Yale library.
This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in the summer of 2010. That summer I spent six weeks studying Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales with a group of high school teachers courtesy of the National Endowment for the Humanities. One of the best things about that summer was that I got full access to the Yale library. It was a kind of dream come true for a life-long book nerd like me.