This dissertation attempts to explain how nineteenth-century American Spiritualist literature may have made readers feel like they were hearing voices, touching the dead, seeing celestial spaces, or enjoying other sensory proofs of the afterlife. Spiritualists believed that, while all human beings possessed faculties designed to perceive the dead, few of them knew it and, consequently, these special senses atrophied as a result of disuse. One of the main goals of the movement was to help people activate their dormant senses and develop their experiential potential. The purpose of this dissertation is to explore how the movement's literature may have functioned as an effective instrument of sensory education. To describe the affective potential of these texts, I draw on cognitive poetics, a constellation of contemporary theories and techniques that offer insight into how stylized language might produce particular psychological and physical responses. Attending to the possible mechanisms through which Spiritualist literature might appeal to bodies and minds, I argue that, though these texts have received little critical consideration, they offer timely examples of a sensual aesthetic to the growing number of scholars who are interested in the potential power of language to incite and shape sensory impressions.
Focusing on the Spiritualist trance poetry of Lizzie Doten, Sarah Gould, and Jennie Rennell, chapter one argues that the style of their texts may trigger an altered state of consciousness, a condition characterized by sensations of openness, fluidity, vulnerability, and heightened affect that reproduces the salient features of a supernatural auditory experience. I assert that, while nineteenth-century doctors and scientists warned that hearing disembodied voices was a symptom of disease, auditive mediums insisted that the perception of spirit speech was actually an indicator of good health and attempted to normalize these sensations by reproducing them in readers, who, in turn, might feel connected to each other on the basis of their shared bodily responses. This chapter also compares trance poetry to the poetry of Lydia Huntley Sigourney, one of the most popular sentimental writers of the period. It foregrounds the stylistic similarities between their two genres and considers the potential of sentimental poetry to incite collective experiences. Chapter two contends that séance reports maximize a reader's ability to infer weight, form, and texture so that the experience of reading about materialized spirit bodies approximates the perceptual act of touching them. Regarded as emotional, sensual, and animalistic, touch has long been at the bottom of the Western sensorium; but, through their published testimony, Spiritualists, I claim, sought to cultivate and legitimize this denigrated form of bodily knowledge. In chapter three, I argue that the prominent Spiritualist, medium, and writer Thomas Lake Harris expands the possibilities of the vision epic, transforming it into a lesson on how to see. Considering Harris's An Epic of the Starry Heaven in relation to Joel's Barlow's The Columbiad, Emerson's philosophy of sight, and Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, I assert that Harris's poem encourages the reader to experience the act of seeing as both an emotionally-informed communal process and a powerful means of creating collective realities that exceed national and even planetary boundaries. If Spiritualist texts trigger simulations of contact with the dead, the writings of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, I argue, seem designed to deny the reader imaginary access to the other world. Chapter four describes what I call the aesthetics of desensualization in Phelps's The Gates Ajar, "Since I Died," "The Room's Width," and "The Presence." In conclusion, I argue that, by using cognitive poetics to analyze a collection of texts which seem to have been designed to make readers feel, my dissertation suggests both a methodology and a potentially productive area of study to scholars of nineteenth-century American literature who are beginning to explore how language might create the experiential basis for new forms of subjectivity and community.