Mediums to the Past

(Originally Posted on my blogspot blog August 2013)

On Monday I spent some time on the 3rd floor of USF’s library in the stack BF. Good Ol’ BF is home to the books the Lib. Of Congress categorizes under the term “Spiritualism,” among others. If you have not heard, let me remind you, I am playing around with 19th Century Spiritualism for my dissertation. I plowed through a number of books and found some possible primary source book length documents as well. All in all it was a great and productive day in the world of note taking and argument hunting. One book in particular included thought provoking quotes that lead me down a fun path of thinking about Public historians as Mediums.

spiritulist photo

This is what I look like in my office. Surrounded by faint images of dead people and dresses in 19thc attire.

In 1989 Beacon Press, of Boston, published Ann Braude’s book Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in 19th century America. The book argues that Spiritualism gave women the power and voice to become radical at the TOT2C. It opens “A historians is a lot like a spirit medium: one’s goal is to allow the dead to speak as clearly as possible.”[1] That quote struck me and sold me, as it aligns with thoughts I have been rolling around, but had been unable pin.

Historians ARE a lot like mediums. Especially public historians, they speak the language of the people and listen carefully to, or are themselves, (this is where the simile sputters a bit, as most mediums are alive while the ones they speak to are dead) historians. If we understand historians as outlets from which the public gains access, understanding and evaluation of the past from, how can they not them mediums? It is fair to say that any professional acts as a medium to the public, but historians are the ones who speak for the past. And that is an important point to make.

Braude further kindled my though fire when explaining how Spiritualism offered women a legitimacy, a voice from which to speak authoritatively and a comfort. Eric Hobsbawn argues a useful point when addressing the functions of custom, in comparison to “invited traditions.” His definition can be easily applied to the kinds of histories consumed by the public; custom he explains is “a village’s claim to some common land or right ‘by custom from the time immemorial.”[2] Hobsbawn says that this custom, which encompasses tradition in traditional societies, gives “any desired change (or resistance or innovation) the sanction of precedence {authority/legitimacy}, social continuity and natural law as expressed in history {comfort/authority}.”[3] In the case of women using Spiritualism for these ends, it was not so much their ability to speak to the dead, but that they could speak for the past. They were able to communicate with people from respected past to “sanction” precedence. (It also taught them a lot about public speaking…)

So we have:Historians are like Mediums and Public History is like Spiritualism.


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