Divining a Usable Past: Psychical Research and the High-Culture Novel, 1880-1940

Sarah Sussman is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English of the University of Texas at Austin. In 2015-2016 she was a Research Fellow of the Consortium.

Broadly speaking, my research concerns the affinities between the humanities and the sciences in the first American research universities during the turn of the twentieth century. More specifically, I examine this overlap through a quintessentially fin de siècle discipline known as “psychical research.” As its name implies, psychical research entails the scientific investigation of matters concerning the spirit, including the investigation of telepathy and other paranormal phenomena. Academic and public interest in this field plateaued from roughly 1880 to 1940.

Psychical research warrants closer study for a number of reasons. The most immediately evident is the impressive roster of Victorian and Progressive-Era intellectuals it attracted, including the likes of Sir Alfred Russell Wallace, FRS; Sir Oliver Lodge, FRS; and across the pond, Americans like William James and Upton Sinclair. These luminaries, mainly professors, but also artists, musicians, and politicians (and those who fit into multiple of these categories) worked together to create committees and laboratories devoted to psychical research. Their work was conducted inside institutions like the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford University, and later, Duke University.

Perhaps surprising to some, is the fact that despite its spooky-sound name, psychical research has been lastingly useful. The largest work of psychical research conducted during the 1880s, a “Census of Hallucinations” has arguably been valuable in its methodology and scope to present-day neurologists, not to mention the legitimate breakthroughs that psychical researchers made in hypnosis. With my project, I aim to show that these are not the only overlooked contributions of psychical researchers. A better understanding of this discipline’s history can shed new light on their influence on cultural and intellectual developments during the turn of the twentieth century.

In my dissertation, I assess the impact of psychical research on prominent intellectuals and writers, from the philosopher William James, to creative writers like Jack London and Pauline Hopkins. For these artists and intellectuals, psychical research offered a way to focus on humanistic questions in an educational system, which had recently become more science oriented.

The other most pressing reason to study psychical research is that, then as now, it offers a window onto the biggest, most exciting questions of the fin de siècle. Breakthroughs like the theory of natural selection, the emergence of psychology and anthropology as disciplines, and new developments in physics, especially the concept of the ether, all contributed to the emergence of psychical research as a field. Because of its interdisciplinary nature, psychical research often ran counter to the typical research paradigm in enlivening ways. Psychical research, while conducted with rigorous fidelity to the scientific method, was still fundamentally about making space in the academic institution for broader speculation. Members of psychical research societies and laboratories crafted their own dialogue about science and the meaning of human existence that was seen, even in their own era, as both unorthodox and exciting. In short, the psychical research zeitgeist made scientists of artists and artists out of scientists. In this sense, psychical research offers valuable insights into the invigorated sense of possibility of this period. This was an era in which universities were becoming more science-oriented, and science had become a part of a general undergraduate education. Engaging the general public in a discourse about science brought humanistic questions to the foreground of scientific discovery, and this newly opened curiosity about science was addressed by artists, writers, and academics alike through psychical research.

Thanks to the generosity of the Consortium, I was able to consult important primary source materials from two key groups responsible for the formation of psychical research as an academic discipline: the Society for Psychical Research, both the U.K. and American branches of the organization, and the Seybert Commission at the University of Pennsylvania.

Fortuitously, this year the Consortium expanded to include the University of Toronto’s Fisher Library. The recent addition of the Fisher Library to the Consortium allowed me to consult a rich collection of rare books and periodicals on psychical research. This collection was recently acquired through a generous donation from the Toronto-area psychoanalyst and historian of psychology, Adam Crabtree, and belonged to Crabtree and a friend of his. The most exciting part of this collection for my project are the early runs of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, some of which are not available digitally. The Proceedings offer new insights into how the society was molded. The Society for Psychical Research was the first professional society devoted to psychical research, formed around Trinity College in Cambridge, England in 1882.

In Philadelphia, I was able to consult the papers from the Seybert Commission at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kislak Center for Special Collections. I also consulted the papers of the Seybert Commission committee member, the neurologist and writer S. Weir Mitchell. Mitchell is known by most today for his infamous “rest cure” documented in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Seybert Commission was formed the same year as the American Society for Psychical Research, in 1884. It’s significant for this project because it represents the first time professors at an academic institution, the University of Pennsylvania, dedicated their time to testing out the possible validity of psychical phenomena as part of their academic duties. The Seybert Commission was created through an endowment from the late Henry Seybert, who was a Spiritualist. Spiritualism, an overwhelmingly popular religion which began in the U.S. in the 19th century, proposed that the dead lived on as ghosts and could be contacted by spiritual mediums. Seybert wanted this religion to be taken seriously and he felt testing Spiritualist mediums in an academic setting would be a crucial step in that direction. Other important members of the Seybert Commission included the paleontologist Joseph Leidy, and the Shakespeare scholar Horace Howard Furness. Being able to review their correspondence, notebooks, interviews, and ephemera offered a new lens for understanding this group’s work.

Perhaps the best part of being a research fellow with the consortium was the intellectual community it afforded. In Toronto, I am grateful to the staff at the Fisher Library for their help, and especially to Anne Dondertman, who generously arranged for a lunch with Adam Crabtree, the donor of the collection. In Philadelphia, Beth Lander and all of the staff at the Historical Medical Library at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia made for a wonderfully industrious visit. The librarians and staff at the Kislak Center were extremely helpful in gathering materials despite ongoing renovations. While in Philadelphia, I was also able to give a brown bag talk where the director of the Consortium and the Consortium fellows asked thought-provoking questions and offered feedback that has been instrumental in the shaping of this project. I am sincerely grateful to the Consortium for creating such a collegial and productive research community.

Sarah Sussman