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A Cultural History of US Mesmerism


A Cultural History of US Mesmerism

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.


"Ogden opens a frank conversation about the problem of secular consensus. Credulity contributes extraordinary perspectives on the tangled intersections of modernity, empowerment and enchantment in American culture. Religious studies scholars will find it a rich resource."

Dominic Zoehrer, University of Vienna | Religious Studies Review

"Credulity is an extraordinary achievement. It is the best kind of interdisciplinary American studies scholarship, deftly navigating canonical American literature, critical theory, and archival sources, presenting them in sharp and engaging prose. 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."

Charles McCrary | Bulletin for the Study of Religion

"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."

Leigh E. Schmidt | Reading Religion

"A vivid account of the jagged intersections of science, modernity, and enchantment in the history of mesmerism, from its first flowering in eighteenth century France to its ambiguous fizzling half a century later in the United States. Ogden argues that mesmerism, rather than a clear-cut illustration of something like enchantment or disenchantment, lands in a contorted S-shape across those categories."

Donovan Schaefer | The Immanent Frame

"What distinguishes Ogden’s account is her trenchant analysis of the various explanations proposed by mesmerism’s modern-aiming critics. . . . Among Ogden’s keen insights is her observation that iconoclasm invariably requires manufacturing one’s own unproven causal agency. . . . .Religious studies scholars will welcome Credulity as a lively assessment of the way that accusations of delusion or chicanery signal the gradual emergence of a secular consensus. They will particularly appreciate Ogden’s judgment that this process is mostly circuitous. . . . Ogden successfully supplements . . . previous histories by posing new questions and bringing fresh analyses to mesmerism’s somewhat paradoxical complicity in the emergence of both modern secularism and modern metaphysical religion."

Journal of Religion

"Ogden's marvelous book shows what secularism loves and not just what it hates, what it desires and not just what it wishes to get rid of; Credulity is, among other things, a study of 'debunking's pleasures.'"

Caleb Smith | The Immanent Frame

"The problems Emily Ogden deals with in her new book are by no means confined to the antebellum period on which she focuses. . . . Credulity is less a fully detailed narrative of mesmerism's ups and downs than a laser-focused inquiry into the constitutive role 'irrational' belief plays in maintaining rational supremacy."

Clare Coffey | New Atlantis

"While the modern, secular subject seems quite distant from the proponent of a spiritual practice such as mesmerism, Emily Ogden brings together historical research and literary analysis to demonstrate that these two characters share more than we would first expect. . . . Theoretically sophisticated and chock-full of colorful detail, Ogden’s book makes a major contribution to the study of secularism, religion in the US, and nineteenth-century culture."

Vincent Lloyd, Villanova University | Religious Studies Review

"Credulity is convincing in its arguments that disenchanters aim to control and calculate enchantment. Here modernity is embodied as a stance, constantly reinscribing the gullible foolishness of others to mark its own rationalizing, scientific territory."

Susan Lepselter | The Immanent Frame

“Ogden’s book adds to the literature in that it does not simply relate the history of mesmerism and its skeptics during the antebellum period. Rather, Ogden reveals the ways in which mesmerists and skeptics alike used mesmerism to their advantage in an emerging modern era. This interdisciplinary work will appeal to those interested in 19th-century history, secularism, and literature in the US. . . . Recommended.”


“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

"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

"Credulity joins a growing roster of books interrogating the status of the secular in early America. . . Beautifully researched, meticulously argued, and engagingly written, Ogden’s book makes an impressive contribution to this conversation."

Dana Luciano | Early American Literature

"Situated primarily within secularity studies, Credulity revisits how mesmerism became established within the antebellum United States, under the major argument that everyone from hypnotists to debunkers sought superiority by exploiting others whom they accused of excessive belief. . .[it] is most rewarding for its exciting and often convincing treatment of colonial slavery, gender, class, and disability."

David Mihalyf | Nova Religio


American Academy of Religion: AAR Best First Book in the History of Religions

Forum for the History of Science in America: Philip J. Pauly Book Prize
Short Listed

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