New Books in the Society of Fellows
Celebrating Recent Work by David Russell and Emily Ogden
Tact: Aesthetic Liberalism and the Essay Form in Nineteenth-Century Britain
By: David Russell
The social practice of tact was an invention of the nineteenth century, a period when Britain was witnessing unprecedented urbanization, industrialization, and population growth. In an era when more and more people lived more closely than ever before with people they knew less and less about, tact was a new mode of feeling one’s way with others in complex modern conditions. In this book, David Russell traces how the essay genre came to exemplify this sensuous new ethic and aesthetic.
Russell argues that the essay form provided the resources for the performance of tact in this period and analyzes its techniques in the writings of Charles Lamb, John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold, George Eliot, and Walter Pater. He shows how their essays offer grounds for a claim about the relationship among art, education, and human freedom—an “aesthetic liberalism”—not encompassed by traditional political philosophy or in literary criticism. For these writers, tact is not about codes of politeness but about making an art of ordinary encounters with people and objects and evoking the fullest potential in each new encounter. Russell demonstrates how their essays serve as a model for a critical handling of the world that is open to surprises, and from which egalitarian demands for new relationships are made.
Offering fresh approaches to thinking about criticism, sociability, politics, and art, Tact concludes by following a legacy of essayistic tact to the practice of British psychoanalysts like D. W. Winnicott and Marion Milner.
Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism
By: Emily Ogden
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.