- Hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: Univ of Massachusetts Pr (July 1 2004)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1558494480
- ISBN-13: 978-1558494480
- Product Dimensions: 16.5 x 2.5 x 23.5 cm
- Shipping Weight: 544 g
- Average Customer Review: 1 customer review
Exploring Other Worlds: Margaret Fox, Elisha Kent Kane, and the Antebellum Culture of Curiosity Hardcover – Jul 1 2004
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"A superb piece of historical writing. Authoritative, resonant, and deftly written, it is a model for what good cultural history should be." - Jim Cullen, author of The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation; "An intriguing piece of narrative history. Chapin's analysis of the power dynamics between the Kane and Fox families provides a fascinating glimpse into the intimate workings of class and gender in the antebellum period." - Benjamin Reiss, author of The Showman and the Slave: Race, Death, and Memory in Barnum's America"
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Chapman begins by showing how the early development of "notoriety," "publicity," and "exhibitions" by P.T. Barnum and travelling scientist/lecturers were encouraged and advertised by daily, competing newspapers. A mass audience was growing more literate, and could afford the expense of a daily newspaper. This audience grew into what Chapman calls a "culture of curiousity" which became part of the American character, and encouraged a tremendous appetite for news of any sort, be it science, religion, culture, or crime.
Elisa Kent Kane was the son of a wealthy Philadelphia judge, well educated, and well connected. Kane's career as a physician in the Navy, his desire for fame, and ambitious travels in spite of a poor health history are closely chronicled. Margaret Fox was the daughter of a drunkard rural blacksmith who abandoned his family. In alternating chapters Chapman shows the progression of "spirit rapping" by the Fox sisters, from its origin as an innocent and local adolescent diversion, to a national obsession and controversy. The two characters come together in New York in the ante-bellum period and develop a deep, although unspecified, attachment. At times mentor and student, at times seemingly fiancés and perhaps lovers.
When Kane sails for several years on his second Polar expedition, Margaret leaves her spiritualist career, and lives with a middle class family in order to "better herself" that she might be "worthy" to be Kane's wife. Fox's response to Kanes affections are curious and, for a 21st century person, sometimes difficult to understand. She seems to undergo an almost complete subjugation to Kanes' attempts to educate and "raise her station" to that of an acceptable wife for a middle class doctor. Meanwhile Kane is suffering, struggling and barely surviving a two year expedition to the lower Arctic near Greenland.
The personality and character of the two is remarkably well demonstrated through personal letters, public writings, and available contemporary accounts. Their struggle to care for each other, in the face of societal and familial pressure, is well documented. It would have been satisfying to know more about how the two met and what was the nature of their mutual attraction. Chapman has uncovered a contemporary account of the relationship, "The Love Life of Dr. Kane" which adds many details, but presents mainly Margaret Fox's side of the story.
Elisha Kane dies shortly after returning from the Arctic. Having travelled first to England, then to Cuba for his health, his death provokes a remarkable outburst of national grief, and press coverage. The story of Kane's funeral procession, from Cuba by ship, up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers by steamer, reaching Cincinnati and then travelling by train to Baltimore and Philadelphia. Each step of the way heralded by newspapers, attended by crowds and dignitaries, and mourned by thousands. This is truly a curious spectacle and perhaps the first of its kind for a national figure who was not a politician.
This is a very satisfying, comprehensive, and well documented story of two significant figures from 19th Century America. Chapman has encompassed "Scientists and showmen, scholars and sensation mongers" in a fascinating tale.
Chapin terms this era of American history a "Culture of Curiosity." This is a good term for the pre-Civil War society which found entertainment in the lecture halls, learning about such diverse topics as phrenology, philosophy, and hypnotism. It was a world in which young Maggie Fox could become a celebrity for nothing more than a well-implemented hoax. It was a world in which Elisha Kent Kane could become the world's foremost explorer and scientist -- or a laughing-stock if he were to marry a famous spirit-rapper.