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The Poets, Proletarians, and Promiscuous Bed-Linens of The Stammering Century

By Harriet Staff

At The New Republic, Evan Kindley writes about the “oddballs of the nineteenth century,” which are framed through the very recently republished Gilbert Seldes book The Stammering Century (NYRB 2012). Seldes’s book “deals primarily with the slightly narrower—but nonetheless extremely diverse—fields of religious enthusiasm and political reform,” but moreover, as Kindley writes, “the fringes of the nineteenth century ‘supply a background in American history for the cults and manias of our own time.’” As well, “The poets, protesters, and proletarians of the world can be glad they spoke up, and that someone like Seldes was listening.” Fascinating:

Thus began the long spiraling outward of Edwards’s influence to an amazingly diverse dramatis personae. In a series of engrossing chapters, Seldes gives us portraits of the founders of communist colonies, from the German emigrant George Rapp—who advocated total celibacy for his Rappite followers, even opposing procreation—to Bronson Alcott—vehement cattle-hater, believer in infant divinity, and father of Louisa May. He discusses the revivalist preachers Asahel Nettleton, Lyman Beecher, Dwight Lyman Moody, and Charles Grandison Finney, and the saloon-smashing Temperance activist Carry A. Nation (“a freak, slightly deranged”). He visits with Dr. Diocletian Lewis—“the beautiful bran-eating Dio,” who recommended consulting “a card on which ten key words, each representing an interesting topic, are written … [t]he moment a voluptuous revery began”—and John Alexander Dowie, who “preached a violent crusade against the eating of pork,” since “swine were possessed of the devil.” There are also respectful glances at more reputable historical figures, like William Lloyd Garrison, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Frances Willard, and delirious spins through the pseudo-scientific subcultures of Mesmerism, phrenology, and New Thought.

The most fascinating chapter may be the one on John Humphrey Noyes, the founder of the Oneida community in western New York. Noyes developed the doctrine of “Perfectionism,” which held that the Second Coming of Christ had taken place in C.E. 70, and that all Christians were thus already living without sin and free from earthly law. At Oneida, Noyes built both a successful business (which continues to this day) and one of the longer-running and more alluring utopian communities of the century. (The community’s procedures of consensual communal action resemble those recently espoused by the organizers of Occupy Wall Street.)

Oneida was also, infamously, a grand experiment in sexual relations, based on the principles of “ascending fellowship” and “complex marriage” (which, in practice, meant that younger members of the community were initiated into sexual life by older ones). Seldes, who is shadow-boxing with Freud throughout The Stammering Century, says of Noyes’s underlying sexual uneasiness: “he remained in equilibrium between his two fears: license and frigidity; and he recognized them as two forms of the same thing.” But he was also pragmatic enough that he agreed to abandon the practice of complex marriage in 1879, when the chorus of public disapproval grew too strong.

Read it all here, especially the part about the promiscuous bed-linens.


Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, November 14th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.