On November 19, 1875, George Eveleth, a Maine physician and literature buff, queried Sarah Helen Whitman, a well-known writer and spiritualist, about a spirit novel’s authenticity:
I will ask you if you have read the second part of Edwin Drood, said to have been dictated by the spirit of Dickens through a Massachusetts medium? I have not met with it, but I have seen notices of it; and I have taken due account of the fact that the believers in spiritualism speak of its general manner as being almost identical with that of Dickens in the flesh; while, on the other hand, the unbelievers declare it a very bungling attempt (of an ignoramus) at an imitation. What say you?2
For Eveleth, convictions about the limits of identity so inform aesthetic evaluation that a circular logic is inescapable. Those who believe that identity is not constrained by corporeal boundaries entertain the possibility that a medium from Massachusetts might carry on Dickens’s work. “Believers” take stylistic resemblance as proof of spirit visitation and predicate individual immortality on emulation. Dickens stays alive by circulating through others; his particularity endures through its replications. Those who think that the mind stops where the body ends, on the other hand, enforce a distinction between true genius and its pretenders; “unbelievers” take stylistic discrepancy as proof of the second-comer’s inadequacy. The unbelievers predicate Dickens’s longevity on his death; because his greatness cannot be reproduced, it must be preserved. In both cases, the aesthetic evaluation is a foregone conclusion, based on the reader’s position on spirit visitation. Eveleth’s intertwined questions about literary merit, the limits of individual consciousness, and the impact of critical ideology on aesthetic evaluation remain relevant in the study of American literary history, which is informed in crucial yet unexplored ways by debates in his time.
Eveleth asks for Sarah Helen Whitman’s expert advice as a notable poet, but more importantly as a well-known spiritualist who believed in mental “telegraphy.” Whitman actively valued “echoes” in verse as a sign of spirit visitation. An influential early defender of Edgar Allan Poe, Whitman praised Poe’s poetry not for its originality but for its signs of ghostly inhabitance: “His mind was indeed a ‘Haunted Palace,’ echoing to the footfalls of angels and demons.” 3 Whitman’s own elegies to Poe are haunted by “the echo of a harp whose tones / I never more may hear!” [End Page 269] (Poems, 83). Her reiteration of Poe’s “nevermore”—a ubiquitous word in the romantic period that Poe only makes his own through particularly insistent repetition—recalls the mournful and never-ending remembrance of lost love in “The Raven,” and extends it to include her own circumstance. Countering a model of lyric that privileges individual innovation, Whitman, along with other spiritualist poets, writes lyric verse that foregrounds mimicry as a sign of affinity. In its most radical form, mimicry in spiritualist poetry serves as a mode of telegraphic communication between minds. Famous poet medium Lizzie Doten conveys this posthumous message from Poe, in the style of his poem “Ulalume”: “And there, as I shivered and waited, / I talked with the Souls of the Dead— / With those who the living call dead.” 4 In his signature style, Doten “translates” Poe’s conversation with other spirits “in the desolate Kingdom of Death.” The message also doubles as the poet-medium’s description of her otherworldly conversation with the spirit of Poe. The ambiguity of attribution is inconsequential (though it is perhaps a deliberate consequence of the form), because either way, the message is the same. Emulation operates as a mode of spiritual communion.
In the extremity of its claims, spiritualist poetry foregrounds a crucial limitation in studies of nineteenth-century American poetry. Using evaluative criteria that Whitman and others actively reject, critics have consistently dismissed women’s poetry of the period as overly derivative, echoic, and secondary. As Mary Loeffelholz has noted, even feminist critics who have worked hard to recover and re-issue women’s poetry have hesitated to interpret it; they have tended to valorize rebellious or subversive exceptions against the background of a poetic...