Philip F. Gura's fine new book is a history of the perfectionist impulse that took hold of many Americans in the decades before the Civil War. The author or editor of more than a dozen books, Gura is a sure-handed guide through the complicated, and often convoluted, plans conjured up by [End Page 326] antebellum intellectuals, prophets, and dreamers. Weaving together chapter-length biographies of seven such figures—George Ripley, Horace Greeley, William Batchelder Greene, Orson Squire Fowler, Mary Gove Nichols, Henry David Thoreau, and John Brown—Man's Better Angels explores the contours of Romantic reform, paying particular attention to its pitfalls.
Gura's most important revelation is that the Panic of 1837 had a profound impact on American reform culture. This economic catastrophe destroyed hundreds of banks and businesses and cost hundreds of thousands of people their savings or livelihoods. Responding to the physical, moral, and spiritual malaise that followed, Romantic reformers promoted "wildly divergent panaceas—some legitimate, others quackery, pure and simple—that promised restoration of the body economic and politic through individual reformation" (12). At the core of these visions and programs, Gura maintains, was an optimistic faith in human potential—the idea that human perfection was possible if only Americans would listen to what Abraham Lincoln later termed the "better angels of our nature" (271n21).
Some of the stories that Gura recounts—of George Ripley's Transcendentalist community at Brook Farm, of Henry David Thoreau's two years of solitude at Walden Pond, of John Brown's failed antislavery raid at Harpers Ferry—will be familiar to readers of this journal. Still, Gura is a graceful stylist, and his lively narrative breathes new life into these old tales. But Man's Better Angels is especially engaging when Gura turns to more obscure figures.
His chapter on Orson Squire Fowler, for instance, is a fascinating exploration of the bizarre pseudoscience of phrenology as well as the quest of Orson and his brother Lorenzo to turn skull reading into a profitable business. Phrenologists claimed that they could deduce a person's character through an examination of his or her skull. Yet, like therapists today, they also insisted that they could enable patients to better themselves by teaching them how to purge negative tendencies and develop positive ones. In short, phrenologists sold their services as a path to self-improvement and perhaps social transformation. The Fowler brothers, for their part, helped to popularize phrenology, which took off in the wake of the Panic of 1837. Over the next two decades, their New York City office rivaled P. T. Barnum's museum as a tourist destination. There, visitors could gaze at hundreds of casts of famous Americans' heads, buy skull-measurement equipment, and pay for their own phrenological reading.
Gura's account of the life of Mary Gove Nichols is equally captivating. Married to an abusive man, Nichols sought solace after the 1837 panic in a burgeoning career as an educator and public speaker on women's health and women's rights. By the mid-1840s, Nichols had left her husband and [End Page 327] embraced the water cure. According to the cure's European progenitor, the ingestion of, and exposure to, large volumes of water accelerated the body's natural healing powers. Like phrenology, hydropathy promised both personal and social transformation, since water-cured individuals were expected to spread the gospel to others. Nichols eventually became a hydropathic physician, but her experimentation did not stop there. She also flirted with spiritualism, embraced radical ideas about sexual relations, and lived for a time at a utopian community that outlawed economic competition.
It is clear that Gura admires the idealism that animated Mary Nichols, the Fowler brothers, and the rest of his colorful cast of characters. Nevertheless, he argues that they were fundamentally misguided in their faith that human nature is inherently good, that social problems are rooted in personal shortcomings, and that self-transformation was the true path to national...