Yearning for the New Age
Laura Holloway-Langford and Late Victorian Spirituality
Publication Year: 2012
This biography of an unconventional woman in late 19th-century America is a study of a search for individual autonomy and spiritual growth. Laura Holloway-Langford, a "rebel girl" from Tennessee, moved to New York City, where she supported her family as a journalist. She soon became famous as the author of Ladies of the White House, which secured her financial independence. Promoted to associate editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, she gave readings and lectures and became involved in progressive women's causes, the temperance movement, and theosophy—even traveling to Europe to meet Madame Blavatsky, the movement's leader, and writing for the theosophist newspaper The Word. In the early 1870s, she began a correspondence with Eldress Anna White of the Mount Lebanon, New York, Shaker community, with whom she shared belief in pacifism, feminism, vegetarianism, and cremation. Attracted by the simplicity of Shaker life, she eventually bought a farm from the Canaan Shakers, where she lived and continued to write until her death in 1930. In tracing the life of this spiritual seeker, Diane Sasson underscores the significant role played by cultural mediators like Holloway-Langford in bringing new religious ideas to the American public and contributing to a growing interest in eastern religions and alternative approaches to health and spirituality that would alter the cultural landscape of the nation.
Published by: Indiana University Press
Series: Religion in North America
Diane Sasson has crafted a riveting biography of Laura Holloway- Langford (1843–1930) that is also first-rate religious and intellectual history. Sasson’s masterful account follows this gifted Southern woman who left the devastating circumstances of the defeated South following the...
Librarians are truly the unsung heroes of book projects that are based on obscure or archival material. I cannot name all those who helped me, but my gratitude goes to librarians at the American Society for Psychical Research; Brooklyn Public Library; Columbia University Library...
A Note on Names
Laura Holloway-Langford was a woman of many names. She was born Laura O. Carter. When she married in 1862, she became Laura C. Holloway, the name under which she published until 1890, when she married Edward L. Langford and assumed his surname. To avoid confusion...
To President Andrew Johnson she was a “little rebel.” To Helena Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, she was a “bomb-shell from the Dugpa world.” In occult fiction, she is portrayed as a busybody who fancied herself a mental healer. Some Theosophists labeled her a...
1. Sex, Suffrage, and Religious Seekers
In the decades after the Civil War, Brooklyn was a center for activist women who rejected Victorian notions of womanhood and who sought ways to express their spiritual yearnings beyond the bounds of mainstream religion. Overwhelmingly white, middle-class, and of Protestant...
2. “A Clairvoyant of the First Water”
Nineteenth-century Americans from all walks of life believed in signs, premonitions, dreams, waking visions, and messages received orally or “impressed on the mind,” which were interpreted as evidence of a spiritual reality that existed alongside the physical world...
3. “Better Come”
Laura Holloway-Langford, like many women who joined the Theosophical Society, sought opportunities for leadership and creativity that were not easily available in Victorian society. She wanted to reveal her clairvoyant gifts openly, to test their powers, and to be rewarded...
4. “The First Bomb-shell from the Dugpa World”
In the spring of 1886, Helena P. Blavatsky felt that “fierce waves” of evil spirits were “heaving and spreading and beating ferociously around the [Theosophical] Society.” She had left India at the end of March 1885, some months before the Society for Psychical Research labeled her a...
5. Fantasizing the Occult
During the London season of 1884, theosophy was in vogue. Interest in Eastern metaphysics had been mounting since 1881, when A. P. Sinnett had published letters from Koot Hoomi in The Occult World. The appetite for the supernatural was further whetted when, in...
6. “Our Golden Word: Try”
Theosophists esteemed the written word with an almost Protestant faith in its power, and they produced an array of metaphysical treatises, memoirs, and novels. Additionally, they penned a plethora of letters, which were passed from one person to another, keeping the founders in...
7. The Lady Mrs. X
During 1884, Helena Blavatsky came under increasing scrutiny from both those who wished to prove the reality of psychic power and skeptics who doubted her claims. By late that summer, she decided that it would be prudent to avoid transmitting letters from the Masters...
8. Disseminating New Ideas
Laura Holloway-Langford, William Quan Judge, and Mohini Mohun Chatterji each left their homelands expecting new lives as Theosophists. In their efforts to negotiate the volatile terrain of a movement marked by internal dissent and outside opposition, they faced disappointments—in...
9. Music of the Spheres
In May 1889, Laura Holloway-Langford created the Seidl Society. Taking its name from the conductor Anton Seidl, the Society was established to promote musical culture among “all classes of women and children” and to produce “harmony over individual life and character...
10. “Dear Friend and Sister”
The years following the demise of the Seidl Society were difficult for Laura Holloway-Langford. Not only had she lost her position at the center of Brooklyn social and cultural life, but in the late 1890s her husband suffered financial setbacks. In January 1901, her sister, Anne...
11. Who Tells the Tale?
Struggles over the leadership and direction of a new religious movement are stored in competing narratives. Where does the story begin? Who are the essential actors? What texts are sacred? How such questions are answered determines the shape of the narrative and interprets...
Epilogue: Seeking Laura
For over a decade I have lived in Nashville, Tennessee, where I teach at Vanderbilt University. In 2005, I began research on Eldress Anna White, whose sharp intellect and devotion to progressive causes I had long admired. I discovered that the Edward Deming Andrews Shaker...
List of Abbreviations