- Other Worlds:Alfred Russel Wallace and Cross-Cultural Spiritualism
In the spring of the great revolutionary year of 1848, a twenty-five-year-old Alfred Russel Wallace was preparing to set out on the ethnographically unprecedented four-year expedition through the Amazon Basin that would launch his international career as a naturalist and lay the foundations for his co-theorization of natural selection with Charles Darwin. Thousands of miles to the north, an epoch-defining incident of equal significance for Wallace’s thought was underway in the tiny and now no-longer-existent hamlet of Hydesville, New York. Here, in late March, the young mediums Kate and Maggie Fox started to receive—or simulate—the rapped spirit messages from the other world that would electrify northeastern America’s communities and initiate the Anglo-American spiritualist movement in which Wallace was later to become such a major player. Wallace recalled first hearing reports of the phenomena during his bio-ethnographical tours of the global South in the 1850s and dismissing them as “too wild and too outré to be anything but the ravings of madmen” (My Life 276).1 Indeed, it was not until 1865, when back in London and able to witness mediated spirit contact—or, at least, its Western incarnation—first-hand, that Wallace would personally and then publically embrace the new faith, a move that provoked considerable controversy and derision within the newly professionalized ranks of Britain’s scientific naturalist elite.2
It has become increasingly common to link these two distinct phases—the ethnographic and the spiritualist—of Wallace’s career into a seamless causal trajectory, with the first being assigned catalyzing status for the second. Wallace’s biographer Martin Fichman, for example, argues that “the years spent among indigenous inhabitants of South America and the Malay Archipelago left their mark on Wallace’s psyche.… Animist creeds and belief in the reality of spirits abounding in nature were fundamental precepts of these people” (Elusive Victorian 170–71). Sherrie Lynne Lyons strenuously confirms this assessment in her recent monograph contending that “Wallace’s view of native people provides an important clue to his later conversion to the spiritualist hypothesis” (120). Even Wallace’s contemporaries were keen to assert a connection between his religious heterodoxy and his prior contact with the non-Western peoples then designated as savage or primitive.3 [End Page 177] A sneering review of Wallace’s The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural (1866; later incorporated into On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism ) in the Anthropological Review suggests that he might have been converted by the spirit of the “first man” (“Science and Spiritualism” 242), a contemporary term here standing in for both the evolutionarily earliest and least Westernized indigenous human. In none of these instances, however, does the evidence for this assumed affinity go beyond its mere assertion; nonetheless, it continues to persist in Wallace scholarship, as if the contemporary New Age fusion of openness to cross-cultural contact and to non-Western religions with belief in existence after death has been deemed to have been always already present in the New Age movement’s spiritualist predecessors.
Yet there are important reasons, both from the perspective of Wallace studies and spiritualist historiography, to re-evaluate this apparent correlation. Perhaps, as my article contends, the reason why the supposed affinity between Wallace’s ethnography and his spiritualism has not been better evidenced despite its near-ubiquitous assertion is that it does not, in fact, exist—or, at least, did not during the period of Wallace’s most vocal campaigns on behalf of new faith. On the contrary, I want to explore a far less comfortable, perhaps even antipathetic, relationship between Wallace’s experience of non-Western indigenous religions and his heterodoxy than has hitherto been supposed, one that has significant consequences for our understanding of the British scientist’s approach to racial difference and of the complex and shifting status of “the primitive” in Anglo-American spiritualist thought. Wallace, in his On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism, performs an anxious quarantining of non-First-World practices of spirit contact from those of modern Britain, which becomes all the more remarkable, we will see...