Invisible Hosts

Performing the Nineteenth-Century Spirit Medium's Autobiography

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Elizabeth Schleber Lowry
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , September
     186 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Elizabeth Lowry’s book, Invisible Hosts, is a refreshing change from a jargon-filled dissertation-turned-book. Not only does it have historical heft, but also it’s an enjoyable read that offers both insightful analysis alongside an accessible introduction to spiritualism and the various scholarly lines of inquiry which situate it. Lowry examines four 19th-century women spiritualists, Leah Fox Underhill (1814–1890), Amanda Theodosia Jones (1835–1914), Nettie Coburn Maynard (1842–1892), and Emma Harding Britten (1823–1899) primarily through their individual autobiographies, but she supplements their works with material taken from other contemporary spiritualists and commentators. Lowry’s chapters are thematically organized, clearly articulated, and concise.

To achieve this focus, Lowry’s chosen approach is rhetorical analysis. She applies a keen eye informed by Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E. Kirsch’s “critical imagination” (Feminist Rhetorical Practices [Southern Illinois University Press, 2012]) to inhabit the life-worlds of the four female spiritualist autobiographers and understand the social and cultural forces that they navigated in their public and private lives. Though Lowry rightly points out that her subjects shared similar social circumstances (white, middle-class, Northeastern), she reads their work for “difference” highlighting the individuality of each of the women in nuanced ways. While exploring the similar challenges they shared, she traces how each female spiritualist rose to the meet those challenges in different ways.

Situating her inquiry in the social-historical context of the mid- to late 19th century, Lowry weaves three lines of inquiry across seven succinct chapters: (1) the relationship between Christianity and spiritualism, (2) constructions of femininity, and (3) the rhetorical strategies that the female spiritualist autobiographers made to mute accusations of impropriety, fraud, impurity, and avarice to suggest that their autobiographies were just as performed as their public appearances as spiritualist mediums.

Chapter 1 summarizes role of spiritual autobiographies in the 19th century before making a comparative move to place spiritualist autobiographies in conversation with evangelical autobiographies. Though the author’s use of “evangelical” is underdefined and readers must resort to their own understandings of evangelical identity in the 19th-century context, the contrast between Christian and spiritualist autobiographies is particularly interesting as a launching pad for her later arguments. Chapter 2 explores the various ways that the four female spiritualists navigated 19th-century prescriptions of femininity through the lens of the Cult of Domesticity and the ideology of True Womanhood. Contrasting Barbara Welter’s polarized concepts of “True Women” and “New Women” with Frances B. Cogan’s model of “Real Womanhood,” Lowry argues that female spiritualists  complicated the four virtues of True Womanhood (piety, domesticity, submissiveness, and purity) by transforming them into new expressions of integrity, and authenticity, which are indicative of Real Womanhood. Chapter 3 traces specific rhetorical tactics such as “casuistic stretching,”  which were deployed by the spiritualists to confront Christian prejudices and undermine charges of demonic possession or witchcraft by coopting Christian practices and liturgies to demonstrate that spiritualists viewed themselves as the heirs of “true” Christianity.

In chapter 4, Lowry examines how the female spiritualists negotiated the ideal of “domesticity” by transferring its private, home-based sphere of influence outside the home in another nod to Real Womanhood by making teaching, nursing, and ministering to the sick and needy “domestic” concerns. In chapter 5, Lowry details the ways that the female spiritualists subverted accusations of impropriety and fraud through their refusal to accept payment for their services, and instead relied on the endorsements of their elite clientele. In refusing to accept remuneration, the spiritualists confirm their individual authenticity and legitimize spiritualism more broadly. Lowry is quick to point out, however, that the spiritualists would accept gifts, financial or material, by couching this exchange in the language of politesse so as to not offend clients. Chapter 6 looks at the influential Cartesian dualistic worldview which held great sway across all walks of life with which the spiritualists had to contend but tended to reject.

Lowry’s focus here, however, is on the role of the female body serving as a passive material “channel” for the spiritualist’s otherworld connections of the “other” often male spirits, which could speak publicly with less reservation.  In this way, the female spiritualists were not guilty of speaking publicly themselves. Instead, they acted only as  mediums for communication. In her final substantive chapter, Lowry analyzes the ways that the female spiritualists adopted acceptable genres of female writing such as travelogue to couch their social and political commentaries, once again subverting the expected forms of respectable feminine expression in letters.

Overall, Lowry’s text offers readers a focused analysis of how four female spiritualists charted new social, religious, and political courses through the specific rhetorical moves they made which that challenged society’s conventions and propelled these particular four female spiritualists across gender and class lines, not only in religious and literary circles but in political circles as well. All four of the female spiritualists supported abolition, civil rights, and social equality, which were key ideals of the spiritualist movement writ large. Invisible Hosts will be of interest for historians and religious scholars who specialize in 19th-century American history broadly, but also for gender and women’s studies scholars who have an interest in women’s literature, woman’s religious expressions, and women’s roles in the spiritualist movement.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Cynthia A. Hogan is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Religious Studies at Washington and Jefferson College.

Date of Review: 
November 20, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elizabeth Schleber Lowry is lecturer in rhetoric and composition at Arizona State University.


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