Despite his advocacy for modernism, and his friendships with pioneering photographers Félix Nadar and Etienne Carjat, Charles Baudelaire distrusted both photography and the populace who ushered it in as the Absolute Art. In his review of the French Salon of 1859, when it first allowed photography to be submitted alongside paintings and sculptures, he wrote: "If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude which is its natural ally."
Despite this apparently clear preference, however, Adrian Van Young, in his debut novel Shadows in Summerland, cites Baudelaire as the aesthetic impetus of the fraudulently Spiritualist photographer, William H. Mumler. This makes for an implicit metatextual argument for historical fiction/biography as a whole: you have to conjure one world into the reality of another, and to do so isn't so much about researching and relaying the facts as it is allowing them to calcinate in the imagination.
Van Young is no stranger to weird and haunting portraits of the United States’ past. His collection The Man Who Noticed Everything (2013), which won the Black Lawrence Press's St. Lawrence Book Award, features dark and visceral tales of ordinary people caught within the Southern Gothic tradition of being strangers in strange lands. More recently, The Line-Up.com ran his mystery novella serial, The Murder Chronicles: A New Orleans Murder Mystery, which also featured photography as its focus, with a New Orleans secret society based on the photographer E. J. Bellocq. While these two projects are completely different in scope and subject, one thing that binds them together is the quiet fear and poetic fervor that defines Van Young's style and continues to be seen in Summerland.
With its emphasis on the afterlife and otherworldly antics like séances and trances, Spiritualism is no stranger to the historical novel. However, it is usually only the tropes of the movement, and hardly the movement itself—unless to be debunked—that is treated in these tales. In Summerland, Van Young eschews this habit of kitsch to present a gallery of portraits—imagistic and visceral vignettes that try to capture the likeness of a social phenomenon that conned an entire nation while trying to help it heal.
Spiritualism is the belief that the dead (usually via a medium) can communicate with the living—and in doing so demonstrate that the afterlife is a continuation of, rather than an end to, a being's existence. Enlightened by exposure to this higher plane, what the spirits have to communicate with the living is wisdom gained from transcendence. As a result, participants in séances and trance meetings in the 1860s would be surprised to find their departed waxing philosophic on abolition and women’s suffrage—two causes for which Spiritualism and its adherents vehemently advocated.
Women dominated the field. In fact, it is two young women, Margaret and Kate Fox, who, after hearing much rapping and knocking (of their knees), are attributed with bringing Spiritualism to its national fervor. While the movement was a direct successor of previous pseudo-scientific fads like Mesmerism, made popular by Andrew Jackson Davis, it came into its own through, well, what today we'd term "platform." There were: centers and churches that housed and educated budding mediums; well-attended trance tours; and of course periodicals, like Banner of Light, that promoted philosophies on current events, reported on new instances of contact and communication, celebrated failed debunkings of mediums and the movement, and marveled at new devices and technology used to reach the dead. It was the Banner, in fact, that first printed the scoop on William H. Mumler. After its editor Fanny Conant endorsed him, he was embraced by the Spiritualism community and became a household name.
Born in Boston in 1832, William Mumler was raised in the family business as a jeweler, a career from which he readily retired from when he began making a living off of his photography. Capturing spirits on plates was an accident. While he was taking a self-portrait, the figure of a girl resembling his dead cousin, Cora, appeared in the image's development. Later on in his autobiography, he would say he promoted the image as a joke that went too far, but in the 1860s he was promoting it as truth, and as part of a newly discovered and secret process that allowed his camera to commune with the spirits closest to the sitter. This discovery came during the peak of the Spiritualist movement in the 1860s, when families in the US were being destroyed by death and devastation during the Civil War. Shortly thereafter, skeptics like P. T. Barnum began calling him out, claiming that some of Mumler's so-called ghosts were actually the likenesses of people still alive and walking the streets at the time they were taken. After much hoopla in the press, Mumler was eventually brought to trial and quickly acquitted because not one of his sitters would testify against him, and each denied being harmed in the way Barnum claimed. Even so, doubt cast the winning shadow and Mumler never enjoyed the same success as he had in the 1860s, even though he continued to create new photographic processes.
The first thing a twenty-first-century eye sees when gazing upon a Mumler daguerreotype is nothing but the hoax. In our age of endless image apps, we can see immediately the Photoshop job of the double exposure in these photographs. It looks like the simplest trick in the book, and yet these images garnered Mumler a small fortune and reputation, and gave hope to the hundreds of patrons who sat for him. What we cannot see in these images are the dreams they represented to their subjects as well as the other participants in the Spiritualism movement. It seems to be Van Young's aim to restore those dreams and the poetry, not only to the period, but to the zeitgeist, and to the history of photography.
Of course, to do this, Van Young had to do some doctoring of the facts himself. This is what had me thinking about Baudelaire and the artistic license used in fantastic historical fiction. While there always seems to be an expectation for historical fiction to be one hundred percent accurate and truthful, this is impossible—inevitably, considerations including plot, pacing, and missing holes in biography prevent it, not to mention the immediate presumption of putting words and thoughts in dead people's mouths and minds. But these limitations become a challenge of correspondences, and, in the case of historical fiction with a more biographical bent, they can either be manipulated to restore and resolve the subject’s mysteries to a speculative conclusion, or to take a more poetic, psychoanalytic, impressionistic route and offer a proposed “essence” of the subject and their era.
It's this latter route Van Young chooses, and to great effect—serving both readers who are knowledgeable about the movement by providing them with Easter eggs, but also those who may come to the book with vaguer notions by offering a reasonable introduction to Mumler and his milieu. Van Young does this by collapsing the entire Spiritualist world into a cobweb where the few characters chosen to represent the various sides slowly but surely become ensnared around Mumler's nexus. The Mesmerist camp, for example, is represented by William Guay, whose Spiritualist sycophancy eventually ensnares Mumler and his camp in murder.
Mumler’s wife, Hannah, grows up in a small fishing town, only to be exiled with her mother after demonstrating her clairvoyance and sight, including the vision of her father's drowning. Hannah moves to Boston, and after conjuring Mumler's dead cousin while sitting for a portrait, becomes engaged—in marriage and business—to him. Both states become unsatisfying as she is taken down with her husband for fraud, despite the poignant fact that she is one of the few people in the book who may really see the unseen.
Then there is Fanny Conant, professional medium and total fraud, who, after surviving confinement and rape via a debunking committee formed in her small mining town of Roundot, is rescued by Emma Hardinge Britten and taken to the Centre for the Diffusion of Spiritual Knowledge. There, she is trained to become one of the profession's brightest stars. Conant is the first medium Mumler meets when he is invited to a jewelry client's séance, and it is she who ultimately brings the Mumlers into the Spiritualism world. It is a decision she comes to regret as her relations with the Mumlers become more personal.
These are the prominent voices whose narratives, along with the Message Department as chorus, blend to tell the rise and fall of both Mumler's photography and the Spiritualism community as a whole. But there are a few in the wings, like the victim Algernon Child, Mumler's nemesis, and freeman Bill Christian, Mumler's closest cohort, of whom I wanted to see more. Despite his active role in Mumler's intrigues, and perhaps having the most hidden history of all, Bill's perspective and inner life is only gleaned through actions and dialogue. It seems like a lost opportunity to add one more perspective to the novel’s depiction of the progressive movement that advocated for abolition and would inspire the Black Spiritualist Movement. While the novel does a great job with its female voices, showing how Spiritualism was connected to and empowered Suffragettism, I feel Summerland's meditation on the movement could have been even further bolstered and nuanced by the addition of a strong African American voice.
As for Algernon Child, his voice is effectively silent. He is the Banquo to Mumler's Macbeth, and appears throughout the novel despite his death partway through—as a Gothic reminder not only of dirty deeds dealt, but of where Mumler came from: Baudelaire. At the same society séance where he first meets Conant, he also meets Child, a photographer commissioned to take the medium's likeness. Mumler is more enchanted by the process of the camera than what he sees immediately as the Spiritualist sham Conant performs. Immediately, Mumler strikes up a friendship with Child, who teaches Mumler the tools of the trade and plays the pragmatic photographer to Mumler's more romantic and Symbolist Baudelairan notions:
Lightning raked across the sky and imprinted on the surface of the sidewalk-facing
windows. In the stutter that came before the thunder, through curtains on curtains of slant-falling rain, a couple strolling arm in arm disentangled themselves to dash for cover. Child, who was sponging his face with a napkin, followed my gaze to the couple and smiled.
"Enjoying the scenery, are we, Willy—safe and tight and dry?" he said.
"But wouldn't it make a splendid picture. Lovers flee the angry gods."
Child scoffed at this. "Man and woman in a storm. What have the gods and their anger to do with it?"
"Why that was poetry," I said. "And poetry must mark its passage. The artist—the true one--must never depict except for what he feels or sees."
Child said, "Baudelaire, if I'm not mistaken. Let nature speak for itself—there's another."
"Who said that?"
"I did," said Child. "And every picture-maker from Bogardus to Daguerre." (pp. 80-81)
This is a difference in opinion that eventually severs their brief and impassioned friendship.
All this talk about art aside, Mumler's interest in photography was practical: there was money to be made in it. Mumler was nothing if not a man of industry, and Baudelaire would not have approved of him. It was, we’ll recall, photography’s attempt to claim dominion over the Art World that Baudelaire could not abide. He saw photography only as a visual tool for documentation of fact, not fiction. Fiction belonged in the realm of the imagination, and that realm was best left in the hands of poets and painters. To tamper with photography via the manipulation of reality was not to dream, but to lie—and to lead not to sublimity in nature, but subversion of Art.
But Van Young, like all historical novelists, is not doing anything so very different from Mumler. One is never going to summon the past with photographic accuracy, and therefore, when history is regulated to a fictional palette, what is done to it rather resembles what Mumler in his nascent yearning wanted to achieve. What coagulates is a portrait not of a past existence, but a past essence, that only the artist's sensibilities can transmute into a story. This is what makes fantastical works by Umberto Eco, Tim Powers, Dan Simmons, and Susannah Clarke seem so authentic and distinct, and helps Van Young's voices in Shadows in Summerland hover and soar around this tradition, taking us just a little beyond into its own shadowy realm.
Selena Chambers's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of venues including MungBeing magazine, The Non-Binary Review, Tor.com, Bookslut, and Cassilda’s Song (Chaosium, 2014). She is currently co-authoring with Arthur Morgan a travel guide to Steampunk Paris, out this fall from Pelekenisis Press. You can reach her at www.selenachambers.com, or on Twitter: @BasBleuZombie.