Published April 20, 2020
Erik Seeman, professor of history, College of Arts and Sciences, has won this year’s Lawrence W. Levine Award for his book “Speaking with the Dead in Early America.”
The Organization of American Historians (OAH) annually presents the award to the author of what it considers to be the year’s best book in American cultural history. The OAH is the country’s largest professional society dedicated to the teaching and study of American history.
Seeman has studied the history of death for the past two decades and has previously published two books exploring the cross-cultural aspects of death practices in North America. But “Speaking with the Dead in Early America” focuses on Anglo-Americans and the extent to which Protestants maintained connections with the dead, even though the idea of doing so ran contrary to their theology.
“That was one of the key distinctions between Protestantism, when it emerged in the 16th century, and Catholicism,” says Seeman. “The Reformation changed the relationship between the living and the dead, severing for Protestants connections to loved ones in the afterlife.”
But these relationships were not easily abandoned and through his creative examination of previously unexplored imaginative literature and material culture ─ gravestone epitaphs, published poems, short stories, mourning embroideries, photographs and newspapers articles ─ Seeman demonstrates how Protestants maintained meaningful relationships with the dead.
“Historians had long noted that 19th-century Americans were very interested in death, but they hadn’t noticed the desire to maintain relations with the dead,” he says. “This led to what I call in the book ‘The Cult of the Dead.’”
The Cult of the Dead emerged in the early 19th century as a precursor to Spiritualism, which began in Western New York in 1848. But the sources Seeman studied didn’t explain how Spiritualism grew to attract hundreds of thousands of participants only 10 years after the Fox sisters in Hydesville, N.Y., first interpreted what they identified as supernatural rappings.
“Spiritualism has always been described as if it emerged from nothing,” says Seeman. “My students have always been fascinated by Spiritualism, but my inability to explain how it arose led me to consider the antecedents.
“That took me back to previous centuries and the beliefs that became The Cult of the Dead. I didn’t go looking for it. This emerged from the sources, from the material culture I looked at.”
It was from this initial prehistory that Seeman’s book became a history of Protestant communication with the dead before the arrival of Spiritualism.
“The pronouncements of elite figures, such as ministers, do not fully describe the reality of a given culture or religion,” says Seeman. “Wherever possible, we should look for words or actions or material products of ordinary people to examine and compare those sources against what is being claimed for them, being claimed as their belief system.”
It’s in this material culture that mourners looked for ways to connect with the departed, ways that demonstrate to Seeman’s readers the power of speaking with the dead.