Christine Ferguson: Fellowship Recipient

Christine Ferguson: Fellowship Recipient


My name’s Christine Ferguson, and I’m from the department of English Literature at the University of Glasgow. I’m looking at spiritualist literature produced in America, and Britain from about 1850 to 1930. So it’s quite a broad historical sweep. Spiritualism is a heterodox religious movement that starts in America, typically associated with the States and then spreads around the world. Basically its only fundamental belief is that the dead survive and you can communicate with them through a variety of techniques such as table rapping, manifestations, any kind of transspeech and so forth. So the movement produces a big community, but also a massive literary movement as well. So lots of texts that record ways to kind of contact the other world and also lengthy descriptions of what this new afterlife looks like. Which is in some ways very different from the traditional Christian afterlife. So, I’m looking at those materials, particularly here at the Ransom Center. There’s a terrific collection of books that were owned by Arthur Conan Doyle. Now everyone knows Doyle as the founder of Sherlock Holmes. He was also one of the most famous spiritualists in the world, for like the last 30 or 40 years of his life, and collected a massive volume of materials, many of them accounts of the afterlife, apparently channeled by people while under spirit control, and I’m looking at those. The material I’m finding here is going to go into my book project which is called The Determined Spirits: Eugenics, Heredity, and Racial Hygiene in Transatlantic Spiritualist Writing. I think the very best thing about being here in person, rather than looking at these materials online, which would be difficult anyways, they’re so rare, is that, you know, you’re reading the text, but you’re also reading the history of someone else’s reading, and Doyle very much liked to annotate his texts. So they’re all inscribed, and every once in awhile you’ll come across a little description on the front that tells you exactly what Doyle thought– you know, was it total rubbish, was it inventive, or was it a very good book, with important truth. The texts are underlined, with little notes, and you can really read Doyle’s own quite unique, spiritualist force feed by what he rejected and incorporated from other writers. And you wouldn’t get that anywhere else; it’s just fantastic. I think coming here, I knew, even though I’ve got 4 weeks, I would never make it through the entire library. So it was a matter of being able to access the collection online, and there are really great finding aides available, so you can find all of the items in the library, look at them, and then you make informed guesses, often based on the title, about what might have captured Doyle’s interest, what he might have been most likely to annotate, or what might have the kind of material that you want; it’s quite intuitive in some ways. So I’ve worked that way and I’ve found a lot of great stuff. Am I leaving things unread? Of course I am, but that’s just a good reason to come back here again.

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