"Fading Away," Harper's Weekly (1858)

"Fading Away" appeared in November of 1858. It took up a full page in Harper's Weekly, one of the most popular magazines of the day. It was not there to illustrate a poem or a story, although it would have been a simple matter to find such a piece.1 Instead it illustrated a fascination with death, especially the death of young women and girls, which runs through mid-nineteenth-century American popular culture. One can find this fascination everywhere. It is in the songs. Stephen Foster, to cite the most notable example, sang of "Jeanie with the light brown hair," pictured at left. By the second verse:

I sigh for Jeanie, but her light form strayed,
Far from the fond hearts round her native glade;
Her smiles have vanished and her sweet songs have flown,
Flitting like the dreams that have cheered us and gone.

Jeanie was not the only ghostly maiden in the popular music of the day. There was "Fair Ella Lee" and countless others. Poets were equally taken with the lovely young woman not long for this world. Poe is of course the most celebrated -- along with Emily Dickinson whose work was unknown at the time -- and one of the few still read today. What Jeanie and Annabel Lee and the "lost Lenore" all share is an unearthly goodness. Each was, as Poe exclaimed in "To One In Paradise," "Ah, dream too bright to last!" Goodness carried its own death sentence. Hopeless love, the unrequited longing for an unattainable and perfect woman, carried its own justification.2 Sarah Helen Whitman, Poe's one-time fiance and a well-known poet, caught this in "She Blooms No More." The poet mourns the coming of Summer which now only brings memories:

Of one who shared with me, in youth,
Life's sunshine and its flowers,
And kept unchanged her bosom's truth
Through all its darkest hours.

She faded when the leaves were sere,
And wailed the Autumn blast;
With all the glories of the year
From earth her spirit pass'd.

The beloved in this work actually "faded." Jeanie's "light form strayed." "Death has wed the little beauty, Bell Brandon," ran another popular song lyric of the day. Even in life there was something insubstantial about such a maiden.

Here is Emily Dickinson's treatment of the theme:

Her sweet weight on my Heart a Night
Had scarcely deigned to lie -
When, stirring, for Belief's delight,
My bride had slipped away -

If `twas a Dream - made solid - just
The Heaven to confirm -
Or if Myself were dreamed of Her -
The power to presume -

With Him remain - who unto Me -
Gave - even as to All -
A Fiction superseding Faith -
By so much - as `twas real -

Ghostly maidens were a part of the "Sentimental Culture" of the period.3 Accounting for this particular cultural trope is, perhaps fortunately, beyond our purview. Its links to spiritualism are what concern us. One suggestive hint among the materials gathered here is the insistence, again in Dickinson's words, that time does not heal:

They say that 'time assuages,'--
Time never did assuage;
An actual suffering strengthens,
As sinews do, with age.

Further, the ghostly maiden is as real a presence in the lives of those left behind as she was in life. Here is Poe:

And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.

"Is there no balaam in Gilead?" Poe cried out in "The Raven." The answer, "Nevermore," was a sentence of doom. Spiritualism offered hope. One final hint is worth considering. Even in life, these ghostly maidens possessed an ethereal purity which already had something unearthly about it. If anyone were to be able to contact spirits in the afterlife, surely it would be such a maiden.

Some initial reflections:

Cora Hatch fit the physical description of the various maidens eulogized in these materials extremely closely. Further, to judge from the initial public accounts of her "discourses," she fit the descriptions of the temperaments and personalities of the maidens in these materials equally well. She had the innocent beauty, the childlike grace, the angelic expression. Her voice was musical. If the "ghostly maiden," was a "dream too bright to last," if she were already halfway into the world beyond, then Cora Hatch would perfectly fit the popular idea of someone most able to communicate with the spirits.