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'The Apparitionists' Raises The Specters That Haunted America

"... photography was an act of mythmaking."

There's a sense of a museum exhibit in Peter Manseau's The Apparitionists. The centerpiece of the book is the trial of William Mumler, a photographer in Boston (and later New York) accused of defrauding people with his claims that he could take "spirit photographs" — portraits that included a spectral subject alongside the living. But no man photographs ghosts in a vacuum. Manseau wanders from room to room outside the trial to see how America got there.

Given that the path loops through the Civil War, the telegraph, P.T. Barnum, spiritualism and a trained seal, it's impressive that The Apparitionists is as brisk a read as it is. The tone is knowledgeable, but the touch is light; technology is deftly explained, figures who have been gone too long are always briefly reintroduced, and Manseau is happy to reassure you you're reading a history. (Of two warring photographers, he notes that, unfortunately, "Mortal partnerships are always only temporary.")

Of course, like any good history, The Apparitionists also has a distinct air of the present. We're reading about a religion so new that many Americans worried it was necromancy, but we're also reading about a time in which new technologies suddenly upended the way people thought about communication, war upended the way people thought about life and death, and unprecedented access to things — newspapers, tourism, "objective" photograph portraits — upended the way people thought about what was true. (Called to the stand to testify about the veracity of his exhibits, Barnum presciently announces a capitalist cri de coeur: "They paid their money, and they had their choice.") The past makes its eddies into the quaintly out-of-date, but it always brings us back to the present.

As such, The Apparitionists is as much a mirror as a snapshot — and Manseau is keenly aware of it. The handful of historical figures at the center of this tangle are all duly colorful; Mumler somehow seems the least prepossessing, which can be forgiven seeing that he is up against mediums, feuding photography studios that subtweeted each other in the newspapers, and also Barnum. But Manseau also treads carefully around sea changes. In particular, there's a lingering sense of the bitterness that shrouded America after the Civil War — and the sense of how mass media shaped the narrative. (Mathew Brady's photography teams scoured battlefields for "the kind of picture Brady had come to strive for: the isolated instant somehow reflecting the nation as a whole.")

Manseau finds a clever balance of historical remove and the immediacy of suspense, and manages to maintain a — perhaps necessary — agnosticism when it counts.

There's also a sense of the thin line between science and faith. Phrenology reads as only slightly outdated by modern standards of rhetorical criminal classification; religious minorities like Catholicism struggled to legitimize themselves in an age where science demanded constant re-evaluation of what was potentially unholy. And the rise of spiritualism (particularly alongside the development of photography) was alternately dismissed as nonsense and embraced as a religion where those dear to you never really had to depart — a position increasingly insulated against skepticism in the aftermath of a civil war that had dealt the country such an irreversible blow.

It's remarkable how breezily Manseau weaves all this together, given the sheer volume of back story required to get us to Mumler's fraud trial. But there's also a sense of mounting dread as we circle back to that courtroom again and again, and realize along with the participants that this wasn't a case about consumer fraud so much as it was a case about the limits of faith. Manseau finds a clever balance of historical remove and the immediacy of suspense, and manages to maintain a — perhaps necessary — agnosticism when it counts. Because as diverting (and telling) a history as it is, in the end, The Apparitionists is a biography about why we believe.

Genevieve Valentine's latest novel is Icon.

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