Upstate New York and the Spiritualists

I just finished reading The Heyday of Spiritualism by Slater Brown, a used paperback I bought the other day at Bookends, a used-book store on Jefferson Road in suburban Rochester.  It told me a couple of things I hadn’t known about the Spiritualist movement.

I always thought Spiritualism originated with the Fox sisters in Hydesville, near Newark, N.Y.  That would make Spiritualism one of two major religious movements to originate in Wayne County (the other being Mormonism, originating in nearby Palmyra). But according to Slater Brown, it has a long history, going back to the origins of hypnotism and Mesmerism in 18th century France and including the visions of Immanual Swedenborg in 18th century Sweden.  I always thought that the Fox sisters when old admitted their mysterious spirit rappings were a hoax. But according to Brown, that also is wrong. The source of information of the alleged confession is a hostile and unreliable source that the Fox women would hardly have confided in.

Reading the book made me recall what a great intellectual ferment took place in upstate New York during the 19th century. The women’s suffrage movement originated in Seneca Falls, N.Y.  The Shakers and the Oneida Communithy were based in upstate New York.  Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass not only both lived in Rochester, but they knew each other and were good friends. Upstate New York was a stronghold of abolitionism and Universalism (and many Universalists were strongly interested in Spiritualism).

Later on upstate New York became a center of manufacturing industry – Bausch & Lomb Inc., Carrier Corp., Eastman Kodak Co., General Electric Co., IBM Corp. and Xerox Corp. For the most part they were located in this region of the country not because of any geographic advantages or natural resources, but because certain creative individuals happened to live here.

All this seems a contrast to upstate New York today. (If I’m missing something, please add a comment). What is it that makes a region or a nation a hotbed of creativity in a particular era? Is it a matter of chance? Is it a result of certain talented and enterprising individuals happening to be born in one place rather than another? Or are there historical and social factors that can be understood and – maybe – duplicated?

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