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The Arena and the "radical crank"


Margaret Innes
Joined: 2 years ago
Posts: 8
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Dear Jean-Louis, thank you for this fascinating introduction to The Arena. I really loved your concluding discussion of the magazine's role as "hypnotist," in line with Flower's enthusiasm for popular healing practices, although this also made me think of the development of modern psychology and psychoanalysis in this same period. I was wondering where the wonderful satirical illustration you showed us was first published, and if this kind of characterization was consistent with The Arena's broader reception in contemporary publications (if there was indeed such a reception). Thank you again!

Jean-Louis Marin-Lamellet
Joined: 2 years ago
Posts: 8

Dear Margaret,

Thank you for the encouraging words and interesting comments. 

The development of modern psychology was also part of the story, I agree with you. In the 1890s, modern psychology tried to distinguish itself from “fringe science” (notably spiritualism). But, for some intellectuals, there was a grey area: William James, Alfred Russell Wallace and Flower (he was, of course, a more obscure figure). Flower believed scientists were entering “the age of psychological discovery” and he wanted to show that spiritualistic ideas were scientific too. He founded a scientific journal in 1892, The Psychical Review. A Quarterly Journal of the Psychical Science and Organ of the American Psychical Society, which became part of a clubbing offer with The Arena. What fascinates me about the 1890s is how the boundaries of “science” were contested. Psychoanalysis was also in the making but it seems to me that it entered the controversy after 1900. But this is probably just because it wasn’t discussed in The Arena… There is a whole transatlantic history of the idea of a “science of mind” and how the boundaries of legitimate science came to be drawn. Flower is an interesting case for periodical studies because he formulated a spiritual/ spiritualistic and materialist conception of the influence of print. For instance, he published many utopias and in the 1890s travelers were often mesmerized into a perfect world. Flower often depicted the reformer as a hypnotist, in other words as a secularized, scientifically-informed minister who appropriated the “awakening” trope and updated the traditionally religious and personal Great Awakenings to the scientific age. He tried to mix the Social Gospel tradition with the science of mind. Print could "awaken" readers and he understood that literally. I wrote an article about all that if you are interested (I apologize for the shameless self-promotion) “What is the cocoon but a dark cabinet?” Benjamin O. Flower, Print Culture and the Legitimisation of Fringe Science in the 1890s. Deborah J. Coon also wrote an interesting article: Testing the limits of sense and science: American experimental psychologists combat spiritualism, 1880–1920. She argues that psychologists used their battles with spiritualists to legitimize psychology as a science and create a new role for themselves as guardians of the scientific worldview.”

The illustration comes from Puck (Frederick Opper, “Cranks,” Puck’s Library, no. 57 (April 1892), cover) and yes, this kind of characterization was consistent with The Arena's broader reception in contemporary publications. According to Printers’ Ink, the first national trade magazine for advertising, Flower’s monthly was “radical in about everything–religion, politics and sociology.” Flower’s association with Populism and all that was deemed “radical” at the time – socialism, spiritualism, women’s emancipation and freethought – earned him a reputation as the leader of “cranks.” In a newspaper article, The Arena was described as a “monthly album of crazy fancies.”  In fact, even sympathizers considered Flower’s magazine to be “sometimes mad” (William T. Stead in Review of Reviews).

 Thank you again for your comments and kind words.