Lara Langer Cohen (Swarthmore): "Paschal Beverly Randolph's Occult Undergrounds"
Monday, November 2, 2020, 5:15pm, via Zoom
Our speaker writes:
This paper, part of a book project about the underground in the nineteenth-century U.S., focuses on a set of undergrounds that hardly existed. They sprang from the imagination of Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825-1875), the self-described “angular and eccentric” writer, Freedmen’s Bureau teacher, occultist, and sex magician. Antiblackness thwarted Randolph at every turn in his short life, but he contended that his experiences of alienation and hyperawareness had cultivated spiritual sensitivities that allowed him to access an unseen universe. Randolph wrote numerous handbooks, pamphlets, novels, memoirs, newspaper articles, and manifestos expounding his occult thought. He also sought to build clandestine communities around it, founding a series of secret societies and circulating a subterranean repertoire of pamphlets, handwritten manuscripts, formulas, and correspondence that taught the curious how to use their bodies to make contact with the spirit realms through sex, drugs, and ritual. I read Randolph’s underground writing alongside a fantasy of its circulation in his wildly embellished 1872 memoir, which centers on an obscenity trial that attempts to repress his writings before they succeed in “upheaving the world.” While Randolph’s in-person and textual undergrounds seem mostly to have failed in practice, this fabricated episode allows us to piece together his extraordinary theory of the underground, which envisioned it as a portal to a cosmos whose forces might be brought to transform the order of things on earth.
About our speaker:
Lara Langer Cohen is Associate Professor of English at Swarthmore College. She is the author of The Fabrication of American Literature: Fraudulence and Antebellum Print Culture (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012) and co-editor of Early African American Print Culture (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012). Recent publications include essays on music in Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, amateur journalism, mourning poetry, city mysteries, and summer jams. She has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Antiquarian Society, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the American Council of Learned Societies. Her current book project is Going Underground: Race, Space, and the Subterranean in the Nineteenth-Century United States.
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Associated with the workshop is the book series in Material Texts published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, which includes many monographs that have emerged from presentations given at the workshop over the years.
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