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UW’s Erin Forbes Awarded Huntington Fellowship

April 8, 2013
UW faculty member Erin Forbes received an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship to study at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif. (UW Photo)

Erin Forbes, University of Wyoming Department of English assistant professor, has been awarded a two-month Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship to study at the Huntington Library. The fellowship comes with a $6,000 award.

Located in San Marino, Calif., the Huntington Library has holdings in British and American history, literature, art history and the history of science and medicine. Its collections include 7 million manuscripts, 410,000 rare books, 270,000 reference works and 1.3 million photographs, prints and ephemera.

While in residence at the Huntington Library, Forbes will work on her project, “Social Life after Civil Death: Spiritualism and 19th-Century African-American Writers.” She says she will use the fellowship to support her argument that African-Americans influenced and were impacted by the religious movement of Spiritualism from roughly 1850-1910.

“I will consult relevant family papers, photo collections, periodicals and rare books for evidence of African-Americans’ experiences with and relation to Spiritualism,” Forbes says.

Spiritualism, Forbes says, was an evidence-based, materialist religious practice that focuses on the relations between the living and the dead. Spiritualism gave rise to the Ouija board, séances, and the idea that personal identity persists after death.

“It was by no means the fringe movement it is often represented as today,” she says. “After its beginnings in upstate New York in 1848, Spiritualism gained about one and a half million followers by 1859 and as many as 11 million in the late 1870s.”

But despite the movement’s widespread prominence before the Civil War, as well as during Reconstruction and after, Forbes says there has been very little scholarship to date on the role of African-Americans in the development and impact of Spiritualism. Instead, it is generally held to be a middle-class white woman’s movement.

“My research will fill an important gap in the scholarship of Spiritualism as well as of 19th century African-American religion,” Forbes says. She anticipates the research will result in articles and a book of interest to broad audiences, including students and scholars in literary studies, American studies, religious studies, African-American studies, history and political theory.

A UW faculty member since 2009, Forbes teaches American and African-American literature. Affiliated with the UW African-American and Diaspora Studies Program, she received a Bachelor of Arts degree at Reed College and earned her master's and doctoral degrees at Princeton University.

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