Peter Manseau – Author Reading
In the early days of photography, in the death-strewn wake of the Civil War, one man seized America’s imagination. A “spirit photographer,” William Mumler took portrait photographs that featured the ghostly presence of a lost loved one alongside the living subject. Mumler was a sensation: The affluent and influential came calling, including Mary Todd Lincoln, who arrived at his studio in disguise amidst rumors of séances in the White House.
Peter Manseau brilliantly captures a nation wracked with grief and hungry for proof of the existence of ghosts and for contact with their dead husbands and sons. It took a circus-like trial of Mumler on fraud charges, starring P. T. Barnum for the prosecution, to expose a fault line of doubt and manipulation. And even then, the judge sided with the defense—nobody ever solved the mystery of his spirit photography. This forgotten puzzle offers a vivid snapshot of America at a crossroads in its history, a nation in thrall to new technology while clinging desperately to belief
Peter Manseau is the Lilly Endowment Curator of American Religious History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. He is the author of eight books including the memoir Vows, the novel Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter, the travelogue Rag and Bone, the retelling of America’s diverse spiritual formation One Nation, Under Gods, and most recently the narrative history The Apparitionists.
Winner of the National Jewish Book Award, the American Library Association’s Sophie Brody Medal for Outstanding Achievement in Jewish Literature, the Ribalow Prize for Fiction, and a 2012 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, he has also been shortlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize and the Prix Médicis étranger, awarded to the best foreign novel published in France.
A founding editor of KillingTheBuddha.com and coauthor with Jeff Sharlet of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible, he received his doctorate in religion from Georgetown University, and lives with his family in Annapolis, Maryland.
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