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A Wanton Woman: The Life of Ida C. Craddock

Heaven's Bride

Ida C. Craddock. Don't feel bad if you've never heard of her. Neither had I. But according to her most recent biographer, Leigh Eric Schmidt, this is a travesty. She deserves a place in our pantheon of polymaths. A professor of American religious history at Harvard, Schmidt champions Craddock as a secular oracle, civil liberties proponent and religious therapist. His aim with the biography, Heaven's Bride, is to retroactively legitimize Craddock, a self-taught, quasi-academic dismissed by the intellectuals of her day and all but forgotten in ours.

Schmidt plays devil's advocate, structuring his book with rhetorical questions: "What made her anything more than a scribbling amateur, a dabbler among real experts and professionals?" But we don't doubt for an instant where his loyalties lie. Her field, the "science" of studying religion, was dominated at the time by credentialed males, which clearly put Craddock at a disadvantage. She was never affiliated with a university; instead she remained "a love-steeped mystic, adrift and exposed, [and] the object of scientific scrutiny."

And though auto-didacticism is not a glittery or singular enough basis upon which to historicize an individual, it becomes clear over the chapters that Craddock's most basic attributes -- her "unregulated intelligence" and her "destructive impulse to impart knowledge without discrimination" -- are actually her most impressive. Craddock's intellectual infatuations ran the gamut, but most were "peculiar" or at least arcane: Ouija boards, Alaskan totem poles, tantric yoga. She herself was a wunderkammer of marvels.

Craddock's intellectual infatuations ran the gamut, but most were "peculiar" or at least arcane: Ouija boards, Alaskan totem poles, tantric yoga.

In the 1890s, Craddock scandalized many of her contemporaries by defending belly dancing as a "much needed blend of sexuality and spirituality," rather than the "horrible orgy" many thought it to be. From this concept of sexualized spirituality would foment all her subsequent work -- as a pseudo-scholar, supporter of First Amendment rights, and practicing sexologist. As Schmidt writes, "Her conviction that married couples needed to bring a mood of religious aspiration into the bedroom grew more detailed over the years, but the outlines of it were clearly present in her defense of belly dancing. Without an ambiance of religious longing, sexual partners would not experience 'complete satisfaction'; they could fail to become 'one in flesh and once in spirit.' "

Schmidt deals sentences just as lapidary as his subtitle (The Unpredictable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman) leads us to expect. "Since the end of the eighteenth century," he writes, "a good number of freethinkers had seen such fertility symbolism as a rich lode to mine for anticlerical nuggets, but no woman had ever joined this particular fraternity of gentlemanly dilettantes and antiquarians." And later: "The pile of unpublished manuscripts that [Craddock] produced (on everything from lunar mythology to heavenly bridegrooms to animal rites) left little doubt about the extent of her egghead dedication."

But gems like these, frequent as they are, stand as somewhat isolated moments of greatness within a relatively unmotivated text. Schmidt quotes from one of Craddock's schoolmates who remembers that Ida had "glorious brilliant blue eyes." From this, Schmidt extrapolates that it was "as if Ida could not quite contain the light within her." Similarly on her love of dance, he writes: "To Craddock, nimbleness of body and vivacity of soul were joined together, and she even started to dream of 'being levitated,' of being lifted off the ground in a moment of perceptible spiritual elevation." There's a lot of suspicious speculation like that, which wouldn't be so bad if Schmidt's subject weren't already on the fringe of reliability.

The most interesting information in the book is deployed by way of sidelong glances, as plot-advancing byproducts. The primary sources he quotes from on the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago are stellar, as are the inset photographs. Anthony Comstock, the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (and staunch opposer of certain exhibitions at the World's Fair) is presented as Craddock's nemesis. By way of the dramatic tension between Craddock and Comstock, we learn about this fascist-sounding American institution we might otherwise have never heard of.

There's an inverted logic to college course descriptions. The more interesting-sounding the class, the more tedious the actual syllabus. The Athenian Century, Microeconomics, Introduction to Comparative Anatomy -- those are the sorts of courses that end up being great. It follows then that books written by academics -- regardless of whether they're published by university presses -- should operate on this same principle. Heaven's Bride: The Unpredictable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman certainly does. Just reread that subtitle! Qualifiers that compelling -- mystic, scholar, sexologist, martyr, madwoman -- rarely benefit from cumulative association.

But Schmidt's research is extensive, the details he includes are delicious, and if he seems to have contracted a bit of his subject's own fatigue, it's a noble failure of overexertion. Heaven's Bride is full of fascinating information, and the portrait he renders of Craddock is undeniably compelling, if we take her as Schmidt seems to, as a cast of idiosyncratic characters somehow embodied in a single woman.

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Alice Gregory