American Nervousness, 1903

Notes, Summaries & Reviews

Tom Lutz, American Nervousness, 1903: An Anecdotal History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).

This is a strange one, but offers and interesting and valuable perspective on neurasthenia in its heyday primarily through the use of literary sources. Lutz takes what can loosely be described as a microhistorical approach with the goal of showing how a discourse of disease can be used to negotiate cultural change.

It would be incorrect to say that Lutz really “argues” anything in this book; rather, he’s taken a selection of literature and analyzed it in the context of the discourse surrounding neurasthenia. Most of his actors use it to express very different feelings about their cultural hopes and realities.

Most of the authors Lutz includes in his study trained and lived on the east coast, though some of them did write about the West. An exception is Hamlin Garland, who was born in Illinois and died in California. It appears that a theme in his works–especially Hesper–was the freedom the West provided its occupants (and, I presume, visitors) in contrast to the east, which was tightly controlled by “the master of money.” Earlier work in a similar vein includes that of Edward L. Wheeler, in which “Eastern speculators are painted as “simply villains…[whose] iron heel[s] do not belong in the West, where every man still has the ability to be his own master.” (109-110)

The West (undeveloped and rural) was thus understood in literature of the period to be free, juxtaposed in the minds of many with the regimented and capitalistic existence the East (urban) demanded of its inhabitants. Its untamed wilderness was understood as both aesthetically pleasing and as a metaphor for the space it provided its visitors to engage in relaxation, reflection, and reconnection with an older, more natural self that the overwhelming and disconnected nature of urban life had rendered inaccessible.

The discourse of neurasthenia and its nervous economy provided both doctors and invalids with a means of describing in a tangible, somatic way the anxieties of modernity, and therapeutics that increasingly emphasized travel created an ideal opportunity for Eureka Springs’ publicists to engage with discursive work already underway. If urban spaces were pathological to their upper-class denizens, rural towns with sufficiently fashionable accommodations and other natural, health-giving attributes were their obvious remedy. And early on in Eureka’s existence, this remedy did not necessarily require the supervision of a doctor; though, as we shall see, the science of climatology would challenge that freedom more aggressively in the next decade.

Lutz discusses the interest in developing national parks and its relationship to neurasthenic discourse at the very beginning of the 20th century, largely through Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir. Muir wrote in 1902 that, “the parks were primarily visited by ‘nerve-shaken’ brain-workers from the city and that the ‘retreat into the wilderness’ afforded by these parks was designed in specific response to the neurasthenic wear and tear of modern life.” Lutz reports that Muir and his naturalist colleagues made livings out of guiding wealthy health-seekers around wilderness areas. (91-92) Proof that wilderness=healthy within neurasthenic discourse.

Touches on the prevalence of nature metaphors during the period. This seems like a weak argument, though, unless this was when “natural” took on such a culturally powerful connotation. (143)

Bit on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, well-known for her criticism of the rest-cure. She was apparently a proponent of the nature cure as well, if we can judge by a poem she published in the May 1905 issue of Cosmopolitan. Titled “Just to Be Out of Doors,” it reads: (229)

[Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “Out of Doors,” in The Latter Works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman ed. Denise D. Knight (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996), 146-147.]

Not sure that I can use one poem by a woman known to have been a bit counter-culture as evidence that women, too, were encouraged to get out into nature… hm.

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