Barbara Will, “The Nervous Origins of the American Western,” American Literature 20, no. 2 (1998): 293-316.
Will looks at the role that neurasthenia played in the development of the idea of the American West, specifically in its literary iteration.
Neurasthenia, as defined by George Beard and Silas Mitchell, was a disease brought on (specifically in men) by the strains of capitalism, political freedom, and technological superiority. These are good things. Modern men needed to maintain a balance, though, and engage in the kind of “struggle” that characterized his ancestors’ experiences on occasion — and they should write about it, according to Mitchell (it’s these writings that the author spends a lot of time analyzing in the second half of the article).
The disease needn’t be cured by a rejection of modernity, capitalism, etc., but rather “through a temporary and repeated entry of the urban into the rural, into a space in which the ‘sturdy contest of nature’ could be waged and these ‘stores of capital vitality’ could be replenished through the simulation of the life of ‘country men.'” (300)
"There is still, I think, not enough recognition by teachers of the fact that the desire to think — which is fundamentally a moral problem — must be induced before the power is developed. Most people, whether men or women, wish above all else to be comfortable, and thought is a pre-eminently uncomfortable process…"
— Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth (1933)
I started out the summer ambitiously, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Perceiving a declining ability to read fiction, I decided I needed to relearn how to not immediately try and find the thesis in any piece of writing I laid eyes on. What better tome to begin with than one I’d heard whispers around the department as being full of science and gender themes?!
I was in for a treat, but one for which I’d have to work pretty hard. George Eliot is no Jane Austen, and Middlemarch is no light read. In addition to science and gender, Eliot touches on provincial life, religion, ethics/morality, politics (and this one was probably the most prevalent), some technology, love and relationships, change, and so, so much more. While most of the notes I took and things I thought about orbited around a scientific and gendered perspective, I got a lot more from the book than that. And I’ll probably get something entirely different when I inevitably give it another read in a few years.
The book is a study of country life in England, and it is staged in a provincial town. It follows the lives of quite a few of the town’s residents, which is part of the reason the book is so damn long (my copy was 613 pages). I quickly located my favorite character in Tertius Lydgate, a physician from out of town with family in high places and some new, radical ideas about how to treat illness. He trained in Paris, which I found very interesting — at the time (1820s and 30s), the Parisian medical school and attached hospital were training physicians in the anatomo-pathological methodology. Inspired by rational, mathematical methods, these men (one of which is mentioned often in the book, Pierre C.A. Louis) found that patients treated with medicines of the time did not fare any better than those left more or less alone. As a result, these physicians and the students they taught thought it’d be more useful to let diseases take their course. Some of the sick died, after which time the medical men would dissect them and attempt to correlate their diseases/symptoms with internal “lesions,” or abnormalities. In this way, they hoped to discover the true causes of illness and propose new, more effective therapeutic options.