The Nervous Origins of the American Western

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)

Inventing Caribbean Climates

Mark Carey, “Inventing Caribbean Climates: How Science, Medicine and Tourism Changed Tropical Weather from Deadly to Healthy,” Osiris 26, no. 1 (2011): 129-141.

In this piece, Carey traces changing European and North American perceptions of Caribbean climates from 1750-1950. He argues that these understandings were not shaped only by the climactic science; rather, they were constructed around multiple considerations, including “…environmental conditions, knowledge systems, social relations, politics, and economics.” (129) Carey understands these ideas, then, to be culturally constructed and argues, in line with most recent studies on climate, for the cultural construction of climate.

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