Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums & Nineteenth- Century American Culture

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  • Edition: 1st
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2008-09-01

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In the mid-1800s, a utopian movement to rehabilitate the insane resulted in a wave of publicly funded asylumsmany of which became unexpected centers of cultural activity. Housed in magnificent structures with lush grounds, patients participated in theatrical programs, debating societies, literary journals, schools, and religious services.Theaters of Madnessexplores both the culture these rich offerings fomented and the asylum's place in the fabric of nineteenth-century life, reanimating a time when the treatment of the insane was a central topic in debates over democracy, freedom, and modernity. Benjamin Reiss explores the creative lives of patients and the cultural demands of their doctors. Their frequently clashing views turned practically all of American culturefrom blackface minstrel shows to the works of William Shakespeareinto a battlefield in the war on insanity. Reiss also shows how asylums touched the lives and shaped the writing of key figures, such as Emerson and Poe, who viewed the system alternately as the fulfillment of a democratic ideal and as a kind of medical enslavement. Without neglecting this troubling contradiction,Theaters of Madnessprompts us to reflect on what our society can learn from a generation that urgently and creatively tried to solve the problem of mental illness.

Author Biography

Benjamin Reiss is associate professor of English at Emory University and the author of The Showman and the Slave: Race, Death, and Memory in Barnum’s America.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Introduction: Sanative Culturep. 1
Brothers and Sisters of Asylumia: Literary Life in the New York State Lunatic Asylump. 23
Saneface Minstrelsy: Blacking Up in the Asylump. 51
Bardolatry in Bedlam: Shakespeare and Early Psychiatryp. 79
Emerson's Close Encounters with Madnessp. 103
What's the Point of a Revolution?: Edgar Allan Poe and the Origins of the Asylump. 143
Out of the Attic: Gender, Captivity, and Asylum Exposesp. 169
Epilogue: Echoesp. 191
Notesp. 199
Indexp. 231
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