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

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

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

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

Synopsis

In the mid-1800s, a utopian movement to rehabilitate the insane resulted in a wave of publicly funded asylums- many 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 culture- from blackface minstrel shows to the works of William Shakespeare- into 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.

Excerpt

Immediately upon acceding to the presidency after the death of Zachary Taylor in July 1850, Millard Fillmore was thrust into the roiling debate over the extension of slavery to new territories gained in the Mexican War. This debate would result in the Compromise of 1850, a watershed event in the years leading up to the Civil War. in October of the same year, Fillmore wrote a letter to Dorothea Dix, the reformer and tireless advocate of state and federal construction of insane asylums. He expressed his horror at Dix's findings that large numbers of the insane were held in prisons and at the fact that the North contained disproportionately more lunatics than the South; but he professed himself pleased with the new asylum at Trenton, New Jersey, which had “forms more light and airy” than the one in Tennessee. What really fascinated him, though, was a specimen Dix had sent to him of a “lunatic's poetry to Jenny Lind, which,” wrote Fillmore, “is a very creditable production. I am not certain but the partition which separates madness from genius is much thinner than most of us suspect.”

Why would a president embroiled in the bitterest dispute in the history of the Republic take the time to comment on a lunatic's poem composed for a popular singer? of all the grounds for comparing New Jersey with Tennessee in 1850, why would Millard Fillmore choose the issue of ventilation and lighting in their insane asylums? From this vignette, Fillmore may come across as out of touch with reality, preoccupied by trifles. But what I hope to convey here is that Fillmore's interest in the poetic efforts of an antebellum “lunatic” is not evidence of an intellectual failing or a sentimental indulgence that distracted him from national affairs. the precise meaning of the . . .

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