Episode 6: Neurasthenia, Cowboys, and Feminists

Neurasthenia: The “National Disease of America”

Nerve_and_Brain_Tablets Words To That Effect Ep6 - Neurasthenia

In 1881 an American neurologist named George Miller Beard published a hugely influential book: American Nervousness. In it, he laid out the symptoms, cures, and implications of what he called “neurasthenia”, essentially what one might call nervous exhaustion. Beard didn’t coin the term but he popularized it across the world in both medical circles and among the general public. If you read books or newspapers from the 1880s right through to at least the 1930s you find numerous accounts of neurasthenia. Characters in fiction are constantly suffering from it. Every newspaper ran ads claiming to cure the disease. But what was it exactly, and why was it called the “national disease of America”?

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This week I’m joined by Prof Brendan Kelly, a psychiatrist, and Dr Dara Downey, an expert in 19th century women’s writing, to discuss neurasthenia and how this difficult-to-define illness influenced the literature and culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


Guest Profiles

Hearing Voices Words To That Effect Ep6 NeurastheniaProf. Brendan Kelly is Professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin and Consultant Psychiatrist at Tallaght Hospital.

His profile and publications can be viewed here.

His most recent book, Hearing Voices: The History of Psychiatry in Ireland can be bought here


American-women-ghost-stories Words To That Effect Ep 6 NeurastheniaDr Dara Downey is the author of numerous scholarly titles in the area of supernatural and gothic American Literature.

Her profile and publications can be viewed here.

Her book, American Women’s Ghost Stories in the Gilded Age (Palgrave, 2014), is available here

Dr Downey is also general editor of the Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies, a peer-reviewed, interdisciplinary, electronic publication dedicated to the study of Gothic and horror literature, film, new media and television. It is a great publication and completely free to access. Check it out here!




jimmy cake - words to that effect podcast ep6 - neurasthenia

The Jimmy Cake

Click here to listen

Tracks (in order):

Collapsing Cloud Night At The Starry Sky (Spectre & Crown)

The Art of Wrecking (Spectre & Crown)

Red Tony (Spectre & Crown)

The Day the Arms That Came Out of the Wall (Spectre & Crown)

Haunted Candle (Spectre & Crown)


Works Mentioned

Charlotte Perkins Gilman: “The Yellow Wallpaper”

Owen Wister: The Virginian

Zane Grey: Riders of the Purple Sage


Want to know more about westerns and genre fiction? Episode 4 (listen here) is all about genre , and this article is all about literary genres.

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