Neurasthenia: The “National Disease of America”
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”?
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.
His profile and publications can be viewed here.
His most recent book, Hearing Voices: The History of Psychiatry in Ireland can be bought here
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!
The Jimmy Cake
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)
Charlotte Perkins Gilman: “The Yellow Wallpaper”
Owen Wister: The Virginian
Zane Grey: Riders of the Purple Sage
If you enjoy the episode and want to find out how to support the show then click here for more information.
Any thoughts of comments on the episode? I’d love to hear them! Leave a comment below or check out the Words To That Effect Facebook Page