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

Paperback | September 1, 2008

byBenjamin Reiss

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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 Madness explores 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 Madness prompts us to reflect on what our society can learn from a generation that urgently and creatively tried to solve the problem of mental illness.

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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 servi...

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.

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:240 pages, 9 × 6 × 0.8 inPublished:September 1, 2008Publisher:University Of Chicago PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0226709647

ISBN - 13:9780226709642

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Extra Content

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
 
Introduction
Sanative Culture
 
Chapter One
Brothers and Sisters of Asylumia:
Literary Life in the New York State Lunatic Asylum
 
Chapter Two
Saneface Minstrelsy:
Blacking Up in the Asylum
 
Chapter Three
Bardolatry in Bedlam:
Shakespeare and Early Psychiatry
 
Chapter Four
Emerson’s Close Encounters with Madness
 
Chapter Five
What’s the Point of a Revolution?
Edgar Allan Poe and the Origins of the Asylum
 
Chapter Six
Out of the Attic:
Gender, Captivity, and Asylum Exposés
 
Epilogue
Echoes
 
Notes
 
Index

Editorial Reviews

"Theaters of Madness is a fascinating read for its range of material, depth of analysis, and its theoretical clarity. . . . Reiss shows that to understand madness we need much more than the conceptual tools of psychiatry and, for that matter, of its more reactionary opponents."