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

University of Chicago Press
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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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About the author

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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Additional Information

Publisher
University of Chicago Press
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Published on
Sep 15, 2008
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Pages
240
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ISBN
9780226709659
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Language
English
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Genres
History / United States / 19th Century
Literary Criticism / American / General
Psychology / General
Psychology / History
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Mental Institutions in America: Social Policy to 1875 examines how American society responded to complex problems arising out of mental illness in the nineteenth century. All societies have had to confront sickness, disease, and dependency, and have developed their own ways of dealing with these phenomena. The mental hospital became the characteristic institution charged with the responsibility of providing care and treatment for individuals seemingly incapable of caring for themselves during protracted periods of incapacitation.

The services rendered by the hospital were of benefit not merely to the afflicted individual but to the community. Such an institution embodied a series of moral imperatives by providing humane and scientific treatment of disabled individuals, many of whose families were unable to care for them at home or to pay the high costs of private institutional care. Yet the mental hospital has always been more than simply an institution that offered care and treatment for the sick and disabled. Its structure and functions have usually been linked with a variety of external economic, political, social, and intellectual forces, if only because the way in which a society handled problems of disease and dependency was partly governed by its social structure and values.

The definition of disease, the criteria for institutionalization, the financial and administrative structures governing hospitals, the nature of the decision-making process, differential care and treatment of various socio-economic groups were issues that transcended strictly medical and scientific considerations. Mental Institutions in America attempts to interpret the mental hospital as a social as well as a medical institution and to illuminate the evolution of policy toward dependent groups such as the mentally ill. This classic text brilliantly studies the past in depth and on its own terms.

Why the modern world forgot how to sleep
Why is sleep frustrating for so many people? Why do we spend so much time and money managing and medicating it, and training ourselves and our children to do it correctly? In Wild Nights, Benjamin Reiss finds answers in sleep's hidden history--one that leads to our present, sleep-obsessed society, its tacitly accepted rules, and their troubling consequences.
Today we define a good night's sleep very narrowly: eight hours in one shot, sealed off in private bedrooms, children apart from parents. But for most of human history, practically no one slept this way. Tracing sleep's transformation since the dawn of the industrial age, Reiss weaves together insights from literature, social and medical history, and cutting-edge science to show how and why we have tried and failed to tame sleep. In lyrical prose, he leads readers from bedrooms and laboratories to factories and battlefields to Henry David Thoreau's famous cabin at Walden Pond, telling the stories of troubled sleepers, hibernating peasants, sleepwalking preachers, cave-dwelling sleep researchers, slaves who led nighttime uprisings, rebellious workers, spectacularly frazzled parents, and utopian dreamers. We are hardly the first people, Reiss makes clear, to chafe against our modern rules for sleeping.
A stirring testament to sleep's diversity, Wild Nights offers a profound reminder that in the vulnerability of slumber we can find our shared humanity. By peeling back the covers of history, Reiss recaptures sleep's mystery and grandeur and offers hope to weary readers: as sleep was transformed once before, so too can it change today.
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