Cambridge Books Online
The Politics of Anxiety in Nineteenth-Century American Literature
Justine S. Murison
Book DOI:
Online ISBN: 9780511812071
Hardback ISBN: 9781107007918
Introduction pp. 1-16
Chapter DOI:
Cambridge University Press

“I think anxiety is very interesting,” observed Amy, eating sugar,
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (:ïoï)
Tis book refocuses the study of nineteenth-century American litera-
ture on frogs shorn of their heads, tables that report on the afterlife, and
men who think they are teapots. Tese instances constitute more than
a “curiosity cabinet” of outré psychology or outright fraud; rather, the
nineteenth-century understanding of the nervous system united them
as possible, even plausible, sources for psychological insights. Many cru-
cial discoveries about the nervous system predate :ï:c, but not until then
did nerves come to shape the representations and experiences of cultural,
political, and religious tumults in the United States. By the :ï,cs and
through the rest of the century, writers absorbed, expressed, and popu-
larized the medical language of the nerves. In turn, their narratives of
nervousness swayed debates about the biological and cultural meanings
of “freedom” and “possession,” subjects to which all of the writers in this
study return. “Free society” was understood to be nervous; that is, it was
open, vulnerable, and fraught with the power to derail reform while also
dependent upon an active, participatory body politic, a paradox not lost
on political and social commentators before and after the Civil War.
“Why,” George Fitzhugh , pro-slavery author of Sociology for the South
(:ï,¡) and Cannibals All! Or , Slaves Without Masters (:ï,;), asks, “have
you Bloomer’s and Women’s Rights men, and strong-minded women, and
Mormons, and anti-renters, and ‘vote myself a farm’ men, Millerites, and
Spiritual Rappers, and Shakers, and Widow Wakemanites, and Agrarians,
and Grahamites, and a thousand other superstitious and infidel Isms
at the North? Why is there faith in nothing, speculation about every-
thing? Why is this unsettled, half-demented state of the human mind
co-extensive in time and space, with free society?”
Although Fitzhugh’s
defense of slavery may not have survived the war, Te Politics of Anxiety
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Te Politics of Anxiety :
in Nineteenth-Century American Literature shows why his diagnosis of
freedom did.
Te parameters of this study are wide: from teapots to mental path-
ology; from galvanic batteries to abolitionism; from phantom limbs
to domestic ideology . Nineteenth-century Americans connected these
subjects – some quite far afield from each other – through the popular
understanding of the nervous system. Strictly speaking, for a nineteenth-
century anatomist the “nervous system” consisted of the brain, the spinal
cord, and the nerves that radiated out from these centers. To under-
stand nineteenth-century psychology, therefore, we must begin with the
body. Te body, as it turns out, was not a stable unit precisely because
the nervous system governed it. As Charles E. Rosenberg explains, in
early nineteenth-century medicine the “body was seen, metaphorically,
as a system of dynamic interactions with its environment.” Food, drink,
clothes, climate, work: All of these elements, and an infinite number of
others, demanded “a necessary and continuing physiological adjustment,”
and therefore the body was “always in a state of becoming – and thus
always in jeopardy.”
Te nervous system made possible this exposure to
the environment. Te senses relayed environmental information along
the nerves and, in turn, the nerves cued muscles to move the body. When
in working order, the nervous system kept the mind in tune with bodily
actions and reactions. Te basic assumption, put best, was of an embodied
mind and a thoughtful body.
To be nervous in the nineteenth century was therefore more than a
passing description of individual personality; rather, nervousness charac-
terized the basic psychological assumption of the century. Because the
nervous system united the body together, from the brain all the way to
the toes, the cultural impact of the nerves proved both physical and meta-
physical. Te somatic emphasis of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century
psychology responded to the theological need to cordon off the soul from
disease. Doing so, according to Roy Porter , allowed for the diagnosis of
“nerves” to preclude “moral blame, by hinting at a pathology not even
primarily personal, but social, a Zeitgeist disease,” a disease of the body, in
other words, as shaped by the social and physical environment rather than
one primarily lodged in a “deep” conception of the self.
Often signaled
by references to “susceptibility” and “susceptible subjects,” this experience
of the self was profoundly tumultuous, barely “buffered” from the world
in the way that Charles Taylor has described it.
Because both body and
mind were open to environmental pressures, they proved vulnerable to the
political climate and the social world. Indeed, for the nineteenth century,
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Introduction ,
an affect such as anxiety was somatic and cultural or, more accurately,
somatic because cultural. By the :ï,cs, a popular language of the ner-
vous system helped Americans express the consequences on the body and
for society of major historical changes: from the pace of technology and
urbanization to the rise of Jacksonian democracy ; from the turmoil of
social reform to the fraught relations between classes, races, and genders.
Far from “naturalizing” what was otherwise cultural or political, the pre-
dominant theory of the nervous system knit the body and mind together
through their interactions with the world.
Te nineteenth-century “open” body, as I refer to it throughout this
book, culminated a much longer medical history. In the seventeenth cen-
tury, physicians in the Atlantic world innovatively theorized that the rela-
tion between mind and body was not produced by the fluid exchange
of the humors but by a network of nerves. In doing so, they conceived
not just a “nervous body,” to borrow Peter Melville Logan’ s phrase, but a
nervous self – a mind and body in tight, inextricable connection.
by seventeenth- through early nineteenth-century investigators such as
Tomas Willis , Robert Whytt , and Charles Bell outlined the anatomy of
the nervous system: Sensory organs transferred information to the brain,
and the brain, in turn, exerted a will over the body.
How this happened,
though, was anyone’s guess. Tus the horizon of medical excitement in
the nineteenth-century was physiological rather than anatomical, focused
on invisible functions rather than visible structures.
Early nineteenth-
century physiologists such as François-Joseph-Victor Broussais in France,
Johannes Müller in Germany, and Marshall Hall in Britain explored these
mysteries, but nervous physiology would nonetheless remain inexplicable
for decades to come. Te nervous system therefore could not offer cul-
tural or political (let alone medical) stability, for its physiology persist-
ently baffl ed scientists, physicians, and patients throughout the century.
Tis instability, though, allowed the nerves to become a flexible vocabu-
lary, used widely to express different, sometimes even contradictory,
exper iences and opinions.
Te advent of this unstable yet exciting realm of nervous physiology
coincided with the nadir of medical professionalism in the United
States: the Jacksonian era.
Medical contest, from both within the pro-
fession and around its margins, dominated the century. By the :ï,cs,
prominent “regular” physicians such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.,
finally revised typical therapeutic interventions such as bloodletting and
mercury ingestion, challenging, quite controversially, the dispensation
of poisonous minerals and lack of hygiene in surgery and childbirth.
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Te Politics of Anxiety ¡
debates such as these within the profession unsettled any unified “med-
ical” voice, what counted as “professional” further complicated this pic-
ture. Because medicine remained unlicensed until the :ï;cs, the field
encompassed “lay” practitioners and theories that we now disparage as
“pseudosciences.” Indeed, while physicians certainly had a stake in, as
Dana D. Nelson puts it, generating “scientific rationales for the organ-
ization and supervision of the national economy, and the civic, public,
and private arenas,” it is equally true that “irregular” practitioners – from
homeopaths and botanical Tomsonians to mesmeric doctors and spir-
itualist mediums – diverged widely from regular physicians and were
popular with patients for precisely this reason.
Te nineteenth-century
“fads” of the water cure and mesmeric healing, for instance, were explicit
responses to the potentially deadly hand of the physician.
Rarified medical studies of the nerves, therefore, could not alone
account for the prevalence of nervous terminology in nineteenth-century
American culture. Indeed, odd physiological terms for the nerves – which
included “sympathy ,” “animal electricity ,” “the nervous fluid,” and the
“odylic principle” – only became truly ubiquitous through the heady
world of popular science and health reform . Antebellum Americans wit-
nessed the wonders of the nervous system during popular demonstrations
of mesmerism and clairvoyance ; when having their heads “read” by trav-
eling phrenologists ; by perusing health reform manuals and attending
lectures by men and women such as Sylvester Graham and Mary S. Gove ;
and by visiting séances with “modern” spiritualists such as the Fox sisters
or Emma Hardinge . Te terms of the nervous system peppered readers’
letters to newspapers; essays on everything from the Democratic Party
to the afterlife in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review or
Putnam’s Monthly ; and theological debates about revivalism and spirit
bodies among all of the major Protestant sects. Perhaps more than any
other influence, the phrenological print empire of Fowler and Wells
widely circulated books on a variety of health subjects, including phren-
ology , physiology, calisthenics, and electrical psychology. From the family
physician to their favorite periodical, nearly everywhere Americans turned
reinforced the experiences of a “nervous” self.
Nineteenth-century fiction exemplified the cultural stakes of this ner-
vous, “susceptible” self. Although fiction was by no means the exclusive
literary form in which nervous language found expression – any glance
at Walt Whitman’s invocations of the “body electric” or Oliver Wendell
Holmes, Sr.’s essay on “Te Physiology of Versification” would belie such
a claim – it was nonetheless the primary genre to spark debates about the
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Introduction ,
effects of reading on mental health. As the pitched battles of eighteenth-
century anti-novel discourse cooled by the middle of the nineteenth
century, they produced a well-worn theory about “good” and “bad”
novels that fused moral issues to health concerns, particularly the health
of “susceptible” women readers. “[A]lthough the true novel is of mod-
ern date,” expounds one commentator in :ï¡¡, “its first rude progenitor
was an offspring of iniquity, and the impurities of the original blood
are constantly appearing in the tetters and blotches upon the features of
its legitimate children.”
Providing the novel with a metaphoric family
history, the Christian Parlor Magazine claims that even the purported
“best” novels, such as those by Sir Walter Scott, never shed the taint of
their illegitimate origins. And it is not just Christian advocates who fret-
ted over the “tetters and blotches” of fiction. Some novels, according to
the National Era , “do terrible mischief ” to readers, “rendering their sens-
ibilities irritable, morbid, feeble, approaching to exhaustion, by constant
abuse upon the ridiculous distresses of ranting fools and hysterical pup-
pies of both genders.” Tis nexus of health and morality exceeds meta-
phor, for later this writer laments how readers devour every book “in the
spasms of a hysterical paroxysm” that ends with the “nerves vehemently
shaken, the muscles, in an earthquake, the lungs worked to exhaustion,
flushed cheeks, boiled eyes, and a sharp appetite for bread and butter.”
To counteract these hysterical, orgasmic symptoms, the article recom-
mends those novelists “enlisted in the service of moral, social, and pol-
itical reform.”
An anti-slavery newspaper that would serialize Harriet
Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in :ï,:, the National Era had a stake
in marking some fiction as healthy. Yet it nonetheless shares assump-
tions with stauncher anti-novel voices like that in the Christian Parlor
Magazine . Te presumption behind both is that fiction, whether moral
or licentious, can infiltrate the reader – get beneath her very skin to
shake her nerves and upset her physiology.
Because fiction potentially threatened the health of readers, formal
choices – most especially the balance between romance and realism –
carried moral and medical weight in the early nineteenth century. In
the novels and tales that address directly the cultural implications of the
nerves, writers’ narrative choices reflected the exciting yet unstable med-
ical world of the nervous system. Fiction tested, imagined, and extended
these medical developments, a role that physicians such as Holmes and
S. Weir Mitchell , both of whom wrote fiction, appreciated. In particu-
lar, fiction afforded them a mode to explore those aspects of the ner-
vous system that reached beyond clinical analysis. As Holmes explains
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Te Politics of Anxiety o
in his preface to Elsie Venner: A Romance of Destiny (:ïo:), a novel about
serpentine hysteria, “a grave scientific doctrine may be detected lying
beneath some of the delineations of character,” and he employs “this
doctrine as a part of the machinery of his story without pledging his
absolute belief in it to the extent to which it is asserted or implied.”

Holmes’s description of romance accords neatly with the mid-century
definition Nathaniel Hawthorne promotes in Te House of the Seven
Gables (:ï,:): the mingling of the “marvelous” and the mundane. Where
medicine leaves off, romance begins; however, Holmes insists that he
grounds his version of “romance” in science even as it stretches beyond
known scientific limits. Romance did not function as the opposite of sci-
entific realism but as its critical supplement in the middle decades of the
nineteenth century.

Indeed, that Holmes chooses to call Elsie Venner a
“romance” points to how nineteenth-century medicine inspired – and
was inspired by – experimental, nonrealist fiction, including genres such
as the Hawthornian “romance,” the gothic tale, the political satire, and
the city mystery novel. Tese fictions were continuous with rather than
rejections of nineteenth-century scientific speculation, and no more so
than in their scrutiny of the susceptibilities and sympathies of social life.
Representing the “romance” of the nervous system thoughtfully and, at
times, critically, the writers in this study helped construct and explore
(and thus popularize in many cases) a neurological vision of the body
and mind . Tis literary participation in the vagaries of nerves – in their
wild, disruptive, and, at times, contradictory biological imperatives –
continued throughout the century. After the Civil War, though, many
writers began to pitch their fictional explorations of the nerves in oppo-
sition to the professional aspirations of neurologists as those physicians
(including Mitchell and George Miller Beard ), increasingly supported
by institutions and licensure, defined nervousness as merely pathological
and in need of professional, therapeutic control.
Te literal and metaphoric symptoms ascribed to “susceptible” read-
ers and “nervous” citizens in the nineteenth century are also a reminder
that “symptomatic reading ,” the hallmark of critical approaches to litera-
ture in the twentieth century, has a somatic pre-history, which this book
introduces. Tat history is best encapsulated by the transition (typified
by Sigmund Freud’s work) from “nervousness” to “anxiety,” that is, from
a literal invocation of a physiological symptom to a psychological term
that defers to an unconscious. Tis transition speaks directly to literary
scholarship because anxiety has been the longstanding affective orien-
tation of the symptomatic tradition. Etymologically and medically,
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Introduction ;
“anxiety” reaches back to the classical period and forward to current
colloquial expressions derived from Freudian psychoanalysis. Coming
from the Latin for a feeling of choking or distress, “anxiety” connotes
the hysterical symptom of a ball rising in the throat, which partially
explains the theory of the womb’s wandering during the classical period.
As the nervous system became the central anatomical and physiological
basis of the body’s relation to the mind in the eighteenth century, phys-
icians reclassified hysteria as a nervous disorder. Te symptom of chok-
ing became psychosomatic in this process, disguising the linguistic
connection between hysteria and anxiety. In colloquial English by the
early nineteenth century, “anxiety” did not display the somatic richness
of the classical period or the psychological complexity it would achieve
after Freud, and yet its history contained both.
Because anxiety accrued both somatic and psychological meaning
throughout the centuries, it is well poised to open a conversation both
about the history of affects and the affects of critical methods.
meaning of anxiety in contemporary criticism emerges out of the sur-
prising confluence and compatibility of the work of Freud and Michel
Foucault . Freud famously broke with the somatic culture of nineteenth-
century neurology . In doing so, he reinvigorated anxiety as a psycho-
logical rather than physiological term for the early twentieth century,
obscuring the somatic roots of “anxiety” in the nervous system. Freud
constructed the modern meaning of anxiety in Tree Essays on the Teory
of Sexuality (:,c,), Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety (:,:o), and “Anxiety
and Instinctual Life” (:,,:). In the process of writing these works, Freud
notably reversed his original theory of anxiety. Whereas in the :,:c
essays “neurotic anxiety” arises out of repression, in Inhibitions, Symptoms
and Anxiety , anxiety produces repression. Positioning the source of anx-
iety outside the self in an “external situation of danger,” Freud argues
that anxiety perpetuates the lesson of this original trauma by producing
a repressed subject.
In turn, any “return of the repressed” reveals the
traces of anxiety by way of its failures fully to enact repression.
Te Freudian explanation of repression and anxiety has maintained its
relevance despite Foucault’s influential critique of the repressive hypoth-
esis. As part of Foucault’s broader project to delineate the knowledge–
power nexus that discourse produces, volume I of Te History of Sexuality
(:,;o) directly confronts the limitations of repression as described in psy-
choanalysis. If anxiety produces repression, and repression is the result of
the prohibitions of the libido, then its process is negative in Freud’s argu-
ment. Foucault turns this theory on its head in Te History of Sexuality .
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Te Politics of Anxiety ï
Te repressive hypothesis, according to Foucault, overlooks the “discur-
sive explosion” surrounding what seem to be linguistic prohibitions.
implicit in Foucault’s recounting of discursive explosions is exactly the
emotional valence Freud too addressed: fear, panic, and anxiety. Trough
“nervous disorders” and newly categorized sex crimes, Foucault argues,
medicine and law produced “social controls” that undertook to “protect,
separate, and forewarn, signaling perils everywhere, awakening people’s
attention, calling for diagnoses, piling up reports, organizing therapies.”
As he puts it, “Tese sites radiated discourses aimed at sex, intensifying
people’s awareness of it as a constant danger, and this in turn created a
further incentive to talk about it.”

To be sure, Foucault does not invoke
“anxiety” in its full Freudian sense, but he implicates anxious emotions
as both motivation and consequence of power and discourse. Even as dis-
course produces power in this formulation, it also evinces the traces of
anxiety. Foucault thus reaffi rms anxiety as the affective underside of dis-
course and power. Following the logic of Foucault’s Freudianism (a seem-
ingly contradictory phrase), discourse implies anxious repression, which,
in turn, becomes the subject rooted out and symptomatically interpreted.
As an effi cient term for the productive nature of all that an individual
or society represses, “anxiety” evokes power projected, experienced, and
embodied. “Anxiety,” at its richest, therefore, restores to texts political
meanings that may lurk in their margins and lacunae.
If I am correct that “anxiety” operates as “productive repression,”
then its usefulness for literary study lies in its shorthand expression of
the motivating affect of discursive production. Tis longstanding use of
anxiety has been generative of keen inquiries into how discourse con-
structs and subsequently attempts to control categories of identity such
as race, gender, and sexuality. To locate disjunctions between the power
of discourse and resistances to it demands a turn to a language outside
its historical moment, one that can reveal the contradictions endemic to
ideology. “Anxiety” has usefully described just such a disjunction. Te
role “anxiety” plays as both discursive source and its result, however, com-
plicates literary historicism by resisting causal relationships: “Anxiety”
stands metonymically for the motivation behind which analysis cannot
go, and it therefore serves as the transcendent cause of cultural produc-
tion. My study clarifies these psychological stakes of literary historicism
by placing “anxiety” – and the broader theory of the nervous system it
registers – as the historical subject of analysis rather than its structuring
frame. By changing focus in this way, I seek to demonstrate how an atten-
tive history of psychology can reveal the various ways writers responded
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Introduction ,
to biological embodiment, dreams of emancipation, and concerns about
determinism in their fiction, and how they did so by engaging complexly
with pre-Freudian nervous physiology.
What may prove most surprising – what is, in other words, hiding
in plain sight – is how the nineteenth-century emphasis on nerves and
“susceptibility” is a deeply somatic and symptomatic rendering of the
relation of self to society and culture. Although the chapters of this book
consider local meanings that the nervous system accrued across a var-
iety of registers, the book as a whole inspects how the nervous system
structured nineteenth-century narratives of national history and social
life. Hawthorne’s Te House of the Seven Gables usefully illuminates the
role nervousness played in the nineteenth-century historical imagin-
ary. In his second novel, Hawthorne traces the Puritan lineage of the
Pyncheons from the seventeenth-century witchcraft trials – in which
the family’s progenitor Colonel Pyncheon opportunely used witchcraft
accusations to seize land from his poorer neighbor Matthew Maule – to
the Pyncheons of the antebellum United States, including the elderly
Hepzibah, her brother Clifford, and their conniving cousin, Judge Jaffrey
Pyncheon. A series of characters in the novel refract the contradictions
of antebellum nervousness as a physiological relation to others and to the
environment: Te bell and door of the shop continually smite Hepzibah’s
“nervous system”; Clifford grows “pettish and nervously restless” when
too long denied Phoebe’s company; a crowd of children flee the house
after their “susceptible nerves” take alarm; even the old hen in the garden
has a “nervous cluck.”
Although Hawthorne continually returns to variations of the word
“nervous” to describe Hepzibah and Clifford, the character of Judge
Pyncheon best exemplifies the nineteenth-century teleology of somatic
nervousness. Te narrator tells us that Phoebe, the Pyncheons’ sweet
“country cousin,” briefly imagines the judge as the founder of the House
of Seven Gables merely updated by a trimming of the colonel’s beard, the
purchase of readymade clothes, and the acquisition of a gold-headed cane.
Te narrator demurs from this dressing of the colonel in antebellum con-
sumerism only to offer a physiological (rather than sartorial) difference
between the colonel and the judge as more accurate: “Te long lapse of
intervening years, in a climate so unlike that which had fostered the ances-
tral Englishman, must inevitably have wrought important changes in the
physical system of his descendant,” changes that include muscle volume,
weight, complexion, and, “[i]f we mistake not, moreover, a certain quality
of nervousness [that] had become more or less manifest, even in so solid
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Te Politics of Anxiety :c
a specimen of Puritan descent, as the gentleman now under discussion.”

Te narrator dwells on Jaffrey Pyncheon’s nervousness, speculating that
as “one of its effects, it bestowed on his countenance a quicker mobil-
ity than the old Englishman’s had possessed, and keener vivacity, but at
the expense of a sturdier something, on which these acute endowments
seemed to act like dissolving acids,” a process that, “as it diminishes the
necessity for animal force, may be destined gradually to spiritualize us by
refining away our grosser attributes of body.”
By describing the mod-
ern, nervous nature of Jaffrey Pyncheon as simultaneously spiritualizing
“our grosser attributes of body” while sacrificing a “sturdier something”
of the Puritan past, Hawthorne emphasizes the environmental and social
conditions of the two men. Shaped by his historical situation, the judge’s
nervousness corresponds to a definitional paradox that had developed by
mid-century. According to An American Dictionary of the English Language
from :ï¡,, “nervousness” had variant, even opposing definitions: the first,
“[s]trength; force; vigor”; and another, “colloquial” one, “weakness or agi-
tation of the nerves.”
Hawthorne seizes on this potential paradox. While
an increase in the nerve force animates and spiritualizes matter, it indi-
cates nonetheless a loss and weakness of the modern body. Even if one is
“a gentleman of sturdy nerves” as Hawthorne describes the judge later in
the chapter, this characterization always suggests both self-control and
the lurking capacity of the nerves to undermine that control.

For antebellum Americans, as for Hawthorne, this newly nervous body
signified not just an unsteady, contradictory modernity; it was uniquely
national. Te historical trajectory Hawthorne sketches, in which the
United States becomes a nation of nerves, depended upon the eighteenth-
century claim that the colonies and the new nation represented a healthy
alternative to the degeneracy of Europe. Benjamin Rush (physician, abol-
itionist, and signer of the Declaration of Independence) was the most
prominent advocate of this theory. In a particularly revealing speech to
the American Philosophical Society on February ¡, :;;¡ – on the eve
of the Revolutionary War – Rush voices what would become one of the
most enduring tropes in Western psychology. After dispensing with the
diseases endemic to Native Americans (fever and dysentery), Rush turns
to the more “complex” and provoking nervous illnesses racking the health
of Europeans, represented in his argument by the British. Yet when Rush
shifts to these disorders he does not leave Native Americans behind. As
he describes the vulnerability of the “civilized” mind to the nervous dis-
orders of hypochondria and hysteria , he asserts, “[i]n like manner the
author of nature hath furnished the body with powers to preserve itself
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Introduction ::
from its natural enemies; but when it is attacked by those civil foes which
are bred by the peculiar customs of civilization, it resembles a company of
Indians, armed with bows and arrows, against the complicated and deadly
machinery of fire arms.”
In this tortured analogy, Rush claims that the
body comes naturally prepared to combat physical disease but is inad-
equately equipped to fight nervous disorder. Moreover, by calling nervous
diseases “civil foes,” Rush invests the metaphor with a political inflection.
As “civil foes,” nervous illnesses attack from internal sources; the body
breeds them. In this passage, Rush stages a metaphor that necessarily
elides white colonists by calling to mind an era of colonial warfare long
distant by :;;¡: a time when Europeans made their first inroads into the
Americas and indigenous peoples primarily fought them with bows and
arrows. Yet this elision speaks directly to the political environment in the
years preceding the American Revolution. Te overriding effect of Rush’s
metaphor brings clashes between Native Americans and Europeans into a
figurative relationship with the minds of “civilized” Londoners. Because
the absent center of Rush’s argument is the white colonist, the inchoate
nationalism implied in the mirrored relationship between the anachro-
nistically armed figure of the Indian and the “civilized,” but diseased,
English is that both are on the verge of extinction.
To preserve this image of the newly formed nation as a healthy alter-
native to Europe, Rush elsewhere addresses both the new pathologies he
believes that the revolution unleashed, including the awkwardly named
“Revolutiana” and “Anarchia,” and their potential cure in representative

According to Rush, representative democracy serves “like
chimnies [ sic ] in a house, to conduct from the individual and public mind,
all the discontent, vexation, and resentment, which have been generated
in the passions.”
By the antebellum period, most physicians were less
sanguine than Rush was about the ability of American political institu-
tions to forge civic health by drawing passions out of the “individual and
public mind.” Te market revolution and the ascendancy of Jacksonian
democracy during the :ï:cs and :ï,cs together fueled the perception that
the United States uniquely produced nervous citizens.
Te drive toward
institutionalization, which increased significantly the number of insane
asylums in the first half of the nineteenth century, failed to quell (and
indeed probably increased) the sense that nervousness pervaded society.

By :ï,c, physician William Sweetser would explain that “[t]he field of
advancement [ … ] is alike free to all, our democratical institutions invit-
ing each citizen, however subordinate may be his station, to join in the
pursuit of whatever distinctions our forms of society can bestow. Hence,
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Te Politics of Anxiety ::
as might be expected, the demon of unrest, the luckless offspring of ambi-
tion, haunts us all, agitating our breasts with discontent, and racking
us with the constant and wearing anxiety of what we call bettering our

Isaac Ray , a Maine physician and onetime president of the
Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the
Insane, sums up the consequences of these excitements on the nation’s
citizens: “Tose much-enduring men and women who encountered the
privations of the colonial times have been succeeded by a race incapable
of their toil and exposure, whom the winds of heaven cannot visit too
roughly without leaving behind the seeds of dissolution.”
In a strange
pronouncement during the Civil War, Ray echoes Hawthorne’s teleology
of American nervousness, in which Puritan strength gives way to disso-
lute and nervous nineteenth-century citizens. By the time George Miller
Beard coined “neurasthenia” and S. Weir Mitchell developed the rest cure
in the :ïïcs, nerves not only explained modern selfhood but also shaped
an image of weak and vulnerable citizens populating the United States.
Te Politics of Anxiety in Nineteenth-Century American Literature shows
how nervousness came to structure cultural expectations, historical nar-
ratives, and political rhetoric in unexpected ways. Form and history oper-
ate conjointly in my study. I read for formal elements across an archive
spanning literature, medicine, politics, and popular culture, dwelling in
particular on the formal aspirations and effects of texts as I put them in
dynamic conversation with each other. Te chapters that follow proceed
chronologically. Tey track the debates about and increasing relevance of
medical professionalism between :ï,c and :ïïc. Rather than a teleological
history of declension or triumph, though, I examine both the pressures
from within regular medicine and the dreams of alternative interfaces of
medicine and culture that do not get reaffi rmed in the professional envir-
onment at the turn of the twentieth century. Each chapter examines a
major cultural debate about embodiment and agency and revises familiar
rubrics of nineteenth-century studies – including sympathy, domesticity,
and romance – in light of pre-Freudian investments in the nervous system.
In turn, the chapters introduce new terms and theories, such as “electrical
psychology ,” that were common enough for antebellum Americans but
have slipped into the historical netherworld since. What emerges from
these foci is the role of embodiment in constructing social, historical,
and, most of all, fictional narratives, and how, when based on assump-
tions about the nervous system, these embodiments exceeded biological
determinism. A paradox, to be sure, but one that allowed writers such as
Harriet Beecher Stowe or Edgar Allan Poe to probe how the “open” body
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Introduction :,
described in nervous physiology challenged and revised widely held but
unevenly examined political and cultural assumptions.
Te first two chapters demonstrate the impact of nervous physiology on
Jacksonian-era politics, particularly questions sparked by abolitionism and
democracy . Chapter : , “A bond-slave to the mind: sympathy and hypo-
chondria in Robert Montgomery Bird’s Sheppard Lee ,” introduces readers
to sympathy as a physiological process of the nervous system that unites
the organs of the body. Te medical conception of sympathy offered an
anti-sentimental subject as the pinnacle of health. To understand better
anti-sentimental sympathy, I trace the fictional instantiation of a popu-
lar nervous pathology: hypochondria. Hypochondria was the ironic but
consistent characterization of southern and West Indian slave owners as
suffering a disease that, at its most extreme, led people to believe their
bodies were transforming into objects such as teapots. Hypochondriacs
persistently confused their bodies with the world around them, includ-
ing personal possessions and pets, making them analogically related both
to slaves and sentimental readers. In his novel Sheppard Lee; Written by
Himself (:ï,o), physician and writer Robert Montgomery Bird draws on
hypochondria to lampoon sentimental modes of reading and critique the
language of sympathy deployed during the abolitionist mail campaign
of :ï,, . To cure such political and fictional sentimentality, Sheppard Lee
suggests, one must keep bodily sympathies and economic speculation
firmly within bounds.
Bird’s novel is wholly within the Lockean liberal tradition, in which
ownership of the self determines one’s relation to society and property.
Edgar Allan Poe’s skepticism of this tradition colors his use of nervous
physiology for satire. Chapter : , “Frogs, dogs, and mobs: reflex and dem-
ocracy in Edgar Allan Poe’s satires,” introduces how bodily reflexes – from
the involuntary movement of limbs to central functions such as respir-
ation – became integral to the medical conception of the nervous self in
the :ï,cs and :ï¡cs. I focus first on the lowliest of animals (the frog) to
consider how studies of amphibian reflex functions by British physiolo-
gist Marshall Hall uncovered a seeming paradox about the human body:
sensation without consciousness. Tese reflexive, unconscious sensations
accord with Poe’s eeriest imaginings, from a nervous ape in “Te Murders
in the Rue Morgue” (:ï¡:) to a dead man mesmerized and speaking from
beyond the grave in “Te Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (:ï¡,). Poe,
though, saw more: how reflexes challenged the psychological assumptions
of democratic ideals and economic self-possession. Trough interpret-
ations of his political satires, including “Some Words with a Mummy”
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Te Politics of Anxiety :¡
(:ï¡,) and “Mellonta Tauta” (:ï¡,), Chapter : argues that Poe invokes
reflexive physiology to satirize the idealizations of self-government and
progress popular with both Young America and the Democratic Party .
Poe’s barbed commentary and satiric form lay bare the violence lurking
beneath descriptions of progress so popular in the antebellum United
States. Using the reflex to critique popular celebrations of progress, Poe
revises the vision of “self-emancipation” that Bird concludes comically, if
a bit too neatly, in Sheppard Lee .
Tough sympathy and reflex were medical concepts familiar to Bird
and Poe respectively, nervous physiology achieved widespread popularity
through “practical mesmerism,” the public, experimental demonstrations
of trance. By collapsing spirit into matter and exhibiting it with women’s
bodies, mesmerists provoked heated attacks from those who sought to pro-
tect domestic ideology. Chapter , , “Invasions of privacy: clairvoyance and
utopian failure in antebellum romance,” argues that mesmerism was the
cultural site for antebellum Americans’ apprehension that nervous physi-
ology could not accord with either the passivity assumed of middle-class
women’s bodies or the hermetically sealed domain of domesticity that was
the privileged site of those bodies. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Veiled Lady in
Te Blithedale Romance (:ï,:) and George Lippard’s magnetized women in
Te Quaker City; or, Te Monks of Monk Hall (:ï¡,) and Te Memoirs of a
Preacher (:ï¡,) occupy an ideological gray area: neither the sexually active
or fully embodied “other” to the domestic woman nor merely passive
subjects symbolizing the ideals of domestic womanhood. Rather, clair-
voyant and trance subjects were instead working bodies, making visible
the gendered labor of antebellum society, just as Hawthorne’s Priscilla,
for instance, begins the novel as seamstress and clairvoyant and ends it
as Hollingsworth’s wife and affective crutch. Mesmerism and domesti-
city were doubly bound to each other: Mesmerists provide a language for
the utopian experiments of the :ï¡cs, and both mesmerism and utopian-
ism presented antebellum Americans with spectacles that contravened
middle-class domestic boundaries. It is no surprise, then, that Hawthorne
and Lippard present these two “isms” together in their romances. In strik-
ingly distinct ways, these writers inspect the radical reconstructions of
domesticity at work in the :ï¡cs through versions of “romance” that are
explicitly in conversation with the mesmeric culture of the decade.
Te final two chapters argue that the nervous physiology popularized
by mesmerists provided a new neurological vision of the self that reinvig-
orated the spiritual and political engagements of mid-century Protestant
Americans. Chapter ¡ , “‘All that is enthusiastic’: revival and reform in
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Introduction :,
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred ,” inspects the relationship between revival-
ism and anti-slavery politics in Stowe’s second anti-slavery novel, Dred:
A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (:ï,o), written amid the militancy and
violence sparked by the :ï,¡ Kansas–Nebraska Act . Whereas in Uncle
Tom’s Cabin (:ï,:) Stowe sought to represent slavery (what she called
“life among the lowly” in the novel’s subtitle) through a realistic, albeit
sentimental , narrative voice, Dred represents a formal shift modeled on
the nervous pathology of religious enthusiasm. By the early nineteenth
century, physicians categorized such enthusiasm on display at revivals
as a “nervous affection” marked by symptoms such as crying, laughing,
contorting, groaning, and fainting. Anti-abolitionists borrowed these
characterizations to satirize northern abolitionists , particularly after Nat
Turner’s Southampton Insurrection and the :ï,, abolitionist mail cam-
paign . In the wake of both, many abolitionists increasingly claimed to
represent slavery “as it is,” thereby tying emotional appeals to verisimili-
tude. In doing so, they asserted an inextricable relation between realism
and the success of their political aims. By revisiting what she calls the
“poetic possibilities” of religious enthusiasm, Stowe explicitly forms Dred
into a romantic narrative that imagines the dialectics of the nervous sys-
tem – the movement in and out of nervous states – as a prerequisite
for political change. Yet Dred also testifies to Stowe’s ambivalence about
violence. Stowe seeks to embrace the promise of nervous physiology but
remove it from the violence inherent in emancipation that both Bird and
Poe addressed as its potentially unavoidable supplement .
In the first two decades after the Civil War, the promise of the ner-
vous body as a means for reform deflated considerably, changing not just
claims people made about the body but also constricting what had been a
dynamic relation between politics, faith, and medicine. Late nineteenth-
century neurologists sought to delineate a boundary between their sci-
entific work and the “naïve” and “common” theories of the nerves alive
in mesmerism and spiritualism . Chapter , , “ Cui bono ?: spiritualism and
empiricism from the Civil War to American Nervousness ,” uncovers a con-
test between spiritualism (communication with the dead through the
nervous electricity of the body) and neurology over what counted as “the
real.” Unable to answer the question of the social worth of spiritualism,
spiritualists increasingly argued that the worth of spirit communication
was its science. Tis chapter reads a popular but now obscure spiritualist
novel by journalist Epes Sargent, Peculiar; A Tale of the Great Transition
(:ïo¡), as a reflection of the changing claims of realism during the decades
of the Civil War and Reconstruction. In both Peculiar and his defenses
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Te Politics of Anxiety :o
of spiritualism after the Civil War, Sargent contends that there is empiri-
cal proof of the afterlife, thereby making a case for the “real” that would
encompass the experiences and observations of those at séances as well
as those on the battlefield. Yet even as spiritualists such as Sargent struc-
tured their fictions of contact beyond death through formal appeals to
empiricism, neurologists, and in particular George Miller Beard , author
of American Nervousness (:ïï:), questioned what they saw as naïve empiri-
cism. Tey presented instead the nervous self as profoundly social but
best treated by experts trained in neurology. Te chapter ends by explor-
ing Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s challenge to Beard’s neurology in her wildly
popular novels on the afterlife, the Gates Ajar series .
Te Epilogue of the book, “Te confidences of anxiety,” culminates
this history of nerves and nineteenth-century culture by turning to
William James , a figure whose fascination with these topics can be seen
both as an endpoint for the narrative and a reminder that the contests
over the embodied mind and open body never ended, even after medical
professionals sought to restrict debate to experts. Te conclusion addresses
the investments evoked by the language of nerves in contemporary liter-
ary scholarship through James’s thoughts on spiritualism . How do the
physiological twists of nineteenth-century nerves speak to assumptions
about psychology and affect in current literary scholarship, as they did to
medical and spiritualist methodology in the nineteenth century? What
is the methodological relation between science, history, and literature?
What role does affect play in shaping methodological choices, and why
has it taken on a new urgency now? Te following chapters provoke such
questions, and the Epilogue, in turn, examines methodology in light of
the local and somatic meanings generated by nineteenth-century nerves.

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