Benjamin Reiss

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This volume belongs in the category of cross-cultural studies of medicine and the humanities. Its main audience is scholars of nineteenth-century American psychiatry and culture. The author divides his study into six chapters, each with a topic, including the simultaneous emergence of nineteenth-century public debate about improving the treatment of insanity and the movement to abolish slavery; cultural activities in asylums directed toward humanizing the patients; bardolatry in British and American medical circles; discussions of Emerson, Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville in the context of their literary and personal relationship with madness; a chapter on captivity narratives and popular novels by former female and male patients; and an epilogue.

Unlike today, "In mid-nineteenth-century America, the condition of the mentally ill seemed to demand-and to a large degree received-national attention and the full creative energy of a group of dedicated reformers" (p. 2). Reformers linked the emancipation of slaves with curing the delusions of the insane. Slaves and the mentally ill had in common deprivation of their civil liberties; however, the difference was that white mental patients could be expected to grow up eventually, whereas black slaves would always remain children, and hence could not be trusted with the right to vote, own property, or sign contracts.Some causes of insanity were deemed to be the individual's reaction to the stress of modern life, too much freedom and choice, religious fervor, masturbation, or excessive study. In their aggressive attempts to remake patients into proper gentlemen and ladies, the new asylums promoted cultural activities such as reading selected texts, theater performances and writing.

Most asylums housed males and females in approximately equal numbers; cultural activities for females stressed piety, fashion, and domestic activity while men could comment on politics, the temperance movement, and opposition to women's rights. Reiss refers to the French model of using cultural activities in asylums, f.ex., Philippe Pinel's staging of plays to educate patients, and Marquis de Sade's theater performances at Charenton. He ends with a discussion of patient narratives that depict some horrific abuses tolerated in nineteenth-century asylums; the degree of these abuses is familiar to us from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (see film annotation).

The work includes a few illustrations, the most important being an engraving from a painting by Tony Robert-Fleury titled: Pinel Freeing the Insane (1876). (Yale University). Philippe Pinel (1745-1826) was a French pioneer in the humane treatment of mentally ill patients. A Director of Bicêtre Hospital in Paris, he is depicted as a heroic physician, liberating, mostly female, patients there. However, scholars have shown that only 10 of the 270 patients were chained, and that Pinel '"accepted the traditional use of chains to restrain the violent insane as a matter of course"' (p. 160). Reiss's point is that the revolutionary nature of Pinel's treatment of the insane has been exaggerated.

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