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Introduction

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 June 2011

Justine S. Murison
Affiliation:
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
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Summary

“I think anxiety is very interesting,” observed Amy, eating sugar, pensively.

Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1868)

This book refocuses the study of nineteenth-century American literature on frogs shorn of their heads, tables that report on the afterlife, and men who think they are teapots. These 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 crucial discoveries about the nervous system predate 1820, 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 1830s and through the rest of the century, writers absorbed, expressed, and popularized 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 (1854) and Cannibals All! Or, Slaves Without Masters (1857), 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?

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2011

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  • Introduction
  • Justine S. Murison, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
  • Book: The Politics of Anxiety in Nineteenth-Century American Literature
  • Online publication: 01 June 2011
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511812071.001
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  • Introduction
  • Justine S. Murison, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
  • Book: The Politics of Anxiety in Nineteenth-Century American Literature
  • Online publication: 01 June 2011
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511812071.001
Available formats
×

Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

  • Introduction
  • Justine S. Murison, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
  • Book: The Politics of Anxiety in Nineteenth-Century American Literature
  • Online publication: 01 June 2011
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511812071.001
Available formats
×