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Neurasthenic Nation: America's Search…
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Neurasthenic Nation: America's Search for Health, Happiness, and…

by David G. Schuster

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In Neurasthenic Nation: America’s Search for Health, Happiness, and Comfort, 1869-1920, David G. Schuster argues, “Neurasthenia was the topic that made it manageable to bring together American history, culture, health, and what it means for people to think of themselves as normal. America’s experience with neurasthenia encouraged people to look to happiness and comfort as the bellwethers of being of normal health” (pg. xi). The book “examines the story of neurasthenia and the reciprocal relationships the condition helped create among physicians, patients, and popular culture” (pg. 6). Schuster argues that the disease differed from hysteria due to Americans’ major research contributions to defining and treating it.
Schuster’s argument traces the role of the medical profession in creating distinctions between class and gender through the diagnosis of neurasthenia. He writes, “The reciprocity that the neurasthenia diagnosis helped create between sick Americans and the medical profession during the late nineteenth century” (pg. 8). Further, “Patients benefited because the neurasthenia diagnosis legitimized their mental, emotional, and physical ailments and allowed for sympathy and care. Physicians also benefited, especially those in the emerging speciality of neurology, because neurasthenia cultivated a large body of middle- and upper-class patients who legitimated the role of doctors as caretakers of the nation’s happiness and comfort and helped financed [sic] the building of the medical profession at the start of the twentieth century” (pg. 8). In this way, “Neurasthenia, in a sense, was a growing pain of American modernization” (pg. 20). Many doctors believed that this reflected America’s higher evolutionary status. Schuster writes, “While the citizens of presumably less modern nations, including European states, still suffered from classic illnesses such as gout, rheumatism, and fever, neurasthenia, Beard claimed, represented the next evolutionary stage in illness, a disease that, as strange as it might sound, actually helped protect its victims from other diseases, such as fevers, which, he believed, were lower on the evolutionary tree” (pg. 21). Of the medical profession, he concludes, “Neurologists like [George Miller] Beard and [Silas Weir] Mitchell used neurasthenia to cultivate a community of middle- and upper-class patients who could pay for services that strengthened the medical profession. This class aspect of neurasthenia also lent the diagnosis a degree of distinction that encouraged sick Americans to identify with the disease” (pg. 35).
Discussing gender, Schuster writes, “When men and women realized that they could not live up to their expected roles, many became conflicted, despondent, and neurasthenic. Many of these men and women faulted themselves for failing to meet expectations and sought treatment just as would other neurasthenics” (pg. 86). This also helped utopian societies, like the Bellamy Societies, flourish, as they promised happiness through commitment to the prescribed roles expected of members of society. He concludes, “Neurasthenia was a gendered affair, and one’s sex had a profound impact on how a neurasthenic reflected on the illness. Perhaps due to their dominant social position, men were less willing than women to fault convention for their illness and had a tendency to interpret their neurasthenia as the result of weak wills rather than of broken gender roles” (pg. 110-111).
Discussing the end of neurasthenia diagnoses, Schuster writes that, by 1920, “American medicine was in the process of overhauling its understanding of nervous disorders. The decision to move away from the neurasthenia diagnosis was a deliberate one on the part of doctors such as [Peter] Bassoe who saw neurasthenia as an overly vague, cumbersome label” (pg. 141). Additionally, “Changes in the way advertisers marketed health products such as medicine also contributed to moving the public discourse away from neurasthenia, as Americans were no longer bombarded with promotions seeking to education [sic] them about neurasthenia” (pg. 141). ( )
  DarthDeverell | Jun 19, 2017 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0813551315, Hardcover)

As the United States rushed toward industrial and technological modernization in the late nineteenth century, people worried that the workplace had become too competitive, the economy too turbulent, domestic chores too taxing, while new machines had created a fast-paced environment that sickened the nation. Physicians testified that, without a doubt, modern civilization was causing a host of ills—everything from irritability to insomnia, lethargy to weight loss, anxiety to lack of ambition, and indigestion to impotence. They called this condition neurasthenia.


Neurasthenic Nation investigates how the concept of neurasthenia helped doctors and patients, men and women, and advertisers and consumers negotiate changes commonly associated with “modernity.” Combining a survey of medical and popular literature on neurasthenia with original research into rare archives of personal letters, patient records, and corporate files, David Schuster charts the emergence of a “neurasthenic nation”—a place where people saw their personal health as inextricably tied to the pitfalls and possibilities of a changing world.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:31 -0400)

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