‘Sickbed Deathbed Birthbed’

Therapy and Writing in the 1890s
  • Guy Reynolds


For a range of historical commentators (Christopher Lasch, Philip Reiff and T. J. Jackson Lears) much that is distinctive, and distinctively regrettable, about American life can be summed up by the word ‘therapy’ These historians argued that the waning of Victorianism saw a shift from a culture of morality towards a world where feeling good and feeling better became the signals of worth. Newspapers and journals at the end of the nineteenth century were filled with articles regretting the collapse of American self-confidence and warning of a ‘psychic crisis’. Prominent fin-de-siècle intellectuals — William James, Charles Eliot Norton, Henry Adams, Edith Wharton — suffered from the recently identified mental crisis ‘neurasthenia’. For T. J. Jackson Lears this crisis in the American personality grew out of fundamental social and cultural shifts. The advent of consumer society meant that consumption and leisure began to constitute a way of life; Americans moved away from a ‘bourgeois ethos’ that ‘enjoined perpetual work, compulsive saving, civic responsibility, and a rigid morality of self-denial’. The development of psychology, the advent of advertising and a consumer economy, the establishment of the guru of health (mental and physical), a general and pervasive emphasis on the need to feel vibrant and well: these symptoms indicated the shift from a Victorian world of individual moral choice towards a more therapeutic world.


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© Guy Reynolds 1999

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  • Guy Reynolds

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