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Theaters of MadnessInsane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture$
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Benjamin Reiss

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780226709635

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: March 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226709659.001.0001

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Emerson's Close Encounters with Madness

Emerson's Close Encounters with Madness

(p.103) Chapter Four Emerson's Close Encounters with Madness
Theaters of Madness
University of Chicago Press

This chapter poses the question of what the transcendentalist movement would look like if we placed McLean Asylum as the central institution against which the group defined its relation to New England culture. The key figures in the story are Ralph Waldo Emerson and his acolyte Jones Very, the self-proclaimed Second Coming of Christ and writer of visionary poetry, who was confined in McLean Asylum shortly after hearing Emerson's infamous “Divinity School Address” in 1838. Through the writings on Very by Emerson, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, and others in this philosophical-literary movement, the chapter examines the transcendentalists' guarded accommodation to early psychiatry—a profession that would seem to cut against the core of their anti-institutional thinking, their emphasis on non-conformism, and their radical individualism, but that intersected with the movement in surprisingly frequent and intimate ways. What emerges is a glimpse of the uneasily shared ground of American literary romanticism and psychiatry, both of which movements saw themselves as fortifying the individual against the threats of modernization and social atomization. The chapter concludes with a reading of Emerson's essay “Self-Reliance.”

Keywords:   transcendentalist movement, McLean Asylum, New England, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jones Very, visionary poetry, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, literary romanticism, psychiatry, non-conformism

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