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Theaters of MadnessInsane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture$

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

Abstract and Keywords

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

What Would

the transcendentalist movement look like if we posited the insane asylum—rather than the university, the church, or the slave system—as the central institution against which America's first homegrown group of public intellectuals took shape? The question has at first an intellectual component: how did this community of thinkers and activists, who defined themselves by their reaction against rationalism in mainstream Unitarian thought and their commitment to individual liberties, respond to the emergence of a new institution with broad powers to rescind those liberties in the name of bourgeois codes of rational conduct? But the question also has a surprisingly material and even intimate side: throughout the transcendentalist movement's history, key members faced the specter of institutionalization in asylums for their loved ones, followers, and even themselves.

The relation between transcendentalism and early American psychiatry can come into focus through reexamination of an episode that is familiar in American literary history, but the relevance of which to the social construction of madness has not yet been studied. This is the story of Jones Very, a visionary young poet and essayist who had attracted the attention of leaders in the transcendentalist movement—most notably Ralph Waldo Emerson—in part by running afoul of the academic and religious authorities against whom the transcendentalists themselves were rebelling. The height of Very's most creative period was the fall of 1838, when he produced a torrent of religious sonnets that are still anthologized today. At the same time, however, the anti-transcendentalists succeeded in getting him committed to McLean Asylum for the Insane, one of the oldest and best-respected private asylums (p.104) in the country, and one that served as a model for the ambitious state institutions that were just then coming into being.1 Word quickly spread that Very had been sent over the edge by transcendentalist ideas, and the social conservatives responsible for his incarceration used him as a proxy in their war against Emerson's spreading influence. Very stayed at McLean only a month, and little of what happened to him while he was there can be reconstructed, but from the swirling responses surrounding his supposed mental breakdown and institutionalization, we can glimpse a whole network of social, intellectual, and institutional relations that emanated from the clash of early American psychiatry, academic Unitarianism, and New England's intellectual avant-garde. In particular, we can see some of these groups' shared assumptions about the threat to social stability (sometimes a psychic threat) posed by modernity and democracy—a linkage that marks each of these disparate movements as responding to the main features of Romantic thought. And most poignantly, the story reveals the ultimate acquiescence of the transcendentalists, and especially of Emerson, to psychiatric authority over one of their own number. This accommodation does not fit easily with their typical group portrait, which shows them heroically valuing eccentricity, intuition, and nonconformism as tools to liberate individuals from the powerful institutional structures that restricted their thought and behavior. Instead, Emerson's tacit acceptance of Very's forced confinement suggests that, at a formative point of his career, he saw the insane asylum as a restraint that formed the boundary between healthy individualism and social deviance: a curb placed on the individual will when that will could not restrain itself.

An orthodox Foucauldian reading of this incident would see Emerson resisting but ultimately bowing to the asylum movement's “power of normalization” and ceding to its “authority responsible for the control of abnormal individuals.”2 Emerson's famous injunction, “Whosoever would be a man must be a non-conformist” would in this light be an empty plea for abstract individualism; when “non-conformists” are labeled as “abnormal,” they are locked away under the name of public hygiene.3 While this reading has its points, it depends on a picture of McLean Asylum that Emerson and the other actors in our story could never have seen—a picture in which “asylums” are squarely on the side of social order and the state. While this became increasingly true in the 1840s and 50s, it was by no means clear in 1838—and even less so for an elite private institution like McLean. The restrictions on personal liberty experienced by patients at McLean were effected with only minimal government involvement, and even state asylums (p.105) could still plausibly be presented as forming an institutional bulwark of liberty that offered certain freedoms—from neglect, from physical abuse, from despair—that the insane so often suffered in the early nineteenth century. Why Emerson and company chose to accept this image is part of the drama.

Rather than clearly confirming or overturning the “social control” reading of asylum history, then, the story can suggest something of the ragged constellation of forces that lined up, sometimes grudgingly, behind the new asylum movement.4 One reason that Emerson supported the psychiatric regime at McLean was that transcendentalism and American institutional psychiatry developed out of the same intellectual milieu. Their shared interests in restoring vigor and mental well-being to a modernizing society reflects their common romantic nostalgia for a world of social and spiritual harmony that they felt had been ruptured by advances in capitalism, urbanization, and the social mobility that attended them.5 But the two movements did not relate to each other solely in intellectual terms: their interactions were shot through with power dynamics and uncomfortable personal, professional, and institutional relationships as well. At the time of the Jones Very affair, Emerson had been entangled with the politics of McLean Asylum for over a decade, and some of his Unitarian foes were at the forefront of the asylum movement. When this entanglement is unraveled, it will show the key actors and social forces of the Jones Very episode—Emerson and his circle, Dr. Luther Bell and the emerging psychiatric establishment, and the Unitarian power structures of Harvard and Salem—all jostling for position within a shared social and intellectual space. Very's confinement caused discomfort all around, but the Unitarians used the case to mount an aggressive challenge to the transcendentalists, who were ultimately forced into a defensive rearticulation of their values.

On July 15, 1838,

Emerson came to Harvard Divinity School, his alma mater, to deliver what would later be known as the “Divinity School Address,” one of the most famous public challenges to an entrenched religious authority in American history. A lapsed Unitarian minister, Emerson was entering the stronghold of Unitarian thought, which was the intellectual and spiritual backbone of Boston's elite social classes.6 Unitarianism had originated as a liberal reaction to Puritanism, an attempt to reconcile Enlightenment rationality with Christian scripture. There was nothing in the Christian religion, Unitarians taught, that was incompatible with science; therefore rational, scientific inquiry could only lead to a glorification of (p.106) God. In fact, according to William Ellery Channing, the most famous Unitarian preacher of his day and an inspiration for early transcendentalism, “God is another name for human intelligence, raised above all error and imperfection, and extended to all possible truth.”7 A corollary of this belief in the resemblance of God to man was the belief in the divine imperative to reform human character; this marked a clean break between Unitarian “rational Christianity” and the beliefs of their Puritan forebears (along with the Calvinists who still held sway in places like Princeton and Amherst) in the innate depravity of man and the unbridgeable gulf between God and His creations. The Unitarian establishment at Harvard saw themselves as enlightened champions of progress, and this found them favor among the new bourgeoisie of Boston, whose wealth and standing increasingly came from the manipulation of technology.8 Unitarian congregants—along with Quakers—were also at the vanguard of the era's most important social reform movements, including the asylum movement and prison reform; the reformers enacted in a secular key the Unitarian belief in the powers of the enlightened mind to remake the world in God's image.9

But once the Unitarians had achieved institutional authority at Harvard and in the most powerful churches of the area, they increasingly defended their elite position and their once-upstart creed from social and intellectual challenges. There was a limit, after all, to their endorsement of Enlightenment skepticism, in that it could never turn on Christian revelation itself. Earlier in the year, the Unitarian establishment had helped secure the conviction of the atheistic Abner Kneeland, leader of the Society of Free Enquirers, for “scandalous, impious, obscene, blasphemous, and profane libel of and concerning God,” the last such conviction in Massachusetts history. The case split the Unitarian movement, with liberals like Channing, George Ripley, and Emerson—who had not yet entirely broken with Unitarianism—coming to Kneeland's defense, and conservatives, many of them ensconced at Harvard, applauding the conviction.10 At issue in the case was not just Kneeland's questioning of religious faith, but his sexual morality as well. Kneeland had initially run afoul of authorities by publishing in his journal material that was considered obscene, particularly his philosophical defenses of birth control and free love; he even arranged to sell a scandalous tome that graphically discussed the proper techniques for postcoital contraceptive douching. This activity was considered to be a threat to social order because, in the words of historian Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, it would give readers “a means of engaging in sexual intercourse without enduring the consequences of pregnancy.”11 The Unitarians who opposed Kneeland had (p.107) themselves been tarred with the charge of radicalism, even Jacobinism; as they consolidated power, they forcefully rejected those charges, in part by deflecting them onto free-thinkers like Kneeland.

Within Harvard itself, the Unitarian establishment was facing new challenges. As the Unitarians opened up the curriculum to more and more types of secular inquiry, they inadvertently encouraged students to stray from their theological teachings and unquestioned institutional authority. The student philanthropic society, for instance, scandalously wanted to invite abolitionists, considered at this point by virtually the entire social elite of Boston to be disreputable troublemakers, to speak on campus. And the freshman class of 1833 (of which Jones Very was a member) rioted over a tutor's allegedly unfair treatment of a student and the administration's hamhanded resolution of the matter. Furniture was thrown, windows broken, property desecrated, and the majority of the class was dismissed for three months.12

Finally, in matters of theology, the Unitarians were riven by debates about the “doctrine of miracles.” Following John Locke's Discourse of Miracles, mainstream Unitarians believed that intuitive truths were those belonging to inductive logic, such as those derived from geometry. But other truths could come to humans through revelation, which gave access to a world beyond the senses. To establish these truths, Locke argued, we need “credentials,” or miracles, whose existence could be detected through rational means. (Something was a miracle if it could be proved to exist but could not be explained by the laws of nature.) According to Locke and his Unitarian followers, those who denied the existence of miracles were either unbelievers or “enthusiasts.” This latter group claimed to receive divine truth directly rather than through evidence of miracles. Because their beliefs were unverifiable, they could even be evidence of insanity, or “conceits of a warmed or overweening brain.”13 Adherence to the doctrine of miracles became a litmus test for true believers in the rational Christianity of Harvard; the more conservative faculty protested loudly when any dissenting voices were allowed to publish in official church and Divinity School organs.14

In this tense atmosphere, Harvard authorities were on high alert when the students invited Emerson, who had formally renounced his Unitarian pulpit five years earlier, to speak at their commencement. Initially inspired by the Unitarians' freedom from creeds and rejection of Calvinist notions of human depravity, Emerson increasingly viewed the “rational” part of rational Protestantism to be a barrier to faith. For him, it was not simply that man resembled God in his intelligence, but that man was God, or at least (p.108) that man was an aspect of God—and as such was so vast as to be unknowable to himself.15 As he explained to his former congregation on a return visit, he had renounced the pulpit because he could not countenance the idea that one man should teach others spiritual truths that should properly be found within each: “Man begins to hear a voice,” he said, “that fills the heavens and the earth, saying, that God is within him, that there is the celestial host.”16 Although this doctrine rejected the mediating structures of the church and the external “proofs” of miracles, it was actually more strictly spiritual than the Unitarian belief. If God was inside, rather than outside, his existence and teachings could never be proven by the cold rationality of empirical science or the formal creeds of institutional religion; instead, knowledge of the divine required the white hot discipline of faith, albeit an inner-directed faith.

On that summer day in 1838, Emerson informed the students that their teachers were actually holding them back from perceiving the highest truth. In passionate oratory, he denounced the “defects” of “historical Christianity”: that its focus on “the person of Jesus” obscures the holiness of each individual's soul; and that its conception of “revelation as somewhat long ago given and done” presents a desiccated religion, “as if God were dead.”17 This was a direct attack on Unitarian practice. Because the Unitarians believed that testimony from the Bible about Jesus' performance of miracles needed to be tested empirically, studies of the historical Jesus were central to their theology.18 Sounding like one of Locke's mentally unbalanced “enthusiasts” who reject even the notion of evidence, Emerson admonished his auditors to “go alone” and preach God's will as it was revealed to them, “without mediator or veil.” He encouraged them to cast off the teachings of authority and consider themselves prophets, for “the need was never greater of new revelation than now…. Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost,—cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity.”19

Predictably, the students were enthralled, and the authorities were not amused. The liberal Unitarian minister Convers Francis later reported that after the “Address,” Harvard divinity students were taught to “abhor and abominate R.W. Emerson as a sort of mad dog”; and Emerson's uncle Samuel Ripley begged him not to publish it because he would be “classed with Kneeland, Paine, &c.”20 Andrews Norton, sometimes referred to as the “Unitarian pope,” had recently left his post at the Divinity School in part out of outrage at what he perceived as the dilution of Unitarian doctrine in the curriculum.21 In a wonderful fulmination published in the Boston Daily (p.109) Advertiser, Norton suggests the inseparability of the Unitarians' theology from their social position, as well as the threat posed by the transcendentalist young Turks to Unitarian authority.

They [European romantics and American transcendentalists] announce themselves as the prophets and priests of a new future, in which all is to be changed, all old opinions done away, and all present forms of society abolished. But by what process this joyful revolution is to be effected as are not told; nor how human happiness and virtue is to be saved from the universal wreck, and regenerated in the Medea's caldron…. The state of things described might seem a matter of no great concern, a mere insurrection of folly, a sort of Jack Cade rebellion; which in the nature of things must soon be put down, if those engaged in it were not gathering confidence from neglect, and had not proceeded to attack principles which are the foundation of human society and human happiness.22

Turning his fire on Emerson's “Address,” he wrote that the fact of its being delivered at the Divinity Hall Chapel was cause for alarm.

No one can doubt for a moment of the disgust and strong disapprobation with which it must have been heard by the highly respectable officers of that Institution. They must have felt it not only as an insult to religion, but as personal insult to themselves…. The preacher was invited to occupy the place he did, not by the officers of the Divinity College, but by the members of the graduating class. These gentlemen, therefore, have become accessories, perhaps innocent accessories, to the commission of a great offence; and the public must be desirous of learning what exculpation or excuse they can offer.23

Innocent accessory or not, one of those students was made to pay for Emerson's incitement to demolish the social order. This was Jones Very. And the means of his punishment was to place him in an insane asylum.

A Native

of Salem, Massachusetts, Jones Very was the son of a poor but fiercely proud mother, Lydia Very, and her first cousin, a sea captain whom his son would barely come to know. The two lived together in a noncontractual marriage, which accorded with Mrs. Very's atheism and attraction to the ideals of Frances Wright, the notorious free-thinker who advocated the abandonment of marriage as an institution. She was viewed by townspeople as a “tiger of a woman,” and “almost a maniac” in defense of her beliefs (or unbeliefs).24 In 1833, at the age of twenty, her son Jones entered Harvard on a scholarship, threw himself into his studies, immersed himself in the Unitarian faith, and eventually graduated second in his class. (p.110) His undergraduate tenure was not without turbulence, however, for he was one of the riotous cohort that was “denounced on its graduation as unfortunate” for the “awful rebellion” that had occurred in 1833.25 Very did not actively participate in these riots but he did sign a class petition protesting the college's “system of rank.”26 Whatever his feelings about the administration, however, they did not prevent him from returning to Harvard after his graduation in 1836. For the next two years, he was employed by the university as a tutor in Greek, and he pursued studies as an “unclassified” or unofficial student in the Divinity School. But reflecting students' discontent with their rigid, rationalist education, he began to read widely in the European romanticism of Carlyle, Goethe, and Burke. In September 1836, he purchased a fateful copy of Emerson's Nature. In particular, he was drawn to the idea that one should seek God in nature—and within oneself—rather than through custom or ritual.27

At Harvard, Very developed an unorthodox teaching style, which endeared him to students but could hardly have pleased the administration. In a course on Greek, he would rhapsodize on Shakespeare, Milton, and divinity; and he encouraged conversation instead of lecture and rote learning in his classes (much as the transcendentalist pedagogues Bronson Alcott and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody were doing in their Temple School). He took long walks with his students and visited them in their apartments to discuss lofty matters. Several students grew quite devoted to him; Alcott would later write that “his influence at Cambridge on the best young men was very fine.”28 But some of his notions and behaviors were troubling to students. Very renounced any interest in women, declaring this a “sacrifice of Beauty” in the name of ascetic discipline; one student wrote home that Very was often ridiculed for being “overcome by monkish austerity & self-denial.”29

Very was publishing poems reflecting some of his ideas, and these caught the attention of the managers of the Salem Lyceum, who invited him to lecture. There he came into contact with Emerson's widening circle of intellectuals, who were fascinated. In April 1838, just three months before Emerson's electrifying “Address,” Very found himself lecturing before Emerson at the Concord Lyceum and dining with the great man afterward. For the most part, Very talked and Emerson intently listened. He spoke about dramatic and epic poetry, romanticism and classicism, Shakespeare and Jesus, and mostly, through all of this, himself. Shakespeare, he told Emerson, was one of God's great “natural” creations, but he lacked only that which Very himself was on the verge of discovering, which is a self-consciousness (p.111) of his inhabitation by God. Very felt a “perfect [spiritual] union and relationship” with Shakespeare; therefore, proper interpretation of Shakespeare's plays could be reached by looking within himself.30 Very's comments (later published in an essay) prefigure certain of Emerson's own ideas; indeed, the notion of the poet's access to a transpersonal soul is a major strand throughout his writing, which Sharon Cameron has called “Emerson's impersonal.”31 There is certainly an aspect of this in the “Divinity School Address,” as when he says that the preacher's task—much like that of Very's confronting the divine Shakespeare within him—is “to live with the privilege of the immeasurable mind.”32 In fact, several critics have suggested that Emerson had Very directly in mind when he composed his “Address.”33 Emerson was preaching, but he was also responding to the sermon Very had delivered to him.

Not long after hearing Emerson's call for “a new revelation,” Very began acting even more strangely. In his Greek class, he told students that their bodies were simply vessels for a timeless struggle between God and Satan, that he himself had been visited by two “consciousnesses” not his own, which led him to declare to all that “the coming of Christ was at hand.” Later, he would write that these “changes” were a symptom of his “new birth,” and that he was directed by “the voice of John in the wilderness of my heart, and that the purification I experienced, in obeying him in cutting down the corrupt ties and preparing the way for the one who came after was that of his baptism of water.”34 One night, he broke into the study of Professor Henry Ware, Jr., a friend of Emerson's who had been shocked by the “Address.” Ware, as it happened, was in the process of drafting a rebuttal of Emerson's doctrine (“It is a virtual denial of God, and a consequent overthrow of worship and devotion;—it injures happiness by taking from the affections their highest object, and virtue by enfeebling the sense of responsibility,” and so forth).35 According to a student who wrote about the confrontation in his diary, Very and Ware argued over an interpretation of the section of the book of Matthew in which Jesus predicts that Judas will betray him, and Very refused to yield to the professor because “a revelation had been made to him, and that what he said was eternal truth—that he had fully given up his own will, and now only did the will of the Father—that it was the father who was speaking thro' him. He thinks himself divinely inspired, and that Christ's second coming is in him.”36

The next day, Very went back to class and used language so wild that several of his students wrote home, distraught over their beloved tutor's apparent descent into madness. As a scandal brewed, he was quickly relieved of (p.112) his duties at Harvard by the president, Josiah Quincy, who was ever alert to the possibilities of student disorder—especially in the wake of the students' scandalous behavior in recent years. Very's brother Washington was summoned to take the tutor home to Salem. Jones's first impulse—or directive from God—was to visit Emerson at Concord and hand-deliver the essay he had been writing on Shakespeare; but his brother allowed him only to send it to him, along with an accompanying letter.37 The next day, back in Salem, he heeded God's call again, this time to spread his message door-to-door. One of his first visits was to Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, an important member of the Transcendental Club who had arranged the initial meeting between Emerson and Very. After he informed her that he had come to “baptize” her “with the Holy Ghost and with fire,” he asked her how she felt. “I feel no change,” she said, to which he responded, “But you will … I am the Second Coming.” He proceeded to the homes of several local ministers. According to Peabody, first was John Brazer, minister of the church that Very had been attending, who, in true Unitarian fashion, asked him for empirical proof of “the miracles that tested his mission. Very said ‘this revelation would not have miracles.’ ‘Then,’ said Mr. B, [in perfect Lockean fashion] ‘I must say to you—you are laboring under hallucination.’”38 Next came a Baptist minister, who threw him out of the house, and then the Unitarian Charles Wentworth Upham, who, according to Peabody, informed Very “that he should see that he be sent to the Insane Asylum.” Later that night Mrs. Very confronted Upham—or perhaps he confronted her first—and she “declared that Mr. Very should not be carried to the Insane Hospital. She said that if there was anything in him that seemed insane it was caused by the brutal manner in which he had been treated.” Peabody, genuinely concerned about Very's state of mind (but also feeling the heat that Upham and Brazer were bringing to her circle) convinced Very's brother to take him to McLean, where—despite maternal resistance—he was soon committed.39

Brazer and Upham were confirmed anti-transcendentalists, both of whom had supported Andrews Norton in his battle to tamp down on dissident views published in church organs. Upham in particular had been spoiling for a fight with Emerson since the publication of Nature, which he found to be an infidel text.40 Both men saw in Very's behavior another chance to lash out at Emerson (who had been a classmate and a former friend of Upham's), whom they publicly blamed for Very's collapse.41 Their campaign to smear transcendentalists caught on: a number of letters among the literati around Boston repeated the idea that Very had been “blown up by Emerson” and that “he is quite intimate with Emerson and the other (p.113) Spiritualists, or supernaturalists, or whatever they are called, or may be pleased to call themselves.”42

In an instant, the literary, philosophical, academic, and religious establishments of greater Boston came crashing down on Jones Very's head. Because of the infighting among the Unitarians, Brazer and Upham's animosity toward Very has generally been explained by the divisions within the church that eventually led to the secession of the transcendentalists.43 But what has not been explained, in part because it seems so natural, is how and why they sent Very to an insane asylum, and what role institutional psychiatry played in the environment that gave rise to the schism. Even Very's extraordinarily sympathetic biographer, Edwin Gittleman, passes over this question with the cryptic comment: “Very allowed his enemies no alternative to having him placed in an institution for the insane.”44

How did committing a false prophet to an insane asylum come to seem such an obvious course of action among the religious establishment of greater Boston? One part of the answer comes from the historical linkage of Unitarianism and the reform movements that helped establish and support institutional psychiatry in its formative years. The great reformer Dorothea Dix, whose detailed reports to state legislatures on the deplorable conditions of the insane were crucial in the effort to secure public financing for asylums, was a devout Unitarian who considered William Ellery Channing her mentor.45 And the Rev. Robert C. Waterston—a close friend of Very's at Divinity School—wrote a pamphlet on insanity in order to aid Dix in her efforts with the Massachusetts legislature. Singling out McLean as the model for a benevolent institution, he wrote that “this magnificent Charity, this philanthropic Asylum for suffering humanity, may well be considered as one of the chief glories of New England. Every citizen of Massachusetts may kindle with holy joy as he contemplates its wide-spread influence.”46 The psychiatric boosterism of these Unitarians stemmed, according to historian Norman Dain, from their rejection of the concept of depravity, their church's emphasis on brotherly love and humanitarian works, and their faith in science and progress. These beliefs allowed them, in Dain's words, “to accept the concept of somatic pathology and to sanction medical treatment of insanity.”47 In addition, their rejection of religious enthusiasm made Jones Very a perfect target for their humanitarian intervention.

A darker possibility comes into view when we more precisely locate the scene of Very's undoing in Salem, where nonbelievers had, two centuries earlier, been tried as witches. Many Unitarians flirted with the idea that mental illness, rather than sin or Satan, caused irreligious behavior.48 And (p.114) so one might be tempted to say that for the Unitarians, psychiatry replaced witch-hunting as the proper mechanism by which to rid a community of troublesome dissenters. But their writings on the matter defend against this idea. Upham himself had been fascinated with the historical lessons of the witch trials at least since 1831, when he delivered a series of lectures later published under the title Lectures on Witchcraft. At least one of the accused witches, he argued, was “subject to a species of mental derangement of which sadness and melancholy were the prevailing characteristics,”49 but most of his neo-psychiatric language—delusion, frenzy, derangement—was used to describe the mental aberrations of the accusers rather than the accused. Above all, his is a tract of caution, urging religious leaders “to check the prevalence of fanaticism, to accelerate the decay of superstition, to prevent an unrestrained exercise of imagination and passion in the individual or in societies of men, and to establish the effectual dominion of true religion and sound philosophy.”50 The lesson he learned from the witch trials, then, was not that dissent should be tolerated; instead, this sad episode taught him “useful lessons to guide and influence [the religious leader] with reference to the cultivation and government of his own moral and intellectual faculties and to the obligations that press upon him as a member of society to do what he may to enlighten, rectify, and control public sentiment.”51

Seven years after Upham delivered these lectures, he convinced himself that Salem's new dissenter was not a witch in need of hanging or execution but a poor mad soul in need of medical and moral treatment. The chief danger, however, was not that such a soul might be unjustly persecuted, but that Very himself might inflame the community: committing him to McLean would be a judicious measure to “control public sentiment.” At a time when Abner Kneeland himself was lauding Emerson as a fellow “free enquirer,” here came knocking on Upham's door the bastard son of a freethinker and the apparent intellectual disciple of the mad-dog Emerson.52 Very had drunk from a witches' brew of anti-establishmentarianism. For together, transcendentalists and free-thinkers endangered the very pillars of civilization: faith in God, church, and rationality; respect for authority; and sexual probity.

A crude and sweeping version of the psychiatry-as–witch hunt argument was made by Thomas Szasz, who wrote in 1970 of “the transformation of a religious ideology into a scientific one: medicine replaced theology; the alienist, the inquisitor; and the insane, the witch.”53 This monochromatic polemic can hardly explain the complex forces that brought asylums into such prominence in the nineteenth century. But one young Salem writer (p.115) who knew Jones Very well and would himself, years later, be tormented by Upham played frequently with the idea of psychiatry as a modern-day version of an ancient theological inquisition, an association that would culminate in an important plot thread in one of the classics of nineteenth-century fiction. Nathaniel Hawthorne first met Jones Very at his future sister-in-law Peabody's home in 1837, and Very soon began to call on him at his home. Hawthorne jotted morosely about him in a number of journal entries, particularly complaining about Very's tendency to overstay his welcome at his home, about Very's attempts to baptize or convert him, and about his sense that Very “wants a brother” (which was also Melville's unfortunate reaction to Hawthorne); but Peabody remarked that eventually a “strange intimacy” developed between them.54 Hawthorne, it seems, recognized in Very a type of persecuted eccentric that he had written about in an 1833 tale called “The Story Teller”; he mentioned Very as a misunderstood genius in another; and he wrote in yet a third about a delicate young poet just returned from an insane asylum.55

Years later he would return to the Very/Upham scenario again, in a way that eerily collapsed the distance between Very's supporters and his persecutors. Hawthorne had been influenced by Upham's study of the witch trials in the crafting of his fiction, but in 1849, found himself on the receiving end of one of the minister's abuses of power. Upham—his need to torment major figures of the American literary renaissance apparently not yet satiated—was now a Whig congressman from Salem, and he arranged the firing of the Democrat Hawthorne from his post as surveyor of the Salem Custom House. This was, of course, the impetus behind the famous “Custom House” preface to The Scarlet Letter (1850), in which Hawthorne refers to himself as a “decapitated surveyor.” The headless author would, however, exact his literary revenge on Upham less than two years later with the publication of The House of the Seven Gables (1851). Here, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon—the nineteenth-century descendant of witch-hunters—threatens to confine his cousin Clifford in an insane asylum for blocking his acquisition of property. Judge Pyncheon, who dies a grisly death at the end of the novel, choking on his own cursed blood, is modeled on none other than Upham. The sensitive aesthete Clifford is finally free of the specter of the asylum, where he would no doubt have become the latest of the witch-hunter's victims.

Hawthorne's Fanciful

reworking of the Jones Very story, in which incarceration at an asylum is the culmination of a modern-day witch hunt, (p.116)

Emerson's Close Encounters with Madness

Figure 8. McLean Asylum for the Insane, Somerville, Massachusetts, 1846. The asylum was renamed McLean Hospital in 1892 and was relocated to Belmont, Massachusetts, in 1895.

should not allow us to conceive of McLean as a Gothic chamber of horrors. “Social control” theorists like Foucault and Szasz have neglected to convey, among other things, the sheer grandeur of such institutions. Established in 1818 by private subscriptions and some state funding, McLean was regarded as the most exclusive asylum in the country.56 Situated on “a beautiful promontory” in rural Charlestown, it was close enough to Boston and Cambridge to facilitate frequent patient outings to a wide range of cultural and religious institutions57 (fig. 8). According to physician Edward Jarvis—who will figure shortly in the story—“from its great wealth, its magnificent and convenient architectural arrangements, and the abundant means of amusement and occupation, this may be considered as the best adapted to its noble purpose of all the asylums in our country”58 (fig. 9). The asylum had a working farm, a garden, a nursery, a woodwork room, a bowling alley, a billiard table for each sex, chess, cards, checkers, newspapers, drawing and surveying materials, a library, six horses, carriages, musical instruments, and other “means of labor and amusement.”59 The roughly 130 patients were housed in “families” of 10 or 12, which were grouped according to (p.117) “the nature and development of their derangement.60 Each patient had a sitting room, a sleeping and dining apartment, and a bathing room, and met regularly with his or her “family” for regular cultural and social activities. Prominent among these were religious services in each wing on Sunday evenings, “during which the physician read a sermon to those who were well enough and desired to attend”; others were encouraged to attend services at
Emerson's Close Encounters with Madness

Figure 9. Entrance hall of McLean Asylum, late nineteenth century

(p.118) local churches of their denomination.61 Finally, the institution prided itself on renouncing physical restraints for its patients, except in extreme cases, so that the “strong rooms” were used only three to four times a year.62

One of the mysteries surrounding Very's stay at McLean is who paid for it. The charge of $3.50 per week was certainly more than Very's mother could have absorbed; even if she could have paid, a woman as strong-willed as she would hardly have consented to pay for what she considered to be the wrongful confinement of her son. McLean had always subsidized a number of impoverished patients, but ever since the state asylum had opened in Worcester in 1833, McLean's administration was increasingly rejecting paupers and others who were objectionable to an elite clientele.63 One possibility is that the expense was borne by Upham and Brazer, maybe even with the help of their congregations. Perhaps they avoided the protests of transcendentalists and others sympathetic to Very by sending him to McLean rather than Worcester, where—despite the utopian rhetoric surrounding its conditions and cure rate—over fifty percent of the patients had been transferred from jails, almshouses, and houses of correction. In the first year of its operation alone, eight admitted patients were convicted murderers.64

At McLean, Very was placed under the care of the superintendent, Dr. Luther Bell, who allowed him to roam the grounds, lecture patients on literature, and continue with his writing.65 A subsequent letter to a friend records that although his religious views were unchanged, a kind of “peace” broke out between his warring consciousnesses, which had learned to coexist amicably within him.66 Little else can be definitively recovered of his perspective on his stay at McLean, since patient records there are still kept confidential and since most of Very's writing from the period views all earthly phenomena as a pale shadow of a deeper spiritual reality. Certainly Bell did not cause the voice of God to cease speaking through his patient, for the months during and after his stay at McLean witnessed a steady outpouring of essays and poems that continued in the ecstatic voice of the previous year. And the general outlines of McLean sketched above—notably the institution's elite standing in the field of asylum medicine, its opulence and physical beauty, its emphasis on humane treatment and encouragement of patients' creativity—all suggest that a stay there for a relatively impecunious scholar and poet might have been something of a respite from the personal tumult Very was experiencing in the fall of 1838. In addition, as an ascetic committed to conquering his own sexual impulses, he may well have found reinforcement in the strict sex segregation of the asylum wards and the heavy surveillance that attended all contact between the sexes.67

(p.119) The concern with regulating patients' sexual urges was due in large measure to Dr. Bell's highly developed theories about the mental health risks of sexual excitement and masturbation. (He proposed, among other things, a special masturbators' ward in larger asylums, where offenders would be placed under the “unceasing surveillance of a conscientiously vigilant and active attendant, whose eye, during the hours of waking, shall never be off his charge, and at night shall either sleep with him … or else use a mode of securing the patient from any possibility of effecting his purpose at night, by confining him with straps in his bed.”68)

Bell released Very after a month, concluding that although he was indeed insane, he was not a threat to the community and should be returned to the care of his mother. Back in Salem, the rumor spread that Bell had cured him of a digestive disorder, but Elizabeth Palmer Peabody maintained that he was “as crazy as ever,” and she reported that he continued both to sermonize and to write beautiful poetry. She wrote to Emerson, telling him to expect another visit from Very; and she warned him of the trap that such a visit would lay for him. Brazer was still hounding Very, demanding that he provide “miracles to prove his mission or [yield] the point that he is insane. Since he has come home [Brazer] has been telling him that you (from whom Mr. B … affects to believe all the thing comes) are now universally acknowledged to be & denounced as an atheist—& measures are taking!! to prevent you from having any more audience to corrupt…. But the result is—that Mr. Very thinks you and he are persecuted—& he goes expecting full sympathy.”69 Mary Peabody, writing to her sister Elizabeth, amplified the threat to both Very and Emerson: Very was threatened with being sent “somewhere where they could not hear him or let him be heard”; as for Emerson, “if they could prove the charge of blasphemy against him they would deprive him of his liberty as they had done to A[bner] K[neeland].” Mary replied to Very that if he and his mother remained steadfast, and perhaps if he applied leeches to his head, he could resist “the wolves & bears.”70 Elizabeth advised him to “take medicine and obey his friends—because if it is truth he utters—medicine will not purge it away.” And to Emerson she counseled “I would not—if I were you—stretch your charity so far as to invite him to stay in the house—or if he comes late & you have to—in charity—limit your invitation—else you may not easily get rid of him.”71

Nonetheless, when Very visited Emerson he was welcomed for five days of intense conversation that left a lasting impression on the older man. In Emerson's notebooks, he records his impressions of a man who presented a dark mirror of his own thoughts, offering an almost apocalyptic vision (p.120) of the institutions that transcendentalists were criticizing in a more hopeful mood: “His poison accuses society as much as society names it false & morbid, & much of his discourse concerning society, the church, & the college was perfectly just.”72 Very's unrelenting attack was almost unbearable: “J[ones] V[ery] says it is with him a day of hate; that he discerns the bad element in every person whom he meets which repels him: he even shrinks a little to give the hand … The institutions[,] the cities which men have built the world over, look to him like a huge blot of ink.”73 Even Emerson came under attack for not renouncing his own will and passively obeying the dictates of the God he knew was inside him: “He thinks me covetous in my hold of truth, of seeing truth separate, & of receiving or taking it instead of merely obeying.” A chill passed over Emerson at the end of the visit. “In dismissing him,” he wrote, “I seem to have discharged an arrow into the heart of society. Wherever that young enthusiast goes he will astonish & disconcert men by dividing for them the cloud that covers the profound gulf that is man.”74

In a way, Emerson did indeed help to discharge that arrow into society. By 1839, he had arranged for the publication of Very's first collection of essays and verse (including the essay on Shakespeare), and he sent off copies to admired friends. Much to Emerson's credit, as he and his circle were still being blamed for Very's collapse, he stood by Very both privately and publicly. But on the crucial question of Very's forcible committal to McLean, Emerson never protested—this at a time when Brazer was threatening once again to make of Very, and perhaps Emerson, a second Abner Kneeland. Even his defenses of Very's sanity were equivocal; as he wrote of him in the essay “Friendship”: “To stand in true relations with men in a false age is worth a fit of insanity, is it not?”75

And the publication, ostensibly a tribute to Very's literary power, can also be read as an attempt to control the wildness of Very's vision, to sanitize him for public display. First of all, Emerson did not allow his name to be printed anywhere in the volume. And then he edited out many of the most rapturous and messianic of Very's writings, as if to exorcise a spiritual force he himself had helped unleash in his supposed disciple. (One poem left out, for instance, begins “Thou wilt be near me Father, when I fail, / For Thou has called me now to be thy son.”76) Emerson even considered including a “psychological biography” of Very at the outset of the volume, which would have blunted the pronouncement of Very's genius by presenting him as a literary curiosity. Very of course objected to the editorial changes, insisting that the work could not be altered since it was not (p.121) properly his own writing that he had entrusted to Emerson, but that of God. Emerson's famous (but perhaps apocryphal) reply perfectly compresses his desire to control the force that he was releasing to the public: “Cannot the spirit parse & spell?”77 Making matters worse, although Emerson's first recorded response to the sonnets, in an 1838 letter to Very, had been “I love them and read them to all who have ears to hear,”78 after the book appeared in 1839, Emerson contributed an unsigned and extraordinarily patronizing review to the Dial. He considered the “genius of this little book” to be “religious,” but the poems themselves had “no pretension to literary merit.” He did allow that the poems—though “monotonous”—were “almost as pure as the sounds of Surrounding Nature”; but he also reminded readers that the author had been “taxed with absurdity or even with insanity.”79

Why did Emerson not defend his friend more vigorously? If Emerson could attack in broad daylight Harvard Divinity School for shackling religion and repressing the ecstatic insight of the unmoored soul, why did he not even question the logic of the asylum that imprisoned—even briefly, and within a gilded cage—a young friend who seemed to have been liberated by his words? The standard reading of this incident in the critical literature on transcendentalism is that Very put Emerson in the awkward position of facing one who took his own ideas to their literal extremes.80 His arm's-length tribute to Very is consistent with a pattern that later saw him embrace the rebel John Brown as the embodiment of transcendentalist “pure idealism,” but also to pronounce him “precisely what lawyers call crazy, being governed by ideas, & not by external circumstance.”81 But his reluctance to see—or his fear of seeing—his own ideals realized is not the only source of Emerson's awkwardness. In his concern that Very's unbridled vision might reflect badly on him, he seems to be reacting to the spreading stain of insanity that was being used, through Very, to denounce his own work and influence. To champion Very as the voice of sanity was to risk seeming mad himself; but to acknowledge his mental collapse was to risk being blamed for it. In pronouncing Very a genius but exercising a custodial role over his output that was in some ways akin to that of the asylum keepers, he chose an awkward middle road. The other transcendentalists, in one way or another, went down the same path.

Emerson's Fear

of stigmatization was intensified by his family history. In 1828, when Emerson himself had just left Harvard Divinity School and was seeking a position as a pastor, his beloved older brother Edward Bliss Emerson began to succumb to “fainting fits, & delirium” and was generally (p.122) “affected strangely in his mind.”82 Waldo consulted an old family friend, Dr. Edward Jarvis, who took a special interest in mental illness, and together they decided to send Edward to McLean. Emerson's own involvement in this course of action was anything but passive, as his journal entries attest. Just before Edward's committal, Emerson wrote of Edward's behavior, “If it continue, it will become necessary to send him to Charlestown. For besides the state of feeling produced by watching him being unutterably wretched & ruinous to infirm health—it removes me from employment the profits of which are only more necessary to me on account of this calamity.”83 Although his concern for Edward's mental health was no doubt genuine—he had been acting strangely and morbidly for at least three years, and even their mother agreed that “the Hospital” might be “a dismal necessity”—here he confessed to his own diary a concern for profits and career advancement as primary reasons to commit his brother to McLean. And it was not easy to do so. Dr. Jarvis came with the two brothers to the asylum, and when Edward was presented before Dr. Rufus Wyman (then the superintendent), “Dr. Wyman objected very strongly to taking him saying it was a very peculiar & important case & ought to be dealt with alone under private care.” But Jarvis and Emerson went over Wyman's head: “We had obtained leave of the board & we made him see the impossibility of doing anything else & he grants the only great privilege they can, that of entire seclusion from all other patients.”84

These rather extraordinary exertions were not the only ones Emerson made regarding the management and even politics of McLean. In fact, one reason for Bell's reluctance to admit Edward was the presence of other Emerson family members in McLean, one of whom was held there largely at Emerson's will. His younger brother Robert (usually known as Bulkeley)—described by one Emerson biographer as “mentally retarded and emotionally unstable” and by another as suffering from advanced Tourette's syndrome—was himself already a patient at McLean when Edward arrived.85 Bulkeley bounced from boarding at McLean to area farms or with relatives until he died in 1858; through all of this, Emerson and his oldest brother William paid for and made decisions about his care. According to Jarvis, the fact that Edward had a brother as well as an “uncle” (apparently a collateral relation) at the asylum was one reason for Dr. Wyman's reluctance to admit him: encountering these other family members “would doubtless make him worse.”86 And in possible recompense for all of Dr. Jarvis's efforts on behalf of Edward Bliss Emerson's committal, Emerson wrote a letter of recommendation to a McLean board member on behalf of Jarvis's unsuccessful (p.123) bid to become superintendent of the asylum in 1836, two years before the Jones Very affair.87

We are not taught to think of Emerson as a key, or even minor, figure in the legitimization of institutional psychiatry as a discipline. Perhaps it is a stretch to do so. But the sequence of events leading to Jones Very's commitment and Emerson's timorous response to it may be as significant as many of the practical measures taken to establish the legitimacy of the new profession. Historians of psychiatry agree that the rise of the asylum in the United States met with little or no organized intellectual resistance, or even serious debate, until decades later, when dozens of state-run asylums had been constructed (drawing on the model of McLean and a handful of other private asylums), and tens of thousands of unfortunate persons—the maladjusted, the drunken, the visionary, the drug-addled, the brain-damaged, the promiscuous, the self-polluting, the lazy, the depressed, the raving, and the violent—had passed through their doors.88 If an intellectual figure existed who might have been counted on to raise key questions about the emergence of this institution with unprecedented powers to rescind the liberties of individuals and to enforce bourgeois norms of behavior on non-compliant, vulnerable subjects, Emerson would have to be near the top of the list. His philosophical valuation of impulse, intuition, and nonlinear thinking would seem to mark him as the natural enemy of the asylum movement's systematic attempts to reprogram deviant minds through carefully controlled environmental and medical means. Finally, his organicism, his hostility toward professionalization and the fragmentation of social life (as set forth in essays like “The American Scholar”) stand in implicit contrast to psychiatrists' attempts to define their practice as a highly autonomous specialty within an increasingly professionalized medical community.89 In actively seeking their help in family matters and acquiescing in the case of Very, was Emerson not acknowledging their legitimate authority over the human behaviors and patterns of mind that he wanted to liberate from oppressive institutions?

One must take into account the elite status of McLean to make full sense of Emerson's involvement with the institution. There the utopian dreams of antebellum psychiatry were less likely to be punctured by cries of abused or violent patients than in the new state institutions, and there sensitive souls like Edward Bliss Emerson and Jones Very could feel personally attended to, rather than caught up in some vast institutional machine.90 Even so, Luther Bell and his predecessor Rufus Wyman were as committed as any asylum superintendents to enforcing the codes of normality that (p.124) Emerson at least abstractly railed against. As one patient of the time put it, “I understood that some persons had been kept in the Hospital from three to fourteen years, and was told that I must be easy in order to ever regain my liberty. I therefore found that an apparent contentment with my situation would be the most effectual means to obtain my discharge.”91 In this Goffman-like comment, the patient presents life at McLean as a charade in which patients are pronounced cured as soon as they appear to accept their keepers' version of proper conduct.92

And so it would be easy to accuse Emerson of hypocrisy. But given his family's psychiatric history—what he referred to as their “constitutional calamity”—he must occasionally have feared for his own mental well-being.93 These fears were no doubt activated in a climate in which his opponents demonstrated their readiness to use institutional confinement as a way to control their enemies, and in which Unitarians were taught to regard Emerson as a “mad dog.”94 The charge stung. In the poisonous atmosphere following the “Divinity School Address” and the Jones Very fallout, Emerson was initially reluctant to return to the lecture circuit.95 Given all this, Emerson's silence in regard to Very's confinement looks more like caution, or even fear, than callousness.

Beyond this, there are important intellectual grounds for Emerson's acceptance of psychiatric authority. Both transcendentalism and the asylum movement were born in the moment of what Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre call a romantic “critique of modernity … in the name of values and ideals drawn from the precapitalist, preindustrial past.”96 Both movements responded in surprisingly similar ways to some of the key developments of nineteenth-century life: the social dislocation that came with mass migrations from farms and villages to modern metropolises; the loss of contact with nature that attended such a shift; the threat to traditional values posed by the rise of wage labor and consumerism; the fragmentation of social life that arose with the emergence of early capitalism; the loss of spiritual values in a society that began to worship technology. The transcendentalist critique of specialization, entrenched institutional and professional authority, rational instrumentality, and the valuation of technological progress gave birth to all sorts of experiments in anti-or extra-capitalist movements that would restore the harmony of the individual within a social whole (as in Brook Farm) or within the natural world (as in Thoreau's Walden), as well as to strands of Emerson's writing in which he laments the tendency of “empirical science” to “bereave the student of the manly contemplation of the whole.”97 Although the transcendentalists differed from one another in terms of their responses to the market economy—with Orestes Brownson (p.125) coming close to calling for open class warfare and Emerson and Thoreau seeking only to reform or spiritualize the capitalist system rather than overturn it98—they all found the materialism, artificiality, social fragmentation, and amorality of market principles to be opposed to the “higher laws” of the soul. What they sought was to restore individual wholeness, which they romantically linked to childhood, “savage” or precivilized tribes: a precapitalist and premodern state of being that Emerson referred to as the “aboriginal self.”99

An article of faith in the asylum movement was, in the words of the pioneering French psychiatrist Etienne Esquirol, that “insanity is a disease of civilization, and the number of the insane is in direct proportion to its progress.”100 Edward Jarvis, who after his interventions on Emerson's behalf at McLean would go on to become a central exponent and theorist of the moral treatment movement, elaborated on Esquirol's thoughts as follows: “With the increase of wealth and fashion there comes also, more artificial life, more neglect of the natural laws, of self-government, more unseasonable hours for food and for sleep, more dissipation of the open, allowable, and genteel kind, and also more of the baser, disreputable, and concealed sorts.”101 (Here he sounds much like Emerson: “Society acquires new arts, and loses old instincts,” he wrote in “Self-Reliance.” “What a contrast between the well-clad, reading, writing, thinking American, with a watch, a pencil, and a bill of exchange in his pocket, and the naked New Zealander, whose property is a club, a spear, a mat, and an undivided twentieth of a shed to sleep under! But compare the health of the two men, and you shall see that the white man has lost his aboriginal strength.”102) Accordingly, asylums were carefully set in bucolic landscapes, away from the artificiality, stress, and social instability of cities; similar logic sent Thoreau to Walden Pond, where Emerson underwrote his experiment in self-reliance.103 Asylum superintendents sought to reharmonize the lives of patients not only with nature but also within a stable social environment. The capitalist marketplace in particular was a source of unhealthy ambition and material striving that caused vulnerable minds to crack; the asylum was there to repair the damage. For early psychiatry, overspecialization was a constant source of mental illness. Excessive study or devotion to a single idea or pursuit caused physical deformation of the brain, literalizing Emerson's complaint that even intellectuals were pathologically specialized. “The multitude of scholars and authors,” he wrote, have a talent that grows out of “some exaggerated faculty, some overgrown member, so that their strength is a disease.”104

Emerson jokingly referred to Jones Very's illness as either “monomania or mono Sania,” which is the closest we have to a contemporaneous (p.126) diagnosis.105 The ubiquitous mental illness called monomania, in which the patient becomes fixated on one particular idea to the point of delusion, is the medical correlative of what Emerson described as the soul-sickness stemming from the “divided or social state” of modern life.106 The holism of the asylum movement was a corrective for this overspecialization and social division; when Emerson wrote in “The Young American” of “the tranquil -izing, sanative influences” of the land which “brings us into just relations with men and things,”107 he could have been speaking of his brother's restoration in the sanative landscape at McLean after his nervous collapse, owing to fixation on his studies at the expense of the rest of his life. Viewed one way, Emerson extended the logic of the asylum beyond its walls; in another, the asylum superintendents enclosed and formalized the romantic therapeutic landscape, removing contingency and chaos from a sanitizing “nature” by applying to it a tight regimen of medical and administrative control. A similar overlap occurs between the asylum movement's harmonization of labor and creativity and transcendentalist invectives against social fragmentation. McLean, like the state asylums modeled after it, stressed the importance of “diversion” and labor in their therapeutic regime; meanwhile, at Brook Farm, the experimental transcendentalist commune, every member was to be a laborer as well as an artist.

These similarities should not obscure the profound differences between transcendentalism and the asylum movement. Transcendentalists were in most respects followers of Immanuel Kant, who held that the soul contains its own moral laws, whereas the asylum keepers believed, with Locke, that all knowledge was derived from sensation (the collecting of sensory data) and association (the ordering of that data). Because these early psychiatrists believed that external influences defined an individual's psychological makeup, they believed that cures rested on tightly controlling such influences.108 In this way, asylums were really much closer in spirit to the older generation of Unitarians, whose Lockean theology similarly stressed the linkage of character formation and social order, than to the transcendentalists, who were railing against these ideas.109 The transcendentalists' accommodation to institutional psychiatry, however, represents one area where Emerson and the rest of the enfants terribles did not entirely throw off the world view of the organized religionists whose precepts they flouted so openly.

Emerson wrote little on Very's collapse that gives modern readers a direct indication of how he squared medical understandings of insanity or the social authority of asylum medicine with his own philosophical system. But (p.127) several other members of the transcendentalist group did write about it in ways that showed their discomfort in broadening the attack they had leveled on the Unitarian establishment by turning fire on an allied institution. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody's first impulse was to guard against counterattack. In the series of letters she wrote to Emerson shortly after Very was released from McLean, she repeatedly warned the master of the popular linkage of Very's madness and Emerson's influence:

The thought which has pressed itself on my mind most is—how some people have taken it all—as nothing but transcendentalism—which shows how very entirely they do not apprehend the ground of a real belief in Inspiration. What a frightful shallowness of thought in the community—that sees no difference between the evidence of the most manifest insanity & the Ideas of Reason!110

By denying Very access to the “Ideas of Reason,” Peabody is referring to a crucial concept in transcendentalists' self-definition;111 Reason, to them, was the highest form of knowledge, an immediate, intuitive, nonrational form of insight. In Emerson's usage, Reason was contrasted with “Understanding,” a more prosaic type of knowledge that is necessary to live in the world: the organization and analysis of our sense perception, or that type of knowledge that “adds, divides, combines, measures, and finds nutriment and room for activity.” Despite Reason's primacy, it depended on the lower forms of knowledge, for “Reason transfers all these lessons into its own world of thought, by perceiving the analogy that marries Matter and mind.”112 Borrowed from Kant and his romantic followers, “Reason” functioned as a code word for transcendentalists, signaling their rejection of the rationalistic, empiricist world of Locke and the Unitarians. The universal mind, they argued, was something more exalted than the merely physical thing-ness of the brain.

As Barbara Packer has shown, the distinction between Reason and Understanding ultimately became a catchall for “every knotty problem” that perplexed the transcendentalists; Emerson himself described the distinction as “a philosophy in itself…. The manifold applications of the distinction to Literature to the Church to Life will show how good a key it is.”113 The uninitiated, Peabody argued, saw transcendentalist Reason as insanity and vice versa, which revealed only the philistines' prosaic minds. But by taking this ostensible swipe at the critics of her group, she also drummed Jones Very out of the community.114 His ideas could have nothing to do with “the Ideas of Reason”; the two must be cleanly separated for Emerson and the others to avoid the spreading stain of his insanity.

(p.128) Peabody accepted that Very was insane, but she offered no transcendentalist reading of Very's insanity other than a negative one: his crazy vision had nothing to do with the movement or its ideals. Bronson Alcott likewise did not dispute the term “insanity,” but in a journal entry for December 1838, he gave Very's vision a spin more consonant with transcendentalist ideals:

Is he insane? If so, there yet linger glimpses of wisdom in his memory. He is insane with God—diswitted in the contemplation of the holiness of Divinity. He distrusts intellect. He would have living in the concrete without the interposition of the meddling, analytic head. Curiosity he deems impious. He would have no one stop to account to himself for what he has done, deeming this hiatus of doing a suicidal act of the profane mind. Intellect, as intellect, he deems the author of all error. Living, not thinking, he regards as the worship meet for the soul. This is mysticism in its highest form.115

In contrast to Peabody's account, here Very's insanity enables a rapturous form of immediate spiritual perception that is not unlike Emerson's Reason—a kind of apprehension that jumps all rational and intellectual circuits. (Emerson himself would later write in “The Over-Soul” that “a certain tendency to insanity has always attended the opening of the religious sense in men, as if they had been ‘blasted with excess of light.’”116) But perhaps Very's experience of holiness was too immediate. No transcendentalist ever rejected intellectual work as “impious” in the way that Alcott sees Very doing. In Emerson's Nature, after all, Reason is not in simple opposition to Understanding—in fact, Reason can only be attained by “transfer[ring] all these lessons [of Understanding] in to its own world of thought.” If Peabody saw Very as devoid of Reason, Alcott saw him getting there too soon, at the expense of his ability to function in the real world. Indeed, he wrote of Very a month later, “I think he will decease soon. He dies slowly by slowly retreating from the senses, yet existing in them by memory, when men or things are obtruded upon his thought.”117 Perhaps to Alcott's chagrin, Very would live another forty-one years.

For Peabody, Very's insanity had nothing to do with the transcendentalist movement or its ideals; for Alcott, it was a diseased mutation of them. In either case—and despite Alcott's more sympathetic reading—Very was implicitly made a transcendental outcast. For Alcott, insanity even implied death. Less willing to sacrifice Very was James Freeman Clarke, the man usually credited with spreading the transcendentalist message westward through his Kentucky-based journal, The Western Messenger. (In 1886, six (p.129) years after Very's death, Clarke would also publish the fullest edition of Very's work until Helen R. Deese's 1993 collection Jones Very: The Complete Poems.) In an introduction to a series of Very's sonnets that he printed in his journal, Clarke referred to the popular notion of the poet's insanity as the sort of charge that “is almost always brought against any man who endeavours to introduce to the common mind any very original ideas.” Calling Very insane was a way for people to avoid being moved from “the sphere of thought which is habitual to us, into a higher and purer one,” because “nobody is obliged to attend to the ‘insane ravings’ of a maniac.” Even granting—which Clarke says he is not willing to do—some “limited” form of insanity in Very, it would seem to be only a loss of “the use of his practical intellect … a partial derangement of the lower intellectual organs, or perhaps an extravagant pushing of some views to their last results.” In other words, Very suffered from a mere defect of Understanding, which left his transcendent mind free to roam “in the loftiest contemplations, and which utterly disregarded all which did not come into that high sphere of thought.”118

Clarke momentarily hedged in his defense of Very's mental health: he was sane, but if he wasn't, only his “lower intellectual organs” were affected. What is interesting here is not only the transcendentalist reading of what early psychiatrists were calling religious monomania, but that there is practically no difference between the psychiatric and transcendentalist readings at all. (In this light, it seems fitting that Clarke was publishing Edward Jarvis in his newspaper and convincing him to move out to Kentucky at about the same time he was publishing his defense of Jones Very.119) The reigning medical explanation of mental functioning at the time of the moral treatment was that of “faculty psychology,” which divides the human brain into compartments or faculties, each one associated with some kind of thinking or acting; mental illness occurs when one of these faculties becomes overdeveloped.120 In this model, the spiritual faculties could be affected; but this was different from saying that the spirit itself—or the mind—could become insane. The theoreticians of the moral treatment movement, no less than the transcendentalists, were thoroughgoing dualists who believed that the “mind” was immaterial and immortal, and could not be touched by disease; the brain was simply a physical instrument by which the mind carried out its will.121 This was a view that saved the asylum's founders from charges of irreligion, and a view that allowed ministers such as Upham and Brazer to accept psychiatry's claim that insanity was a medical problem, rather than a spiritual one.

(p.130) This shared dualism was the unspoken frame for the whole circuit of interchanges surrounding Jones Very's supposed insanity and the justification of his incarceration at McLean. For virtually all commentators, interpreting Very's ordeal revolved solely around the question of the location of his spiritual ideas: did they emanate from the infallible, eternal, immaterial mind (or, Reason), which was untouchable by disease or strain? Or were they misfirings of a leaden, corruptible, unbalanced brain—a defect in Understanding? By agreeing to this frame, the transcendentalists missed a key opportunity to widen the discussion by asking whether the forcible detention in an asylum of an excited young man who—while making a serious nuisance of himself—was doing no one any particular harm was an injustice, whatever his mental condition. And despite its prominence in Emerson's life during his formative years as a public intellectual, McLean—and the asylum movement which it helped to generate—was for him not so much an institution to be justified or challenged, as it was a social fact that escaped his critical notice.

Nonetheless, the shadow of McLean did linger in his writing and public career. Emerson's first published mention of asylums came in the last paragraph of Nature (1836), where they are cast as one of the “disagreeable” things of the world that will be swept away by the “revolution” caused by “the influx of the spirit”: “So fast will disagreeable appearances, swine, spiders, snakes, pests, madhouses, prisons, enemies, vanish; they are temporary and shall be no more seen.”122 The prophetic cast of this statement perhaps implies that in the here and now, when spirit has not yet pervaded the world, madhouses are inevitable. The grounds for his real-world accommodation to asylums are hinted at in a journal entry during his warm-up for the “Divinity School Address,” in which he warned himself to “beware of Antinomianism” because “the loss of the old checks will sometimes be a temptation which the unripeness of the new will not countervail.”123 One wonders what are the “old checks” that are lost when one overthrows all of social authority. As Caleb Smith has argued, prisons were one. Emerson's reluctance to slide into an antinomianism that overthrows all authority led him tacitly to accept the premises of prison reform, even turning “prison architecture into an imagery of the mind.” Emerson's conception of freedom, according to Smith, does not depend on smashing all systems of confinement, but in fact is an abstracted and internalized version of the solitary self-correction that was the hallmark of early nineteenth-century prison reform. While man in society is “clapped into jail by his own consciousness,” Emerson wrote in “Self-Reliance” (1841), the self-reliant man will “receive (p.131) the benefits of attendance on Divine service … without stirring from their [solitary] cells.”124

A close reading of this landmark essay suggests that insane asylums have perhaps an even more complex relationship to his notion of liberation than do prisons. Strikingly, at several points in the essay, he casts the battle between conformism and self-reliance as one between oppressive traditions or institutions and an individual struggling to maintain sanity: “As men's prayers are a disease of the will, so are their creeds a disease of the intellect,” and “the centuries are conspirators against the sanity and authority of the soul.”125 In this last quote, he appears to refer back to the controversy surrounding the “Address,” in which “worship of the past” (“the centuries”) is an obstacle to the reception of “divine wisdom” (“the sanity and authority of the soul”). Implying sympathy with the soul wounded by a tradition-based authority, Emerson positions himself on the side of the target of social control. But, as in the essay “Friendship,” where he more explicitly refers to Jones Very, he does not question the grounds on which that control is effected: the centuries (i.e., those on the side of tradition and social order) may do the conspiring, but the soul's sanity and authority really are vulnerable. And so they needed to be repaired.

And how should a society respond to those it has damaged? One main thrust of Emerson's essay suggests that organized attempts at relief of social problems only create new constraints on individuals, most prominent of which is the social expectation that one will donate to an abstract cause in order to expiate oneself:

Do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies;—though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.126

This famously troubling passage hints at Emerson's contempt for the dependent and weak willed (“Are they my poor?”), but in the main, it expresses disdain for institutional reform and charity efforts: relief societies, scholarship funds, and what might now be called faith-based organizations. He favors instead one-on-one exchanges, where the donor is linked to the (p.132) recipient through a “spiritual affinity.” For these persons, he would “go to prison,” implying that his own personal liberty is less important to him than is standing up for his ties to fellow men.

In the next paragraph, the figure of the institutionalized insane obtrudes, imperfectly assimilated into Emerson's train of thought:

Men do what is called a good action, as some piece of courage or charity, much as they would pay a fine in expiation of daily non-appearance on parade. Their works are done as an apology or extenuation of their living in the world,—as invalids and the insane pay a high board. Their virtues are penances. I do not wish to expiate, but to live. My life is for itself and not for a spectacle.127

What are we to make of the “invalids and the insane” who are analogized to the hypocritical donors of charity, whose “works are done as an apology or extenuation of their living in the world”? The simile resists simple unfolding, as does so much of Emerson's prose. On the surface, it seems to suggest that for the social conformist—the guiltily non-self-reliant—“giving” is experienced as a sort of penance, a price paid for the privilege of “living.” But how do “invalids and the insane” pay such a price? The simple answer is that they are punished by being locked up, which for Emerson might be analogous to conforming to society's expectations. But on closer inspection, what he mentions is not the fact of incarceration, but the “high board” that the invalids and insane must pay (presumably at private institutions).

Of course, invalids and the insane did not usually pay this “high board” themselves, as Emerson knew so well, having helped pay for the care of two brothers at McLean. Is his conflation of patient and payer an unconscious effort to repress his real role in managing those who suffered from his family's “constitutional calamity”? Or is it the expression of an equally unconscious wish that the loved ones whom he either ushered into McLean himself or whom he impotently watched being carried off went there of their own accord, even paying their way? Either way, the actual “board” charged to insanity that this passage most plausibly records was paid by the outsider: it was the financial and emotional cost to family members of supporting their afflicted loved ones, perhaps even the stigma of being associated with the insane. What happens, or should happen, to the “invalids and the insane” who flit through “Self-Reliance” is never made clear: Emerson's is a philosophy for those on the outside.

No matter how we read this slippery passage, mention of the “invalids and the insane” conspicuously does not trigger an assault on the asylum movement as a species of “foolish philanthropy,” even in a piece of writing (p.133) whose ostensible force is to condemn the “wicked dollar” that supports institutions of humanitarian reform. The contradiction is not as severe as it might seem, however. As disability studies scholars Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell have argued, Emerson implicitly supported his culture's distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor.128 In connection with this “wicked dollar,” we might presume that Emerson would have been opposed to state financing of insane asylums, as this would create an “obligation to put all poor men in good situations,” regardless of the merits of the individual case. Paying for a brother or supporting a friend's treatment in a private institution, on the other hand, might be an acceptable arrangement (although Emerson inverts the usual structure of such relationships by suggesting that he might “go to prison” for such a soul). At any rate, the logic of institutional confinement—or care—is more affirmed by this famously anti-institutional essay than it is attacked.

If Emerson did not attempt to question the social and medical revolution in the treatment of the mad, one could argue that his various engagements with McLean did, by the end of the Jones Very affair, change him. In his arm's-length embrace of Jones Very after his release from McLean and in his own career over the next decade, Emerson experienced the specter of the asylum as a check against his own wildest antinomian impulses: a sort of safety net for the self-reliant, nonconformist soul that has strayed too far, too fast from tradition, authority, and propriety. He published Very's work but robbed it of much of its visionary or pathological character; he called Very his eternal friend but referred to his most cherished beliefs as “a fit of insanity.” In his writings immediately following the “Divinity School Address,” he continued to fire away at organized religion, but on safer ground—in a series of lectures that he himself had organized, where he preached largely to a paying audience of the converted. His words became both more measured and more vague; instead of throwing verbal spears at the Unitarian establishment seated in front of him, he broadly lamented that “the formal church has overlaid the real.”129 And at points he warned about the consequences of too shrill or prolonged an opposition. Maturity, he in toned, consists of moving beyond the protests of youth to an affirmative stance toward life: “He has done protesting: now he begins to affirm: all art affirms: and with every new stroke with greater serenity and joy.”130

Lawrence Buell refers to the “Divinity School Address” as Emerson's “most contrarian act of intellectual radicalism.”131 Never again would he take such an intellectual and professional risk as he had in the summer of 1838, when he spoke what he perceived to be hard truths directly to an (p.134) entrenched and powerful institution from which he himself had accrued benefits. His affirmative and apolitical stances allowed him, in his later career, to be taken up increasingly by the intellectual mainstream rather than by vanguard political and intellectual movements.132 By the 1840s, he had systematically renounced almost all of the more radical experiments undertaken by his transcendentalist compatriots; by the end of the decade, he was increasingly at ease playing the role of public lecturer and moral pedagogue, whom Thomas Augst describes as guiding Americans “in the democratic art of living under capitalism.”133 A fighting Emerson would reemerge with his participation in the abolitionist crusade of the 1850s; but in contrast to his earlier battles, he was reluctant to join; even several family members became activists in the cause before he did.134 Emerson's participation in the movement was a crucial event in marshalling intellectual opposition in the North against slavery. But as he himself noted, he waited until the fight found him, complaining in one speech on the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law that speaking on politics is “odious and hurtful and it seems like meddling or leaving your work,” and in another resigning himself to the fact that “the last year has forced us all into politics.”135“Forced us all”: he was riding the tide, confirming its power, rather than swimming against it. Accordingly, he emerged from the Civil War as New England's “great man” rather than its scourge, the “mad dog” of his early career. If, in 1838, Emerson did not take on the authority of the insane asylum, the asylum, one could argue, played a role in taming Emerson, taking a bite out of his impassioned, visionary, and—some said—mad critique of modern life.

Coda: “I Was Sick And In Prison”

And what did Jones Very make of his experience at McLean? The record is frustratingly thin, but one can make several surmises. First, despite his brief stay there and the apparently gentle treatment by Dr. Bell, he likely encountered certain indignities, if not outright humiliations. One former patient, Robert Fuller, recounted in 1833 the admissions routine for unwilling patients. A married man with four children who had been under enormous stress because of failed business ventures and a dispute with the Cambridge school board, of which he was a member, he had begun to exhibit erratic behavior and volubility. One morning, while speaking with his wife and mother in front of his house, he was confronted by a group of neighbors who demanded that he speak with a doctor. When he refused, the neighbors (p.135) grabbed him and held him inside his house until the doctor arrived in a carriage. At this point, Fuller realized he would be taken by force, and indeed he was bound and driven to McLean, where he was put into a cell with iron grates. The attending physician gave him two pills, which he pretended to swallow but managed to spit out (Elizabeth Peabody's advice to Very to “take your medicine” suggests that Very may also have resisted McLean's drug therapy), and he asked to see his wife. The doctors seemed at first to assent, but when Fuller saw that he was fooled, he began to scream and shake the bars. He was taken to

a dark room or inner prison, where they laid me on a bed and literally robbed me…. I could not bear the indignities that had been heaped upon me, and in my wrath, I cried to God for vengeance on my enemies. In this situation, my imagination became disordered, and my miserable condition became still more pitiable by the horrible visions, that flitted across my mind. For eight or ten days, I walked around my straightened abode, crying and praying to God for deliverance. In Him I trusted, and through his goodness, I have been relieved.136

Despite his religious faith, Fuller saw the existence of McLean and other insane asylums as an affront primarily to a secular authority, the state. After all, he wrote:

the best index of the freedom of a government is the protection it affords to personal liberty…. So careful is our law of the freedom of the citizens, that every man charged with a criminal offence is entitled to a hearing before a jury of his country. Yet there is this seeming anomaly—a man charged with insanity can be taken away without trial, and shut up within the walls of a prison…. On the charge of insanity, many a rich father can shut up his disorderly or idiot child; he pays liberally for his imprisonment, and the public are none the wiser for it. It is time for the Legislature to remedy the evil.137

In a concluding patriotic flourish, he wrote: “The liberty which we have enjoyed, and which the half finished monument on Bunker Hill was intended to commemorate, has vanished.—Let that monument be torn from its base,—we are no longer worthy of it.”138 Fuller's response to his two-and-a-half month stay may be more bitter than that of many or even most former patients, but it articulates the rage and sense of injustice felt by many former patients in both state and corporate institutions whose complaints found their way into print. Not even McLean's exceptional commitment to the tenets of the moral treatment—the granting of physical mobility, the plentiful diversions and beautiful grounds, the better class of patients—could (p.136) exempt it from the most basic complaints that it was an artfully constructed prison.

Very stayed only a month at McLean, as we know, and he appears to have avoided the worst treatment that former patients alleged in their memoirs. One comes away from reading these other accounts feeling that Very was lucky. Perhaps the notoriety of his case convinced the authorities not to take harsh measures with him. In the fall and winter of 1838, a continuous stream of religious poetry and essays flowed out of him—or through him, according to his belief in their divine composition. Although scholars have been unable to date most of these precisely, a good deal of this writing must have been done in the asylum. Given the intense spirituality of his output and the fact that Bell released him so quickly, one senses a reluctance to treat the symptoms of his supposed insanity with any force. Writing in the asylum, as we have seen, was always conducted under heavy surveillance, and Very's writings, judged apostate by the Unitarian clergy, would hardly have seemed less so to the secular guardians of rationality in the asylum. But rather than try to break the flow and perhaps make Very a martyr to the transcendentalist cause, they let the author free. Or maybe Lydia Very finally made herself obnoxious enough to win the release of her son, who was transferred back to her care.

Other religious visionaries locked up at McLean were not so fortunate. Elizabeth Stone, who published her memoir in 1841, was a former Lowell mill worker, born into a strict Congregationalist family, who left work to study religion. Initially she became disillusioned because she felt that sectarian bickering betrayed “the simple religion of Jesus Christ.”139 Overcome with a sense of guilt, she vowed to give up food, drink, and sleep until she found God—who ultimately came to her in the middle of the night and asked her to open her heart. The voice then led her to a revival meeting, where she experienced rapture.

As we rose I opened my mouth and words flowed faster than I could speak, I blessed and praised God and asked them all to forgive me for the opposition that I had manifested towards them for their entreating me to be reconciled to God. There was great rejoicing over me. Some wept, some prayed, and some sang.

She decided then to become a missionary, but unfortunately for her, the Spirit directed her to make her parents her first converts: “I told them that I had met with a change, but said but litde, as I did not wish to argue the point, for they were both against me and said they thought I had got my brain turned by studying too much.”140 After she tried to convert other (p.137) members of her family, her brother took her riding, insisted that she visit a doctor, and—when she protested—carted her off to an asylum. “Is this done in a free and happy land?” she wrote. “Because I differed from some of my family in my religious opinion must I be taken and imprisoned?”141

At McLean, Dr. Bell quizzed her intently on her religious visions. “I did not know why I must relate my Christian experience to a Doctor and an unconverted man at such a time, for it seemed to me like mockery. I refused again and again, but, no, I must relate it.”142 She spent a sleepless night in bewilderment, fancying herself in a prison for prostitutes, and was told the next morning by a doctor “that I must not think I was so filled with the spirit; any minister would laugh at me.” She tried to quote scripture at him, but he threw it back in her face and forced her to take some medicine. This, she found, “effected [sic] my brain, the back part of my head, hardened or petrified it, and the brain is the seat of the nerves, and any one can conceive of the distress that I must be thrown into all over in my body, every nerve in me drawing and straining convulsively.”143 She managed to speak with a sympathetic and religious attendant, who expressed some concern that “poor Christians [were] troubled about their religion in that house.” This good woman then gave Stone a warning, and some advice:

She desired me to control my feelings as much as possible. If I did not, I should be showered. I then enquired what that meant; she then described it to me, that I should be stripped of all my clothes, and cold water poured upon me, and I should be carried on to another gallery, where the society would not be so pleasant, neither the accommodations so good.144

Stone apparently avoided the dreaded shower, but—in her telling—the assault on her beliefs, consisting of harangues and drugs, continued. As she felt herself losing God, she tried to hang herself, but the sheet she used for the purpose tore. She concluded by addressing her readers: “I wish you to understand it is that praying spirit that can be taken from you by medicine.”145

Very's stay at McLean appears to have overlapped with Stone's; if her account is to be believed, it is with amazement that one reads Very's sole poem about his career as a madman, which was written seventeen years after his confinement. In a poem called “McLean Asylum, Somerville,” (1855), he appears to look nostalgically back on his stay there:

  • Oh! House of refuge; for those weary souls,
  •    Trembling on dizzy heights, mid gloom and shade,
  • While Reason from their path her light withholds,
  •    Oh! House of Refuge! Thou for them wast made.
  • (p.138) Oh! House of Refuge! Ever stand thou there-
  •    A refuge thou from fiery Passion's sway-
  • A shelter from the scorching heat of care-
  •    A holy Refuge, in grief's wintry day.
  • The hand of kindness reared thy stately pile,
  •    A goodness kinder keeps thee fair within;
  • Thy gates are open, and a welcome smile.
  •    Here greets the weary wanderer—enter in.
  • Oh! House of Refuge; thou receivest all,
  •    The young, the old, the innocent, the gay;
  • The sighs, the groans, the burning tears that fall,
  •    Oh! Holy Refuge! thou wilt chase away.
  • Oh! House of blissful Hope! The orb of day
  •    First robes thy lofty domes with morning light
  • So the first dawn of orient Reason's ray
  •    Beneath thy walls lights up the soul's dark night.
  • A House of Refuge, and a home of love.
  •    A blest retreat, to me, thou wast for years,
  • When discord, doubt, and fear for mastery strove-
  •    There, first, His bow of peace shone amid falling tears.146

At the time of this gauzy remembrance, Very's literary reputation had almost been forgotten, but his social rehabilitation was nearly complete. For one thing, he had returned to the Unitarian fold and was working as a supply minister for various congregations. He was still writing the occasional poem—occasional both in the sense of intermittent and in the sense of public, to be read mainly aloud in social settings. And as such this poem was likely a vehicle for testifying to his renewed institutional faith: his faith in the asylum is faith in progress, rationality, and humanitarianism; his release from “fiery passion's sway” is a renunciation of the enthusiastic excesses against which the Unitarians warned. In the poem, he treats the asylum much as his Unitarian persecutors had in the 1830s. Dorothea Dix herself might well have used such language to lobby the state of Massachusetts to build another asylum.

The language of “McLean Asylum, Somerville” however, belies the continuing messianic fervor he had still shown upon his release; and it belies the turmoil that had attended his readmission into the transcendentalist community. McLean may well have been a “House of Refuge” in certain respects, but it certainly did not shed the light of Reason on him, release him (p.139) from “fiery Passion,” or light up his “soul's dark night.” In the context of Very's late-in-life rehabilitation within the Unitarian community, the poem reads as an attempt to renounce the ecstatic and decidedly un-Unitarian experience that had made him notorious as a young man.

Another poem (“On Finding the Truth”), written two years earlier, sounds a more plausible and bittersweet note in looking back on the period of his rapture (or madness). Although it does not mention his confinement at McLean, it rhapsodizes on his earlier religious convictions with a sense of regret at their passing:

  • With sweet surprise, as when one finds a flower,
  • Which in some lonely spot, unheeded, grows;
  • Such were my feelings, in the favored hour,
  • When Truth to me her beauty did disclose.
  • Quickened I gazed anew on heaven and earth,
  • For a new glory beamed from earth and sky;
  • All things around me shared the second birth,
  • Restored with me, and nevermore to die.
  • The happy habitants of other spheres,
  • As in times past, from heaven to earth came down;
  • Swift fled in converse sweet the unnumbered years,
  • And angel-help did human weakness crown!
  • The former things, with Time, had passed away,
  • And Man, and Nature lived again for aye.147

Rather than reading his ecstatic period as brought about by a deprivation of Reason, which McLean would restore to him, here he regards the state that others defined as madness as his “favored hour.” The only signal of his renunciation of those ideas is the past tense of the poem itself. Neither the exertions of the doctors, the importuning of the Unitarians, the fickle embrace of the transcendentalists, nor even his own will convinced Jones Very to cast off his vision. The only apparent agent in his release is “Time.”

All through the period or Very's involvement with the transcendentalists—whether the “favored hour” or the hour of “fiery Passion's sway”—God spoke through him. A letter he wrote to the Unitarian minister Henry Whitney Bellows in December 1838, two months after his release from McLean, informs his friend that he was placed “contrary to my will in the Asylum.” In contrast to his account in his 1855 “McLean Asylum” poem, he implied to Bellows that he, like Elizabeth Stone, learned to modify his behavior enough to satisfy the authorities, while never renouncing his vision: “There I remained a month in which under the influences of the spirit my (p.140) usual manner returned in all things save that I now obey it as my natural impulse.” Most of the letter details his unchanged religious outlook: his double consciousness, his renunciation of his own will, his obedience to the voice of God within him, his sense that his sufferings confirm his status as the Second Coming. At the bottom of the letter, written in someone else's hand—probably Bellows'—are the words, “During his aberration of mind.”148

Very also informed Bellows that the sonnets he was then writing were a direct transcription of what “I hear of the word.” Indeed, the emotional world of this poetry—much of it achingly beautiful—ostensibly follows the passion of Christ. The most famous of them, “The New Birth,” “The Slave,” and “He Was Acquainted With Grief”—still anthologized today—sound a triumphal messianic note: “And I a child of God by Christ made free / Start from death's slumbers to eternity”; “No more without the flaming gate to stray, / No more for sin's dark stain the debt of death to pay”; “Thou too must suffer as it [the spirit] suffers here, / The death in Christ to know the Eather's love; / Then in the strains that angels love to hear, / Thou too shalt hear the spirit's song above.”149 But through these sonnets also course darker, more personal themes: confinement, bondage, betrayal, mockery. These are all quickly—within the space of fourteen lines—transmuted into Christian trials and redemptions. But even the titles of some of the poems (many left uncollected in the Emerson edition of 1839) give a sense of the human ordeal that Very was trying so desperately to convert into signs of his religious calling: “The Slave,” “Help,” “The Prisoner,” and—most poignantly, “I Was Sick And In Prison.” This last poem envisions a moment when the poetic persona will be able to answer God's call, at which point a period of “brotherhood of peace” will begin, and his “song” (perhaps the poem itself) will redeem prisoners and send them all to heaven. From a poet who himself had recently been “sick and in prison,” this is a triumphal repositioning of himself from captive to liberator.

Images of involuntary confinement flicker through these poems. In one, a call to the sinner to renounce his traitorous will—which is like an inner Judas—there is this warning: “The foe is on you! Haste, he's at the door! / Soon, soon thy limbs will be securely bound, / And you in chains your former sloth deplore.”150 In this image, Brazer and Upham, knocking on the door, become the sounds of his own devilish will trying to gain control of his spirit; his captivity is punishment not for his religious vision, but for his failure to live up to it. In another poem, “Behold He Is At Hand That Doth (p.141) Betray Me,” he seems to comment on the stigma of his confinement: the mocking, the insults, the persecution.

  • Why come you out to me with clubs and staves,
  • That you on every side have fenced me so?
  • In every act you dig for me deep graves;
  • In which my feet must walk where'er I go.151

Although Very does not specify the “you” whom he is addressing, the last lines of the poem must have made Emerson uncomfortable: “And you in turn must bear the stripes I bear, / And in his sufferings learn alike to share.”152 One can imagine Emerson reading this, feeling accused of sharing the younger man's vision, but letting Very alone suffer the consequences of living up to it. He was cast, in short, as Judas betraying Very with a kiss. Emerson did not see fit to publish it. (p.142)


(1) . On McLean's elite standing among American asylums, see Edward Jarvis, Insanity and Insane Asylums (Louisville, KY: Prentice and Weissinger, 1841), 16. On McLean as a model for state institutions, see Robert Cassie Waterston, The Condition of the Insane in Massachusetts (Boston: James Munroe, 1841).

(2) . Michel Foucault, Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1974–1975, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador, 2003), 42.

(3) . Ibid., 118.

(4) . As Michael Ignatieff and Gareth Stedman Jones have pointed out—from differing ideological perspectives—Foucault, Rothman, and the other “social control” theorists of total institutions tend to fudge or abstract the question of who exactly is doing the controlling. See Stedman Jones, “Class Expression versus Social Control? A Critique of Recent Trends in the Social History of ‘Leisure,’” in Social Control and the State, ed. Stanley Cohen and Andrew Scull (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983), 39–49; and Michael Ignatieff, “State, Civil Society and Total Institutions: A Critique of Recent Social Histories of Punishment,” in ibid., 75–105.

(5) . My characterization of romantic nostalgia comes largely from Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre, Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity, trans. Catherine Porter (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001). On the connections between American literary romanticism (including transcendentalism) and early American psychiatry, see Joan Burbick, “‘Intervals of Tranquility’: The Language of Health in Antebellum America,” Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies 12 (1987): 175–200; and Robert A. Gross, “‘The Most Estimable Place in All the World’: A Debate on Progress in Nineteenth-Century Concord,” Studies in the American Renaissance 2 (1978): 1–15.

(6) . Daniel Walker Howe, The Unitarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1805–1861 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970; 2nd ed. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1988). On transcendentalist group formation within the culture of Unitarianism, see Lawrence Buell, Literary Transcendentalism: Style and Vision in the American Renaissance (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973), 23–54.

(7) . William Ellery Channing, “Likeness to God” (1828), in Transcendentalism: A Reader, ed. Joel Myerson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 7.

(8) . Howe, The Unitarian Conscience, 80.

(9) . Steven Mintz, Moralists and Modernizers: America's Pre-Civil War Reformers (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 22; Howe, The Unitarian Conscience, 10–12.

(10) . Robert E. Burkholder, “Emerson, Kneeland, and the Divinity School Address,” American Literature 58, no. 1 (March 1986): 1–14.

(11) . Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Rereading Sex: Battles Over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Random House, 2002), 77.

(12) . See Edwin Gittleman, Jones Very: The Effective Years, 1833–1840 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967), 75–76.

(13) . Barbara L. Packer, “The Transcendentalists,” in The Cambridge Literary History of American Literature, ed. Sacvan Bercovitch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 331–49 (the quote from Locke is on p. 338).

(14) . See Ronald Story, The Forging of an Aristocracy: Harvard and the Boston Upper Class, 1800–1870 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1980), chapters 2 and 3; Robert D. Habich, “Emerson's Reluctant Foe: Andrews Norton and the Transcendental Controversy,” New England Quarterly 65, no. 2 (June 1992): 208–37.

(15) . I owe this insight to Lawrence Buell, who reads Emersonian selfhood as profoundly impersonal: “The more inward you go, the less individuated you get.” Buell, Emerson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 65.

(16) . Quoted in Stephen Whicher, Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: A. S. Barnes), 20.

(17) . Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Divinity School Address,” in Essays & Poems (New York: Library of America, 1996), 80–81, 83.

(18) . Packer, “The Transcendentalists,” 367.

(19) . Emerson, “Divinity School Address,” 88 (“go alone”), 89 (“without mediator”), 83 (“the need”), 89 (“yourself a newborn bard”).

(20) . Quoted in Burkholder, “Emerson, Kneeland, and the Divinity School Address,” 9, 10.

(21) . Habich, “Emerson's Reluctant Foe.”

(22) . Andrews Norton, “The New School in Literature and Religion” (August 27, 1838), in Myerson, Transcendentalism, 247–48.

(23) . Ibid., 248–49 (see also p. 246).

(24) . Unless otherwise noted, all details of Jones Very's biography are taken from Gittleman, Jones Very: The Effective Years, 1833–1840.

(25) . “Rev. Jones Very: College Life of Jones Very,” Salem Gazette (n.d., May 1880); in Wellesley College Library English Poetry Collection scrapbook Letters of Jones Very to Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1838–1846, Wellesley, MA.

(26) . Rev.J.T.G. Nichols, “1836. Jones Very, at Salem, May 8” in the Harvard Register (1880); in the Wellesley College Poetry Collection scrapbook Letters of Jones Very.

(27) . Gittleman, Jones Very, 174.

(28) . Odell Shepard, ed., The Journals of Bronson Alcott, vol. 1 (1938; repr. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1966), 107.

(29) . Quoted in Helen R. Deese, Introduction to Jones Very: The Complete Poems, ed. Helen R. Deese (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993), xi–lv (quote is from p. xix).

(30) . Jones Very, “Shakspeare,” in Essays and Poems (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1839), 40.

(31) . Sharon Cameron, “The Way of Life by Abandonment: Emerson's Impersonal,” Critical Inquiry 25, no. 1 (Autumn 1998): 1–31.

(32) . Emerson, “The Divinity School Address,” 89. The important distinction is that Very believed that he alone had this ability, whereas Emerson believed that Shakespeare spoke “to the Shakspeare in us”—that is, all of us. Emerson, “Shakspeare; Or, The Poet,” in Essays and Lectures, 720.

(33) . Gittleman, Jones Very, 165–66; Carlos Baker, Emerson Among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrait (New York: Viking, 1996), 121–22. It should be noted, however, that Emerson did use several additional Divinity School students as a sounding board for the composition of his address. See Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, vol. 5, ed. Merton Sealts, Jr. (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1965), 471.

(34) . Letter from Jones Very to Henry Whitney Bellows, December 29, 1838, Boston Athenaeum. This letter has been reprinted in Harry L. Jones, “The Very Madness: A New Manuscript,” College Language Association Journal 10 (1967): 196–200; and in Deese, ed., Jones Very (see the introduction).

(35) . Henry Ware, Jr., “The Personality of the Deity,” in Myerson, ed., Transcendentalism, 258–59.

(36) . Quoted in Gittleman, Jones Very, 188–89.

(37) . The essay was published as “Shakspeare” in Very, Essays and Poems, 39–82.

(38) . Quoted in Gittleman, Jones Very, 219.

(39) . Elizabeth Palmer Peabody to William P. Andrews, November 12, 1880; repr. in The Letters of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, American Renaissance Woman, ed. Bruce A. Ronda (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1984), 406–7.

(40) . On Upham and Brazer's religious views, see Alfred F. Rosa, Salem, Transcendentalism, and (p.218) Hawthorne (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1980), 99–108, 148–49; see also William R. Hutchison, The Transcendentalist Ministers: Church Reform in The New England Renaissance (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959).

(41) . Helen R. Deese, “The Peabody Family and the Jones Very ‘Insanity’: Two Letters of Mary Peabody” Harvard Library Bulletin 35, no. 2 (Spring 1987): 219–20.

(42) . George B. Loring to James Russell Lowell; Richard Henry Dana to William Cullen Bryant; quoted in Gittleman, Jones Very, 228.

(43) . Howe, The Unitarian Conscience, 77; Buell, Literary Transcendentalism, 23–54; Habich, “Emerson's Reluctant Foe”; Packer, “The Transcendentalists,” 392–423.

(44) . Gittleman, Jones Very, 226.

(45) . Norman Dain, Concepts of Insanity in the United States, 1789–1865 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1964), 187. Dix's biographer, David Gollaher, calls Channing her “surrogate father” and suggests that her interest in ameliorating the condition of the insane was prompted by his “confidence in the redemptive power of moral education.” Gollaher, Voice for the Mad: The Life of Dorothea Dix (New York: Free Press, 1995), 78.

(46) . Waterston, The Condition of the Insane, 11. Waterston's friendship with Very is chronicled in a letter memorializing the poet on his death in 1880. Robert Cassie Waterston to William P. Andrews, August 18, 1880, in Wellesley College Library English Poetry Collection, Notebook of William P. Andrews on Jones Very, Wellesley, MA.

(47) . Dain, Concepts of Insanity, 188.

(48) . Ibid., 193.

(49) . Charles Wentworth Upham, Lectures on Witchcraft: Comprising a History of the Delusion in Salem, in 1692 (Boston: Carter, Hendee, and Babcock, 1831), 99.

(50) . Ibid., vii.

(51) . Ibid., vi.

(52) . On Kneeland's support of Emerson, see Packer, “The Transcendentalists,” 407.

(53) . Thomas S. Szasz, The Manufacture of Madness: A Comparative Study of the Inquisition and the Mental Health Movement (1970; repr. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997), xxiv.

(54) . The quotes are taken from Gittleman, Jones Very, 161, 284.

(55) . Robert D. Arner, “Hawthorne and Jones Very: Two Dimensions of Satire in ‘Egotism; Or, the Bosom Serpent,’” New England Quarterly 42, no. 2 (June 1969): 267–75.

(56) . Gerald N. Grob, Mental Institutions in America: Social Policy to 1875 (New York: The Free Press, 1973), 7.

(57) . Morrill Wyman, The Early History of the McLean Asylum for the Insane (Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press: 1877), 13.

(58) . Jarvis, Insanity and Insane Asylums, 16.

(59) . Ibid., 18.

(60) . Ibid., 17.

(61) . Wyman, The Early History of the McLean Asylum, 12.

(62) . Ibid., 1–2.

(63) . Gerald N. Grob, The State and the Mentally Ill: A History of Worcester State Hospital in Massachusetts (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966), 92.

(64) . Ibid., 49–50.

(65) . Gittleman, Jones Very, 223–24.

(66) . Very to Bellows (see note 32 of this chapter).

(67) . Wyman, The Early History of the McLean Asylum, 12.

(68) . Luther Bell, An Hour's Conference with Fathers and Sons, in Relation to a Common and Fatal Indulgence (Boston: Whipple and Damrell, 1840), 86. While I do not have space here to consider the question of Very's sexuality and his supposed madness, Holly Allen has intriguingly suggested to me that his renunciation of romantic attachments to women and his frantic intellectual (p.219) courting of Emerson—coupled with his stay at an aggressively desexualizing institution—might open up an interesting “queer” reading of Very's story. Against this notion, Helen Deese speculates that Very suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy, which “is characterized by a syndrome including the following symptoms: hyperreligiosity; hypergraphia, the uncontrollable compulsion to write; ‘stickiness,’ the reluctance to end conversations” (she cites Hawthorne's comment that Very “is somewhat unconscionable as to the length of his calls”), “transient aggressiveness, rarely leading to violence; and altered or decreased interest in sex” (Deese, ed., Jones Very, xxxiv).

(69) . Elizabeth Palmer Peabody to Ralph Waldo Emerson, October 20, 1838; repr. in Ronda, ed., Letters of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, 215–17.

(70) . Mary Peabody to Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, November 24, 1838; repr. in Deese, “The Peabody Family and the Jones Very ‘Insanity,’” 218–29.

(71) . Elizabeth Palmer Peabody to Ralph Waldo Emerson, October 20, 1838.

(72) . Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, vol. 7, ed. A.W. Plumstead and Harrison Hayford (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1969), 116–17.

(73) . Ibid., 122.

(74) . Ibid, 123.

(75) . Emerson, “Friendship,” in Essays & Poems, 347.

(76) . Jones Very, “Help,” Jones Very: The Complete Poems, 117–18.

(77) . The retort is quoted in Elizabeth Palmer Peabody to Ralph Waldo Emerson, November 12, 1880 and is taken at face value in Gittleman, Jones Very, 337. The source is apparently a letter from Emerson to Elizabeth Hoar, dated September 12, 1840, in which he is discussing the preparation of a selection of poems by William Ellery Channing the Younger for publication in the Dial. Discussing Channing's “bad grammar & his nonsense,” he wrote: “As it fell in the case of Jones Very, cannot the spirit parse & spell?” (repr. in The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 2, ed. Ralph L. Rusk [New York: Columbia University Press, 1939], 331).

(78) . Quoted in Gittleman, Jones Very, 258.

(79) . [Ralph Waldo Emerson], “Essays and Poems. By Jones Very,” The Dial: A Magazine for Literature, Philosophy, and Religion, 2, no. 1 (July 1841): 130–31.

(80) . Gittleman, Jones Very, 165; Baker, Emerson among the Eccentrics, 141; Deese ed., Jones Very, xix; Sarah Turner Clayton, The Angelic Sins of Jones Very (New York: Peter Lang, 1999), xi. On the surface, Yvor Winters's comment that “Very's poems bear witness unanswerably that he had the experience which Emerson merely recommends” seems in line with this idea; but Winters tries to show that Very's mysticism was closer to the Puritan and Quaker traditions than to transcendentalism or Unitarianism. See Winters, “Jones Very and R.W. Emerson: Aspects of New England Mysticism,” in Maule's Curse: Seven Studies in the History of American Obscurantism (Norwalk, CT: New Directions, 1938), 125–48 (the quote is on p. 127).

(81) . Quoted in John Stauffer, The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 37.

(82) . Emerson to William Emerson, June 2, 1828; repr. in The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 1, 235.

(83) . Emerson to William Emerson, June 30, 1828; repr. in ibid., 236.

(84) . Emerson to William Emerson July 3, 1828; repr. in The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 7, 172–73.

(85) . Baker, Emerson among the Eccentrics, 4; Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson, The Emerson Brothers: A Fraternal Biography in Letters (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 6.

(86) . This quote is from an entry from Edward Jarvis's diary dated June 30, 1828, and reprinted in Bosco and Myerson, The Emerson Brothers, 122.

(87) . Ralph Waldo Emerson to Josiah Quincy, Jr., December 10, 1836, in The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 2, 49–50.

(88) . Two historians who note the lack of intellectual dissent against psychiatric culture are David J. Rothman and Nancy Tomes. See Rothman, “Introduction to the 1990 Edition,” The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic (Boston: Little, Brown, 1971; 1990), xxxix; and Tomes, A Generous Confidence: Thomas Story Kirkbride and the Art of Asylum-Keeping, 1840–1883 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 86–88.

(89) . On the autonomy of the psychiatric profession, see Paul Starr, The Social Transformation of American Medicine (New York: Basic Books, 1982), 72–75; Constance M. McGovern, Masters of Madness: Social Origins of the American Psychiatric Profession (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1985), 44–61.

(90) . Very was only the first of many of well-known poets and writers—stretching out over nearly two centuries—to receive treatment there (see epilogue). For a breezy but informative history of McLean, see Alex Beam, Gracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of America's Premier Mental Hospital (New York: Public Affairs, 2001).

(91) . Robert Fuller, An Account of the Imprisonment and Sufferings of Robert Fuller, of Cambridge (Boston: privately printed, 1833), 17.

(92) . Erving Goffman, Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (New York: Anchor Books, 1961). In Goffman's terms, each patient comes to the institution with a “presenting culture,” which must be changed through “disculturation” or “untraining” (13).

(93) . This despite his youthful claim in his journal that he had “so much mixture of silliness in my intellectual frame that I think Providence has tempered me against this.” Emerson, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, vol. 3, 137.

(94) . Quoted in Burkholder, “Emerson, Kneeland, and the Divinity School Address,” 10.

(95) . Sleepless nights caused the postponement of at least one lecture. See The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 3 (1838–1842), ed. Robert E. Spiller and Wallace E. Williams (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1972), 1.

(96) . Löwy and Sayre, Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity, 17.

(97) . Emerson, Nature, in Essays & Poems, 43.

(98) . See Richard F. Teichgraeber III, Sublime Thoughts/Penny Wisdom: Situating Emerson and Thoreau in the American Market (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

(99) . Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” in Essays & Poems, 268.

(100) . Etienne Esquirol, Mental Maladies: A Treatise on Insanity, trans. Ebenezer Kingsbury Hunt (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1845), 347.

(101) . Jarvis, “On the Supposed Increase of Insanity,” American Journal of Insanity 8, no. 4 (April 1852): 359.

(102) . Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” in Essays & Poems, 279.

(103) . On intellectual connections between transcendentalism and early psychiatry, see Burbick, “‘Intervals of Tranquility’” and Gross, “‘The Most Estimable Place in All the World.’”

(104) . Quoted in Thomas Cooley, The Ivory Leg in the Ebony Cabinet: Madness, Race, and Gender in Victorian America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), 30.

(105) . Emerson to Margaret Fuller, November 9, 1838, in The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 2, 173.

(106) . Emerson, “The American Scholar,” in Essays & Poems, 54 (original emphasis).

(107) . Quoted in Burbick, “‘Intervals of Tranquility,’” 176.

(108) . On the influence of Locke on the first generation of American asylum superintendents, see Dain, Concepts of Insanity, 59–62.

(109) . On the transcendentalists' “assault on Locke,” see Packer, “Transcendentalism,” esp. 350–61.

(110) . A letter from Peabody to Emerson, September 24, 1838, repr. in Ronda, ed., Letters of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, 209–10 (original emphasis).

(111) . On the centrality of “Reason” to the transcendentalists' self-definition, see Buell, Literary Transcendentalism, 4–5, and Packer, “Transcendentalism,” 354–56.

(112) . Emerson, Nature, in Essays & Poems, 26.

(113) . Packer, “Transcendentalism,” 356.

(114) . See Clayton, The Angelic Sins of Jones Very, 41.

(115) . Shepard, ed., The Journals of Bronson Alcott, vol. 1, 107–8.

(116) . Emerson, “The Over-Soul,” in Essays & Poems, 392.

(117) . Shepard, ed., The Journals of Bronson Alcott, vol. 1, 113–14.

(118) . James Freeman Clarke, “Religious Sonnets: By Jones Very,” The Western Messenger: Devoted to Religion and Literature 6, no. 5 (March 1839): 308–11.

(119) . Gerald N. Grob, Edward Jarvis and the Medical World of Nineteenth-Century America (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1978), 43.

(120) . See Cooley, The Ivory Leg in the Ebony Cabinet, 16–26.

(121) . Dain, Concepts of Insanity, 57–62.

(122) . Emerson, Nature, in Essays & Poems, 48.

(123) . Quoted in Barbara L. Packer, Emerson's Fall: A New Interpretation of the Major Essays (New York: Continuum, 1982), 13.

(124) . Caleb Smith, “Emerson and Incarceration,” American Literature 78, no. 2 (June 2006): 208 (“prison architecture”), 225 (“clapped into jail”).

(125) . Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” 276 (“men's prayers”), 270 (the centuries”).

(126) . Ibid., 262–63.

(127) . Ibid., 263.

(128) . Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, Cultural Locations of Disability (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 37–43, 60.

(129) . “Religion,” in The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 3, 273.

(130) . “The Protest,” in ibid., 100.

(131) . Buell, Emerson, 162.

(132) . On Emerson's increasing conservatism, see Sacvan Bercovitch, “Emerson, Individualism, and Individual Dissent,” in The Rites of Assent; Transformations in the Symbolic Construction of America (New York: Routledge, 1993), 307–52; and Mary Kupiec Cayton, “The Making of an American Prophet: Emerson, His Audiences, and the Rise of the Culture Industry in Nineteenth-Century America,” in Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Lawrence Buell (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993), 77–100.

(133) . Thomas Augst, The Clerk's Tale: Young Men and Moral Life in Nineteenth-Century America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 119.

(134) . See Buell, Emerson, 252.

(135) . Emerson, “The Fugitive Slave Law,” in Essays & Poems, 993; and “The Fugitive Slave Law,” The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. XI (Miscellanies) (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903), 179.

(136) . Fuller, An Account of the Imprisonment, 16.

(137) . Ibid., 22.

(138) . Ibid., 29.

(139) . Elizabeth T. Stone, A Sketch of the Life of Elizabeth T. Stone, and of Her Persecutions (n.p., privately printed, 1842), 4.

(140) . Stone, A Sketch of the Life of Elizabeth T. Stone, 7.

(141) . Ibid., 17.

(142) . Ibid., 19.

(143) . Ibid., 22.

(144) . Ibid., 25

(145) . Ibid., 39

(146) . Deese, ed., Jones Very, 295.

(147) . Ibid., 283.

(148) . Very to Bellows (see note 34 of this chapter).

(149) . Cited poems are from Deese, ed., Jones Very: “The New Birth,” 64; “The Garden,” 69; and “He Was Acquainted with Grief,” 85.

(150) . “The Foe,” in Deese, ed., Jones Very, 151.

(151) . “Behold He Is At Hand That Doth Betray Me,” in Deese, ed., Jones Very, 88–89.

(152) . Ibid., 89.