Brothers and Sisters of Asylumia: Literary Life in the New York State Lunatic Asylum

in Theaters of Madness

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print August 2008 | ISBN: 9780226709635
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226709659 | DOI:
Brothers and Sisters of Asylumia: Literary Life in the New York State Lunatic Asylum

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This chapter focuses on the Opal, a journal of patients' creative writing published at the New York State Lunatic Asylum. It reconstructs the psychiatric theory and practice behind the journal's production and examines the ways in which patients used the space provided to them to make sense of their social situation and their afflictions. It argues that patients responded to the enforced anonymity and “civil death” of asylum life by mimicking an elite, literary anonymity practiced by genteel writers of the period. Rather than using the journal to voice coded protests against authority, many of the authors cast their confinement as a retreat from the overwhelming forces of nineteenth-century modernity with which they had been unable to cope on the outside; and they cast their authorship in a mode that similarly retreated from market forces that their doctors claimed had poisoned the culture.

Keywords: Opal; journal; patients; creative writing; New York State Lunatic Asylum; civil death; modernity; doctors; confinement; anonymity

Chapter.  11175 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of the Americas

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