What's the Point of a Revolution?: Edgar Allan Poe and the Origins of the 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:
What's the Point of a Revolution?: Edgar Allan Poe and the Origins of the Asylum

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Building on a close reading of Edgar Allan Poe's short story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” this chapter explores some of the inner contradictions in the ideology of the asylum that Ralph Waldo Emerson could never quite acknowledge. In particular, the reading opens out to interrogate the place of the asylum in a post-revolutionary, democratic society. In this ominous story, Poe links the emergence of the moral treatment to the outbreak of the French Revolution, and—through terrifying racial imagery at the end—to the uprising of slaves against their Southern masters. Poe's story crawls along the psychological underside of that nexus, hinting at the rage of those exploited. It is not only the slave system that creates this disorder; liberal democracy is as much to blame. Guided by a Burkean fear of (and a Sadean fascination with) the breakdown of authority, Poe sees the asylum as an instance of the worst kind of bourgeois humanitarian illusion: that civility can put up a good fight against unreason without descending into the abyss of madness.

Keywords: asylum; Edgar Allan Poe; short story; The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether; madness; French Revolution; slaves; moral treatment; liberal democracy; civility

Chapter.  10329 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of the Americas

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