“The tempest in my mind”: Cultural interfaces between psychiatry and literature, 1844–1900

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The professional literature of the first generation of American psychiatrists is replete with poetical passages drawn from the imaginative works of such English authors as Shakespeare, Byron, and Scott as well as the writings of residents of the asylums they tended. A close reading of such passages in the American Journal of Insanity (AJI), the central medium through which members of this nascent profession attempted to “popularize the study of insanity,” suggests they were not simply textual ornaments or signs of the underdeveloped state of American psychiatry in the mid‐nineteenth century. Indeed, literary manifestations of the imaginative minds of patients and renowned writers were scrutinized by psychiatrists seeking to advance their understanding of mental disease. Moreover, the English authors were often elevated to the status of medical experts and their poetry and prose were commended to fellow medical practitioners as sources of psychological insight. Toward the turn of the century psychiatrists' engagement with these literary forms was less pronounced in the AJI, due in large part to the impact of rising asylum populations and the coming of a culture of positivist medicine. Yet literary influences on psychiatric writing are still evident in this period, indicating the complexity of the cultural interfaces between psychiatry and literature and the importance of examining the historical processes that have served to define and distinguish the enterprise of the psychiatrist from that of the poet.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3-34
Number of pages32
JournalJournal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1995


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