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American Nervousness: 1903, An Anecdotal History.

Tom Lutz has written a thoughtful and theoretically sophisticated book about the discourse concerning neurasthenia, a psychological disorder that apparently afflicted large numbers of bourgeois and elite people in turn-of-the-century America. It was a discourse, he argues, that influenced the writings of diverse political, literary and academic personages. Lutz focuses his analysis on specific figures in the varied intellectual landscapes of turn-of-the-century America including Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Dreiser, William James, Hamlin Garland, Edgar Saltus, Frank Norris, William Dean Howells, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edith Wharton, Henry James and W. E. B. Du Bois. In addition, other notables including Charles Saunders Peirce, Frederic Remington, Thomas Eakins, Lincoln Steffens, Lester Ward, Frederick Taylor, Ruth St. Denis, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Eugene Debs, Kate Chopin and Emma Goldman to name just a few, make briefer but important appearances in this wide-ranging work. At once intellectual history, cultural history and social history, this is an exemplary work in the genre of scholarship called the "new historicism" in literary studies or the "new cultural history" in history.

The book's subtitle, 1903 An Anecdotal History, reflect both Lutz' creative approach to his subject matter, and his theoretical argument. He focuses on 1903 not simply because it witnessed a host of political, technological, artistic, and scientific events that might suggest it was the beginning of the modern age, but because it evidenced cultural continuity as well. Rather than forming an historical narrative that either looks backward to establish continuity, or forward to show discontinuity, Lutz attempts to demonstrate how both were at work simultaneously in 1903. He argues that the cultural forms of the Victorian era provided people with ways to deal with the social and economic strains and conflicts that afflicted American society, and that individuals transformed those cultural forms as they used them.

In addition, Lutz maintains that traditional historical practice that portrays collective experience over time as aspects of large-scale processes such as the rise of consumerism, glosses over significant differences; trend lines are more important in such narratives than are counter-currents and divergences. By focusing on a single point in time, Lutz analyzes the different ways that the discourse of neurasthenia was appropriated by a varied set of "cultural producers." His project is to show variation within common parameters and change within continuity.

The term "anecdote" is meant to describe a second important feature of Lutz' analysis already suggested above. He is interested in the different ways that diverse cultural figures appropriated a common discourse. His anecdotal reports of the lives and works of the people who criss-crossed through this period of American history are meant to show how the discourse of neurasthenia was composed of contradictory and often-times competing appropriations. The word "anecdotal" should not be misread to mean non-analytical. Quite the contrary is intended and demonstrated.

Neurasthenia was believed by neurologists and other medical specialists (S. Weir Mitchell was probably the best known) to afflict large numbers of people in white, bourgeois and elite society, especially artists, members of the leisure class, and "brain workers," and was thought to have gender-specific causes, consequences and remedies. Lutz argues that neurasthenia was more than a disease. It was a polysemic and overdetermined discourse that combined psychological, moral, physical, social and economic understandings. The discourse of neurasthenia was saturated with gender, class, racism and nationalism, and it was, according to Lutz, ubiquitously used in discourses of change. It provided a frame or "cultural space" that was used by people to negotiate their subjective responses to the world in which they lived, and that was involved (by the accumulation of individual cultural products) in cultural transformation.

Lutz organizes his book to build his theoretical argument about how discourses work to frame world views, and how their appropriations, in the context of social and economic changes, produce changes in these cultural frames. The first two major sections of the book show the varied appropriations of the discourse of neurasthenia by individuals who used it for differing rhetorical and personal purposes. In the final section, Lutz focuses on how the discourse was changed and then finally undermined through "the effects of individual rewritings." His method for much of the book is to juxtapose people who disagreed about almost everything important, or at least had very different agendas, but who used neurasthenic arguments to express their ideas. This approach is most successfully reflected in his pairing of Theodore Roosevelt and William James early in the book, and perhaps more arguably demonstrated in his pairing of Henry James and W. E. B. Du Bois at the book's end.

Lutz covers some of the same ground as does T. J. Jackson Lears, and in some ways the book is an argument with him.(1) In No Place of Grace Lears portrayed neurasthenia as an aspect of a general antimodernist cultural tendency on the part of members of the American elite responding to their perceived loss of cultural authority, and a lost sense of autonomous selfhood due to modern social, economic and cultural developments. In contrast, Lutz sees neurasthenia as a discourse that was constitutive of the culture of the era, and that had multiple motivations and meanings. Lutz successfully argues his position by bringing together such a diverse cast of characters who appropriated the discourse of neurasthenia.

The book is a joy to read, and it is provocative as well. Lutz initially set out to resist a narrative account of cultural life in early twentieth-century America, but ended up showing the importance of neurasthenic discourse to that life. The book is creative precisely because the author allows such tensions to remain, and by doing so, he addresses crucial theoretical issues about discourse, power, and human agency, as well as about the importance of gender, race and class in American society and culture.


1. See T.J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Adtimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 (New York, 1981); and T.J. Jackson Lears, "From Salvation to Self-Realization: Advertising and the Therapeutic Roots of the Consumer Culture, 1880-1930" in Richard Wrightman Fox and T.J. Jackson Lears, eds., The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880-1980 (New York, 1983), pp. 1-38.
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Author:Rose, Sonya O.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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