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Moonlight, Magnolias and Madness: Insanity in South Carolina from the Colonial Period to the Progressive Era.

In Moonlight, Magnolias & Madness: Insanity in South Carolina From the Colonial Period to the Progressive Era, McCandless has assembled a prodigious amount of research to tell the story of how the insane were treated over 100 years of South Carolina history, both in and out of the asylum. Unfortunately, he presents less a narrative than a compendium of detail, much of it political and bureaucratic, that offers little new to the preceeding phalanx of historians of insanity. McCandless seems concerned that he eschew any generalizations about the history he presents, apparently warned off such broad brush historical argument by a strong aversion to previous histories of madness offering a social control thesis. While such restraint is admirable, his immersion in the political details of the history of the South Carolina Lunatic Asylum in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries leaves the reader searching for the main line of the story. Organizing the history of this asylum around its various superintendents and focusing its drama on the political and bureaucratic backbiting that surrounded the struggles among these superintendents, political figures and reformers over 100 years do not leave the reader with any sense of what was distinct about South Carolina's treatment of the insane. What is told is the familiar story of early optimism in the asylum's antebellum years and the seemingly inevitable decline into rank custodialism after the Civil War. We are left with the impression that Progressive reformers made little impact on the overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, therapeutic nihilism and heavy use of mechanical restraints that characterized this asylum by the early twentieth century. In fact the author acknowledges that conditions at the South Carolina asylum were, if anything, worse than those at similar institutions elsewhere.

McCandless aims to portray the entire history of the insane in the state; to this end he devotes several chapters to the treatment of the insane outside the asylum. Here, too little new is offered. The insane who were not sent to the asylum were cared for by family members, by local officials in poorhouses and jails; some were boarded out to other townfolk. The author seems determined to present an even-handed picture of both tolerance and cruelty toward the insane outside the asylum. He is careful ("tentative and guarded," p. 183) not to generalize or theorize about what he has found in the less explored and therefore more interesting subject of how the insane outside the asylum fared in the nineteenth century, saying that "the insane in the community experienced a wide gamut of care and treatment that was influenced by a complex web of circumstances: class, income, race, status (free or slave), access to medical care and severity of symptoms." He credits the influence of physicians, as well as the "beliefs, attitudes and resources of families, slave owners and local officials" with influencing the treatment of the insane. (p. 319) The problem with this all-encompassing model is that it is not necessarily borne out by the history he presents (he does very little with the reaction among families and townfolk to the insane in their midst, for example). More importantly, there is no sense of direction or cogent argument that serves to order this list of factors or relate its parts coherently, one to the other.

McCandless does offer an important contribution in his treatment of the history of African Americans before and after the Civil War. While the asylum was not created to control African Americans, (they were not admitted there until the end of the nineteenth century), conditions were consistently worse for them than for whites once they became patients, according to the author. In his discussion of how African Americans who were thought to be insane were treated outside the asylum, McCandless offers a fascinating glimpse of folk practitioners who used root therapy and other herbal practice to cure African Americans. Unfortunately the implications of this parallel system of treatment are not explored by the author.

The history of the treatment of the insane outside the asylum is informed by a subtle Whiggish bias that the asylum should have been the logical place for South Carolinians to put their insane; the author has to explain the fact that when the asylum was first opened, few patients appeared and its early years were marked by severe underpopulation. This interesting divergence from the overcrowded conditions of other antebellum asylums could have been explored by examining the factors contributing to the broader acceptance or rejection of the asylum as a new solution to the problem of insanity in South Carolina; instead the author offers financial cost and fear of shame as major reasons for failure to utilize the asylum. The fact that families avoided using an asylum created by a handful of optimistic reformers and politicians challenges the usefulness of a social control thesis to explain the creation of the antebellum asylum in South Carolina. Yet McCandless avoids these important issues; instead he relates the history of the insane living outside the asylum in the same dry and tedious manner as he does the institutional history of the lunatic asylum. Following in the footsteps of Gerald Grob, whom he clearly admires, McCandless avoids any definitive statements or historical arguments that can be criticized. Instead, he offers us his research and lets us make of it what we will. It remains for another historian to write the definitive history of Southern attitudes toward insanity in the nineteenth century.

Mary Ann Jimenez California State University, Long Beach
COPYRIGHT 1997 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Jimenez, Mary Ann
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1997
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