In 1881 an American neurologist named George Miller Beard published a hugely influential book: American Nervousness. In it, he laid out the symptoms, cures, and implications of what he called “neurasthenia”, essentially what one might call nervous exhaustion. If you read books or newspapers from the 1880s right through to at least the 1930s you find numerous accounts of neurasthenia. Characters in fiction are constantly suffering from it. Every newspaper ran ads claiming to cure the disease. But what was it exactly, and why was it called the “national disease of America”?
This week I’m joined by Prof Brendan Kelly, a psychiatrist, and Dr Dara Downey, an expert in 19th century women’s writing, to discuss neurasthenia and how this difficult-to-define illness influenced the literature and culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.