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Reading the Rest Cure
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MICHAEL BLACKIE Reading the Rest Cure I. READING PATTERNS She was emotional and ashamed of her tears, and honestly hated the whole matter of sickness. You will see such hysterical women. You will see others whose minds are like the back ofa piece ofneedle-work with a baffling absence of pattern. S. Weir Mitchell, Lectures on Diseases of the Nervous System I uiiil follow that pointless pattern to some sort of conclusion. Charlotte Perkins Oilman, "The Yellow Wallpaper" Despite the shared interest in baffling and pointless patterns suggested in these epigraphs, few cultural figures from late nineteenth-century America seem more at odds than S. Weir Mitchell and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Not only does the depressed narrator in Oilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" fear being sent to Mitchell for one of his cures should she not "pick up faster" while under the care of her physician-husband (18), Gilman herself directly criticized Mitchell's treatment: "the real purpose of the story was to reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, and convince him of the error of his ways" (Living 121). Even a cursory look at his public life clearly indicates that Mitchell's "errors" extended beyond his medical practice. A staunch Victorian until his death in 1914, Mitchell spoke out against women's suffrage and advanced university training: "I believe that if the higher education or the college life in any way, body or mind, unfits women to be good wives and mothers there had better be none of it" ("Address" 5). Women, for Mitchell, were more than angels of the house, they embodied home itself: Arizona Quarterly Volume 60, Number 2, Summer 2004 Copyright © 2004 by Arizona Board of Regents issN 0004-1 610 58 Michael Bhckie Most folks think vaguely of home as meaning marriage, husband , wife, children; but for me, its foremost and most beautiful human necessity is a woman; and, indeed, this is of her finest nobleness, to be homeful for others, and to suggest by the honest sweetness of her nature, by her charity, and the hospitality of her opinion, such ideas of honor, truth, and friendliness as cluster, like porch roses around our best ideas of home. ("Address" 1 1) Throughout her career, Gilman challenged the images Mitchell celebrates here. Her fiction and her feminist treatises, Women and Economics (1898) and The Home: Its Work and Influence (1903), insist that as long as women are associated with a "sublime devotion" to home and mothering, they are condemned to a "morbid, defective, irregular, [and] diseased" existence (Women 181). Ironically, if not for Gilman's fictional depiction of the rest cure in "The Yellow Wallpaper," most readers of American literature today would probably know nothing of Mitchell's treatment. Gilman's story has come to represent the prevailing view ofan extremely popular and successful treatment for numerous nervous disorders at the turn of the nineteenth century. This was not always the case: when "The Yellow Wallpaper" was published, more readers would have been more familiar with Mitchell's work than Charlotte Perkins Gilman's. By 1892, when the New Enghnd Magazine published "The Yellow Wallpaper" (Gilman was treated in 1887), Mitchell's patients were arriving at his office from as far away as California to seek his help. When possible, Mitchell brought the rest cure to his patients, as one Bostonian noted: "Weir Mitchell has been here, curing all the dilapidated Bostonians. His coming makes a great sensation for he is a very famous man" (qtd. in Burr 182). Nervous invalids from across England and Europe began making pilgrimages to Philadelphia in the 1880s. Appreciative patients encouraged Mitchell to run for President, made large cash donations in support of his "project for the benefit of nervous women," and even wrote him poems of praise: "Dr. Mitchell's opinion! You quake to receive it, / 'He says you'll get weU and you'd like to believe it!'" (qtd. in Burr 186). Mitchell received hostile criticism as well, and he was called a charlatan and a quack well before Gilman wrote her famous story condemning his methods; but his pivotal roles in Western medical circles and in American letters from Reading the Rest Cure 59 the Civil War until...