Perhaps the century's most popular and best-paid author, Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth (1819-1899) wrote serials, turned into roughly fifty+ novels. Today Southworth's history is best known—even exclusively known—for one novel, The Hidden Hand (1888), which seems to promote only one way of subverting the social order—cross-dressing—rather than Southworth's more characteristic way, insanity or mania, as a way to challenge American norms. She was often considered a Southern author (her novels often occur in Virginia and Maryland) and devoted to "Christian human sympathy," a sympathy that converts cultural problems into individual moral afflictions, and then reconverts them, by each novel's close.1 This Christian sympathy was also related to how her moral values take precedence over legal rights, such as in Brandon Coyle's Wife (1893), where the heroine believes she must contest her husband's rash decisions (361). These struggles help her characters to realize how American ideals are undermined by "moral insanities," manias resulting from a variety of causes, including unstable marriages, controlling fathers and uncles, disappeared or isolated characters, social ambition, asylum imprisonment, secret marriages, altered identities (women dyed to look as quadroons), possible infanticide, and paroxysms (especially after childbirth).
My purpose in this essay is twofold: to introduce readers to the range of her novels by exploring her use of moral insanities and to address how Southworth envisions national issues about commitment and duty. Southworth began publishing her novels with Retribution in 1849, and she ended with the same belief in insanity as a deep, internal revolt against what she calls—in relation to Ishmael (1876)—her "National work" (letter to Bonner, December 1875). Part of this project [End Page 1] for Southworth is to recognize the problems of the interior self in the U.S. or its ethical challenges.
Antebellum writers—like Poe, George Lippard, Hawthorne, Jones Very (himself a patient for a month at McLean Asylum), and Melville—offer numerous stories about American mania, so much so that they seem to typify a great deal of American Renaissance literature.2 Yet from 1849 through the 1890s, Southworth took on the topic of moral insanity, and especially mania, in order to expand it from some individual complaint into a national pandemic. Southworth's "moral insanities"—a chronic impairment of one's ethical register—suggest how trapped her characters are in their confrontation over legal and moral issues.
That is, almost all of her novels propose a form of madness as central to her domestic dramas. Critics of Southworth's fiction remark upon the author's emphasis on moral responsibility, which her crises in "moral insanity" challenge. Defined in the early nineteenth century by Philippe Pinel (first in 1801), moral insanity—or monomania—was a partial insanity, a mania without hallucinations or delusions, but one that was the opposite of sympathy. This mania precipitated social alienation. James Prichard in England (1837), and Benjamin Rush and Isaac Ray in the U.S., diagnosed these deficiencies as weaknesses of the will.
Isaac Ray addressed the issue in Treatise on the Medical Jurisprudence of Insanity (1838). For Ray, moral insanity or mania was a disturbance in or defect of "affective faculties," a disease that did not include intellectual disorder or moral imbecility but showed a profound lack of moral judgment. Instead, maniacs exhibited impulse issues, so much so that the patient would act on "irresistible impulse" and suffered an affliction of the ethical possibilities.3 As the Journal of American Insanity suggests, the question of "moral" versus "intellectual" insanity was a major cause for concern in the 1870s (29 [1872-73]:158). Doctors questioned whether moral insanity was a legal basis for criminal activity: was a moral cause enough to create insanity? Was grief itself a kind of insanity, or did "the direct influence of emotion" also spark an initiation of insanity (275)?
While monomania for Ray was a valid form of insanity, John P. Gray, editor of American Journal of Insanity for thirty-two years, warned against monomanias as justifiable reasons for depravity or insane violence since he did not believe that the brain could be...