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The Emily Dickinson Journal 9.1 (2000) 71-86

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Emily Dickinson's "Nervous Prostration" and Its Possible Relationship to Her Work

John F. McDermott, M.D. *

Because so little is known about her life, Dickinson has been a frequent subject of speculation by literary scholars. This reached a peak during the era of psychoanalytic formulation (Sewall 4) when her poems were used to postulate a major fragmentation of thought process, a psychotic mental breakdown and recovery (Cody 83).1,2 Major biographers began to urge caution in separating theory from fact (Sewall 4), or even further, to completely separate her work from her life, treating the poetry as pure creation (Porter 125).

Certainly poetry cannot be taken as autobiography, nor can it, as a form of fantasy, simply be used to project an image of the artist on a screen. The letters, on the other hand, with all their limitations and incompleteness as a diary of events, at least can offer a skeleton of life experience.

In recent years, biographical probes have examined the letters for patterns and events in Dickinson's life, and certain generally accepted behavioral themes have emerged, i.e. Dickinson's self described reclusiveness. Scholars have puzzled over its meaning. For example, some feminist authors have interpreted Emily Dickinson's withdrawal from the outside world as a conscious decision, "to practice necessary economics" in the service of her work (Rich 51). Wolff, on the other hand, in her carefully documented biography, concluded "By the last years of her life, Emily Dickinson had become altogether homebound, probably phobically so (167)." Garbowsky pursued this line of thinking further, suggesting the development of a specific over-arching phobia called Agoraphobia, the name commonly given to a fear of leaving home. While neither Rich nor Wolff can find events contributing to Dickinson's withdrawal and reclusiveness, Garbowsky suggests several episodes of acute anxiety in the process (92).3 [End Page 71]

This essay is a further attempt to piece together the story -- by examining the letters for hidden events and seemingly unrelated experiences described by Dickinson over a thirty-year time frame, experiences that if considered sequentially, may be connected to form a pattern.

What do we know for sure? Emily Dickinson presents us with a clear cut medical diagnosis late in life in an 1884 letter to Mrs. Holland: "The Physician says I have 'Nervous prostration'. Possibly I have -- I do not know the Names of Sickness (L873).4,5

What was "Nervous prostration"? Dickinson would have found it defined in her own lexicon, Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language as follows: "In medicine, a latent not an exhausted, state of the vital energies; great oppression of natural strength and vigor. Prostration is different and distinct from exhaustion; it is analogous to the state of a spring lying under such a weight that it is incapable of action; while exhaustion is analogous to the state of a spring deprived of its elastic powers" (379). Dickinson's "Nervous prostration," in other words, was a lesser form of the condition called nervous exhaustion. But by the 1880s, while these terms may have still been used by physicians with their patients, they had been subsumed under the accepted medical diagnosis of Neurasthenia (Beard, "Neurasthenia"). It included many symptoms, such as profound exhaustion, insomnia, pressure and heaviness in the head, palpitation of the heart, trembling of the muscles, as well as multiple fears, including fears "of open places or closed places, fear of society, fear of being alone" (Beard, American Nercousness). Neurasthenia was considered a physical illness due to actual loss of strength by the nervous system. The nerves were believed to have a natural electrical charge of energy which could run down, just like a battery, from over-exertion.6

Before attempting to trace the roots of this diagnosis made by Emily Dickinson's physician in her own life experience, it is important to trace the subsequent fate of the condition known then as Neurasthenia. Sigmund Freud found the concept to be overly inclusive, and...


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