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  • How Nineteenth-Century American Literature got its Nerve Back
  • Donald E. Pease (bio)
The Politics of Anxiety in Nineteenth-Century American Literature by Justine Murison, Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture, gen. ed. Ross Posnock. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. 215. $90.00 cloth.

The Politics of Anxiety in Nineteenth-Century American Literature was published in Ross Posnock’s Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture series at Cambridge University Press. Unlike the other contributors to this series, Justine Murison situates her work at the cusp of a recent neuroscientific turn embraced by a new generation of scholar-critics intent on supplementing rather than replacing psychoanalytic interpretive paradigms. Murison stakes the interpretive politics of Politics of Anxiety on the revival of a nineteenth-century discourse of nervous physiology that prefigured psychoanalysis. After locating the historical origins of the neurocognitive turn in nineteenth-century understandings of nervous physiology, Murison demonstrates how this pre-Freudian discourse challenges prevailing assumptions about psychology and affect in twentieth- and twenty-first-century literary scholarship. Rather than restricting her project to this biopolitical turn, however, Murison mines the nineteenth-century scientific archive to proliferate historical angles from which to approach nineteenth-century American literature.

According to Murison, the nineteenth-century precursors of the neuroscientific turn shared with their descendants the desire to find evidence-based perspectives from which to explain the anxious, nervous artifacts called literary texts. [End Page 139] The Politics of Anxiety engages complexly with the discourse of nervous physiology to show how it structured nineteenth-century narratives of national history and social life. Murison specifically explains how American authors and readers responded to questions about heredity, self-possession, freedom, sexual desire, and biological determinism by exploring pre-Freudian explanations of the nervous system.

In the nineteenth century, the nervous body replaced the previous model of the relation between mind and body as regulated by the fluid exchange of the humors. As the repository of antebellum American culture’s basic psychosomatic assumptions, the discourse of nervous physiology exerted widespread physical, as well as metaphysical, influence. The nervous system it described was believed to govern the body and the body politic by exposing both to environmental vicissitudes. Perceived as a system of dynamic interaction with its environment that demanded constant physiological adjustments, nineteenth-century American society was understood to be nervous because it was fraught with the power to change, yet utterly dependent upon an anxious body politic.

Nineteenth-century American culture was an era of somatic ethics and nervous politics. Somatic nervousness supplied nineteenth-century artists, politicians, social scientists, historians, reformers, and physicians with a lens to inspect the physiological imperatives structuring moral, spiritual, and political struggles. These imperatives could not be explained as biologically determined because the aberrant physiology of the nervous system resisted such universalizing claims. Although the discourse of nervous physiology endowed soma with anxious significance, the precise workings of the nervous system remained a mystery to scientists and physicians, as well as their patients. This lack of certitude facilitated discourses about the nervous system that were expressive of diverse, even contradictory, explanations and opinions.

Confusion surrounding the nervous physiology and the lack of agreed-upon criteria for the certification of physicians made it difficult to distinguish scientifically verifiable medical practices from pseudoscience and sheer quackery. Unlicensed until the 1870s, the field of medicine included “irregular” practitioners—homeopaths, Grahamites, phrenologists, botanical Thomsonians, mesmerists, table tappers, hydropaths, and spiritualist mediums. Physiological terms for the nerves—which included “sympathy,” “animal electricity,” “the nervous fluid,” and the “odylic principle”—became truly ubiquitous only when they entered the idiom popularized within newspapers, journals, fictional tales, and novels. [End Page 140]

In The Politics of Anxiety, Murison reads across an archive spanning literature, medicine, politics, and popular culture to show how the notion of the nervous self assumed hegemony by finding its way into Putnam’s and The Democratic Review and United States Magazine, theological debates about spirit bodies, phrenology, homeopathic medicine pamphlets, mesmeric procedures, abolitionist and domestic ideologies, gothic tales, political satires, city mystery novels, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, spiritualists’ rationales for prescribing water cures, calisthenic manuals, how-to-books in electrical psychology, animal magnetism instruction, fictional accounts of phantom...


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