Award Date

May 2019

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English

First Committee Member

Stephen Brown

Second Committee Member

John Hay

Third Committee Member

Gary Totten

Fourth Committee Member

Giuseppe Natale

Number of Pages

201

Abstract

This dissertation represents a renewed look at nineteenth-century physician and author, S. Weir Mitchell. This includes a discussion of how his “rest cure” fits into the medical and cultural trends of his era as well as revisiting the academic responses to both him and his cure. Those in the academy who write on Mitchell today are primarily feminist critics who approach him through the study of women writers who were his patients, such as Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, among others. The dominant pathway here is through Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” as well as other documents produced by Gilman herself. This fact has created a body of criticism touching Mitchell that is unfortunately misrepresentative of his true nature, motives, and ideologies, especially regarding women. Part of the problem is the monolithic nature of the criticism itself, which tends to reject, even undermine, dissenting voices.

Chapter one, S. Weir Mitchell, A Physician of the Moment for the Disease of a Moment, traces the history of nervousness, nervous exhaustion, and neurasthenia to provide a cultural background of these “diseases” as well as a backstory for the discussion of such elements within subsequent chapters. This chapter also provides a brief origin story of Mitchell’s rest cure.

Chapter two, Misunderstandings of S. Weir Mitchell’s Rest Cure, addresses Mitchell’s unfortunate legacy within the academy, especially with the birth of the feminist movement and the critical “re-discovery” of Gilman’s story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in the 1970’s and 80’s.

Chapter three, Misunderstandings of S. Weir Mitchell’s Rest Cure, Continued, extends the analysis of feminist criticism on Mitchell to the 1990s and beyond. The tone of this criticism is slightly more equitable toward Mitchell, yet a negative bias remains evident, even within the work of the most fastidious of feminist scholars.

Chapter four, The Unapotheosis of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, discusses some of the editorial errors made within the early academic editions of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” that were uncovered by Julie Bates Dock in the 1990s. This chapter also revisits Gilman’s account of her interaction with Mitchell, accomplished primarily through reconsiderations of her autobiography and initial letter to Mitchell.

Chapter five, Baking Lies and Leaving Breadcrumbs, addresses Gilman’s relationships with others, including Mitchell, Ambrose Bierce, William Randolph Hearst, and W.D. Howells. This chapter traces Gilman’s “breadcrumbs”—documents painting herself as a victim within such relationships—which critics often use to construct narratives of further victimhood.

Chapter six, Cervetti’s Spurious Scholarship, offers a comparison between Nancy Cervetti’s biography, S. Weir Mitchell, 1829-1914: Philadelphia’s Literary Physician (2012) and Mitchell’s unpublished autobiography. As an English Professor, Cervetti’s work is a testament to the fact that the “contagion” of negativity toward Mitchell in the academy is yet ongoing.

Disciplines

American Literature

Language

English

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