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Praise for Theaters of Madness:

"Benjamin Reiss has in important and novel ways successfully linked the history of the mental hospital to crucial developments in American culture. No one before has made so many fascinating connections between the idea and practice of the asylum and the intellectual production of the antebellum era. Both students of asylums and students of culture will find Theaters of Madness provocative and illuminating." —David J. Rothman, Columbia University

"In Benjamin Reiss’s hands, the asylum becomes both an arena for debating cultural assumptions and beliefs and an institution that itself changes the social order. This is a deeply engaging study of a fascinating topic.”—Priscilla Wald, Duke University

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"Engaging and thoughtful, Theaters of Madness captures the 'texture of a time unlike our own' when 'the treatment of mental illness was central to national debates about democracy, freedom, and modernity." —Thomas Augst Common-Place

"Theaters of Madness is a great book. Energetically written… it provides a stimulating account of the intersections between insane asylums and nineteenth-century American culture… An authoritative handling of its subject." —Andrew Monagham, The British Society for Literature and Science reviews

"The real delight of Reiss’s authoritative study is its readability and fascinating insights into the past: mental health may well have a murky and wilfully obtuse heritage, but this book comprehensively sets many records straight." —Stephen Weeks, Journal of Mental Health

"Startlingly engaging... extremely wide-ranging and interesting..Theaters of Madness offers a rich read of nineteenth-century America’s grappling with one of the most intractable aspects of the human condition." —Robert H. Abzug, Journal of the History of Behavioral Sciences

"Benjamin Reiss brings a fresh and balanced perspective to a contentious subject. A literary scholar, Reiss persuasively captures in clear prose “the texture of a time when the treatment of the insane was a central topic in cultural conversations about democracy, freedom, and modernity." —Lawrence Goodheart, Journal of American History

Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture

In the mid-1800s, a utopian movement to rehabilitate the insane resulted in a wave of publicly funded asylums—many of which became unexpected centers of cultural activity. Housed in magnificent structures with lush grounds, patients participated in theatrical programs, debating societies, literary journals, schools, and religious services. Theaters of Madness explores both the culture these rich offerings fomented and the asylum’s place in the fabric of nineteenth-century life, reanimating a time when the treatment of the insane was a central topic in debates over democracy, freedom, and modernity.

Benjamin Reiss explores the creative lives of patients and the cultural demands of their doctors. Their frequently clashing views turned practically all of American culture—from blackface minstrel shows to the works of William Shakespeare—into a battlefield in the war on insanity. Reiss also shows how asylums touched the lives and shaped the writing of key figures, such as Emerson and Poe, who viewed the system alternately as the fulfillment of a democratic ideal and as a kind of medical enslavement. Without neglecting this troubling contradiction, Theaters of Madness prompts us to reflect on what our society can learn from a generation that urgently and creatively tried to solve the problem of mental illness.

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