Novel reading and metal health: The Trans-Allegheny admissions list

Some time ago, a list made the rounds of the usual Internet places, showing a list of “reasons for admission” to the then-Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. You can see it here. I encourage you to read the entire affair.

Laying aside the discussion about the state of mental health understanding and treatment back then, and even now, I want to focus on a particular entry in the list: Novel reading.

At the time, literature was sharply segregated into “respectable” literature and “disreputable” writing (Terms are mine for shorthand). Respectable matter started with the Bible, then religious works, the classics, and matter than was written to improve morals and generally adhered to the “morality tale” version of life. The good were rewarded, on Earth or after death, while the evil were punished. The world existed in black and white with very few gray areas.

Disreputable matter included novels and non-spiritual fiction in general. For example, in Choice Readings for the Home Circle, an entry on the dangers of novel reading decries George Sand and others and claims that:

There *is* a danger in novel reading; it vitiates the taste, enervates the understanding, and destroys all inclination for spiritual enjoyment.

A prevalent view of the librarians of the time (mid to late 1800s) includes this piece by C. A. Cutter:

We have not yet escaped the preponderant use of fiction though we have diminished it since your day [the 1880s]. It used to be 75 per cent. Thanks to our training the school children in good ways it has fallen to forty. I doubt if it goes much lower.

This feeling carried over into children’s stories. If you ever ran across fiction published for what we would now call YA readers from before 1900, you probably immediately noted the strong whiff of probably puritanic morality. For example, a little subplot from an otherwise only slightly remarkable Horatio Algier story. A swindler named Nick Smithers is traveling on a train and meets a quiet young woman who he draws out in conversation. She says she’s been kept in seclusion by an uncle who was her guardian. He proposes marriage and then they go to lunch, when a man approaches them:

“Well, she has got to go back to the asylum, and that is all there is to it.”

“Asylum?” gasped Nick Smithers.

“That is what I said.”

“I’ll not go back!” screamed the young lady. “Lancelot, protect me!” and she clutched the swindler around the neck.

“Do you mean to tell me she belongs in an asylum?” came faintly from Nick Smithers.

“She does. She escaped from the lunatic asylum at Sarville yesterday.”

“Wha—what is her name?”

“Mary Jacobotson. Her mind was turned years ago by reading romantic novels, and she imagines she has an uncle who is keeping her money away from her.”

“Is she under the charge of an uncle?”

“No. Her father had her placed in the asylum, for he couldn’t keep her at home. Her father is a well-to-do builder of Hartford.”

Of course Alger’s stories could never have been indicted as “novels” because of their strident moralizing, it is certainly doubtful that they were exactly the best thing to read, with their implausible plot lines and unrealistic conclusions.

Conclusion: That entry on the list of reasons for admission was as logical in its day as something like “depression” is now, rather than being an anomaly.

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