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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.

Author Information

Benjamin Reiss is associate professor of English at Emory University and the author of The Showman and the Slave: Race, Death, and Memory in Barnum’s America.


“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

— David J. Rothman, Columbia University

Theaters of Madness captures the ‘texture of a time’ and persuasively chronicles the centrality of insanity to the era’s key public debates about democracy, freedom and enslavement, and modernization. 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

— Priscilla Wald, Duke University

" Theaters of Madness is a fascinating read for its range of material, depth of analysis, and its theoretical clarity. . . . Reiss shows that to understand madness we need much more than the conceptual tools of psychiatry and, for that matter, of its more reactionary opponents."
— Tony O'Brien, Metapsychology

Audience: Professional and scholarly;