Addiction and Healing in 19th-century American Literature and Culture


American/Diaspora / Cultural Studies and Media Studies

Eric Bjornson (Boston University)

As many historians have claimed, current understandings of and treatments for addiction can be traced back to Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush, who laid the groundwork for a “disease model” and called for the development of “sober houses.” In doing so, Rush helped spur a mass reform movement in America. For the temperance movement that followed, reform connoted the drunkard’s full restoration to a morally and socio-economically productive mode of being. Yet, similar to current understandings of addiction recovery today, reform often entailed a difficult, uneven healing process for individuals and communities. Washingtonian orator John B. Gough, for one, had a number of public relapses; for native people, like Methodist minister William Apess, recovery involved working through historical trauma and ongoing prejudice as well as abstinence from alcohol; recovering women also faced additional challenges, such as disproportionate stigma due to their marked deviation from the Victorian ideal of the “angel in the house.”

This session will investigate early forms of recovery in 19th-century American literature and culture. The main goal is to bring to light historical alternatives to the coercive, disciplinary strategies of reform, as described by Foucault in Madness and Civilization. Thus panelists will be encouraged to address how practices such as collective action, interpersonal mediation, and self-narration helped substance users reclaim or reconceive selfhood and agency, including for the historically disenfranchised. In addressing these and other issues, this session can help frame a critical response to some of the bourgeois ideologies and institutional mechanisms still at work in today’s addiction treatment industry.

This panel will explore early forms of recovery in American culture from Washingtonian temperance to inebriate homes of the late 19th century. Panelists may consider Native American revitalization movements, temperance meetings, recovery narratives, medical and philosophical systems, among other topics. Of particular interest is how early, non-coercive forms of healing reclaim or reconceive notions of selfhood and agency, including for historically disenfranchised persons.