Neurasthenia and the Calvinist Gloom

Dr. Brad Campbell (Cal Poly SLO) may be accountable for the most curiosity-inducing chapter of the Wild that Attracts Us (ed. ShaunAnne Tangney, 2015). Campbell has studied the “American” phenomenon of neurasthenia, a mental disorder that was frequently diagnosed in the late 19th Century and much of the 20th Century. Neurasthenia ceased to be listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM in 1980. Dr. Campbell presents a strong argument that Robinson Jeffers suffered from symptoms associated with neurasthenia. Though I generally resist the temptation to tag artists with mental disorders (and sexual preoccupations), I can certainly see what Campbell is getting at. Dr. Campbell appears to be something of an authority on neurasthenia as a cultural phenomenon. This may make him overly inclined to diagnose it, but then he knows better than most who might qualify.

Knowing Jeffers as something of a homebody and “the world’s worst traveller,” I can see that his symptoms adversely affected his life at times, so there is some justification for assigning a “disorder” to him. Dr. Campbell argues that this behavioral disorder influenced—or rather inspired—Jeffers’ art. He contends that Inhumanism itself grew out of the disorder. I am willing to concede that to a degree, but I would also like to ask whether the relationship between Jeffers’ nervousness and his worldview might have been a two-way street, or in other words, a chicken and an egg. Did Jeffers’ view of the world—and perhaps his rigid upbringing—cause his nervousness to a significant degree?

Barbara Ehrenreich might have something to say on the matter. She appears to believe that it was the “Calvinist gloom” of America that made neurasthenia so common, and that the decline of Calvinism in America reduced the incidence rate of the disorder. Of course anyone who has studied Robinson Jeffers cannot help but notice how well the term “Calvinist gloom” clings to our oft-misunderstood “prophet of doom.” Czeslaw Milosz might be particularly charmed by this casual association.

I don’t expect that Dr. Campbell would agree with Ehrenreich’s analysis, seeing that he appears to think that neurasthenia was more of a modern disease than a Victorian (or Presbyterian) disease, but Dr. Campbell might yet admit that a blend of “Calvinist gloom” with Jeffers’ apparent neurasthenia has an appealing ring to it.


J. Bradford Campbell, The Making of ‘American’: Race and Nation in Neurasthenic Discourse. History of Psychiatry 18.2 (2007): 157-78.

The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers, Volume One, ed. Karman, James. Page 68.

Barbara Ehrenreich, Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World (2010)

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