The January 2012 issue of the American Psychological Association‘s Monitor on Psychology has just been published online. This month’s Time Capsule article examines the male alternative to the rest cure often prescribed for nervous women in the nineteenth century. The rest cure saw neurasthenic women like Charlotte Perkins Gilman confined to bed, where they were to do little more than eat and avoid all “brain work.” Gilman recounted her experience with the rest cure in her well-known work, The Yellow Wallpaper (1892). In contrast, as Anne Stiles details in “Go Rest, Young Man,” men treated their neurasthenia by heading to the American west to engage in strenuous physical activity. Among the men who did so were Theodore Roosevelt and Walt Whitman. As Stiles recounts,
Before heading West, Roosevelt’s effeminate looks and high voice provoked comparisons to Oscar Wilde; afterward, he became known for his strenuous brand of masculinity. Roosevelt’s motto, “speak softly and carry a big stick,” sums up the ethos of many Westerns, in which stoic men of action engage in constant battles with nature, Indians and rogue cowboys. Like many men of his generation, Roosevelt felt that masculinity was forged by conflict, an attitude that carried over into his imperialist foreign policy.
The dramatic difference between the Rest and West Cures suggests their prescriptive nature. Both cures existed to reinforce “proper” sexual behavior, serving to masculinize effeminate (and possibly homosexual) men and discourage women from entering the professions. Both were supported by the authority of science in an era that emphasized the biological differences between men and women.
The full article can be read online here.