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Heart of Whiteness: Normal Sexuality and Race in America, 1880–1940

Heart of Whiteness: Normal Sexuality and Race in America, 1880–1940

by Julian B Carter


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Heart of Whiteness: Normal Sexuality and Race in America, 1880–1940

In this groundbreaking study, Julian Carter demonstrates that between 1880 and 1940, cultural discourses of whiteness and heterosexuality fused to form a new concept of the “normal” American. Gilded Age elites defined white civilization as the triumphant achievement of exceptional people hewing to a relational ethic of strict self-discipline for the common good. During the early twentieth century, that racial and relational ideal was reconceived in more inclusive terms as “normality,” something toward which everyone should strive. The appearance of inclusiveness helped make “normality” appear consistent with the self-image of a racially diverse republic; nonetheless, “normality” was gauged largely in terms of adherence to erotic and emotional conventions that gained cultural significance through their association with arguments for the legitimacy of white political and social dominance. At the same time, the affectionate, reproductive heterosexuality of “normal” married couples became increasingly central to legitimate membership in the nation.

Carter builds her intricate argument from detailed readings of an array of popular texts, focusing on how sex education for children and marital advice for adults provided significant venues for the dissemination of the new ideal of normality. She concludes that because its overt concerns were love, marriage, and babies, normality discourse facilitated white evasiveness about racial inequality. The ostensible focus of “normality” on matters of sexuality provided a superficially race-neutral conceptual structure that whites could and did use to evade engagement with the unequal relations of power that continue to shape American life today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 2900822339488
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 06/08/2007
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)

About the Author

Julian Carter is Assistant Professor of Critical Studies at the California College of the Arts.

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Normal Sexuality and Race in America, 1880-1940

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3937-3

Chapter One


Whiteness as Weakness: Nervous Exhaustion as a Racial Asset

In 1880, 1881, and 1884, a New York nerve specialist named George Beard published three immensely influential volumes that sought to explain to medical and lay America how and why the progress of civilization was making well-bred white people sick. In these works and his many articles on the subject, Beard brought together a wide range of ailments under the single term "neurasthenia," explaining that while the manifestations of this newly named disease were various, their causes were relatively limited. The varied pains and weaknesses of neurasthenia, he wrote, all had a physical origin in an extremely sensitive condition of one or more of the three "reflex centers" of nervous response (the brain, the stomach, and the reproductive system). Neurasthenia, also called "nervous exhaustion" or simply "nervousness," derived from an inherited physical incapacity of these reflex centers to respond to all that they could perceive. In other words, Beard's new disease reflected refined white Americans' sensitivity to the complex stimulations of modern life.

This chapter focuses on neurasthenia because the disease provides a useful context for understanding the subsequent construction of "normality." As normality would do for a later generation, Gilded Age nervousness linked contemporary discourses of race, class, and civilization into a fairly coherent statement about the world-historical significance of healthy reproductive sexuality among what were often called "old-stock" American whites. The disease thus can serve as a lens through which to focus on the articulation of race with class and sexuality at the end of the nineteenth century and thence to illustrate the interwoven beliefs about physical and social realities that helped to naturalize and justify white supremacy after Emancipation destroyed one of its chief institutional supports. The logic of the neurasthenia diagnosis rested on and reinforced a culturally powerful conceptual connection between whiteness and modern civilization; as a result, I interpret the disease as one site for the cultural (re)construction of a postslavery America in which white rule appeared-to whites-as both necessary and benign.

Indeed, though this interpretation is new in its focus on whiteness, scholars have long noticed and reacted against the politically troubling dimensions of the diagnosis. In 1973 the historians of medicine John and Robin Haller described neurasthenia as "a reservoir of class prejudices, status desires, urban arrogance, repressed sexuality, and indulgent self-centeredness." In the 1980s Ann Douglas Wood added misogyny to this list, while the cultural historian T. J. Jackson Lears suggested that the symptoms of neurasthenia expressed a bourgeois "paralysis of the will" in the face of the increasing unreality of modern life. More recently, Kevin Mumford has discussed the specifically sexual elements of the diagnosis in men, linking Lears's observation to "anxiety about lost manhood" and noting the connection between such anxieties and colonial expansion. Thus for thirty years historians have been alert to the troubled and troubling social relations embedded in neurasthenia. This scholarship has enriched my own interpretation of the diagnosis' racial dimensions and their relationship to sexuality, which have not yet been the subject of sustained inquiry.

My chief interest in the disease is as a window into the Gilded Age construction of whiteness as weakness, a construction that, paradoxically, bolstered faith in innate white superiority and fitness to rule. I show that the theory and diagnosis of nervousness expressed a widespread and debilitating sense of social powerlessness among bourgeois whites. In general, nervous weakness was a physical, pathological performance of the experience or fear of loss of agency and security. One of its chief manifestations was sexual exhaustion, which threatened to undermine the literal reproduction of whiteness; nervous men and women, as we'll see, were often represented as incapable of conceiving a new generation of productive and powerful Anglo-American citizens. Yet neurasthenia theory also reflected an optimistic sense of identity between bourgeois whites and modern civilization. According to Beard, these people tended toward nervousness precisely because they embodied modern civilization. Neurasthenics therefore had the potential to express modernity's full re/productive capacity and its loftiest ideals. Fulfilling that potential required a careful and consistent sexual self-discipline that helped to define what it meant to be modern at the same time that it helped to define what it meant to be white.

A note on the racial politics of this discussion seems appropriate here. There are excellent reasons to be skeptical of and impatient with economically and/or culturally privileged whites who complain about their sense of powerlessness. Yet it seems to me that this complaint is worth investigating, despite its clearly ideological dimension and the reality of white racial dominance, precisely because it has had such remarkable staying power. Indeed, this chapter suggests that the oscillation between a smug sense of entitlement and a panicky fear of failure, or the sensation of losing control, has been a constitutive element of whiteness at least since the 1880s. Neurasthenia is worth revisiting in part because it offers such a clear vision of that oscillation, the dynamic interdependence of those two apparently opposite convictions about the meaning of race. I will show that white claims of weakness were inseparable from white bourgeois claims to legitimate ownership and dominance of American culture. Neurasthenia helps us see that weakness seems to have worked as a white racial asset.

For some readers, my approach will seem to replicate one of the most irritatingly arrogant and painfully consequential qualities of whiteness, to wit, its tendency to look at itself in the mirror and imagine it is seeing the whole world. Why do we need another representation of whiteness in conversation with itself? Part of my answer to this question is that an exploration of white self-absorption is not the same thing as a performance of it. Looking at the ways in which neurasthenia discourse constructed whiteness as weakness can help us understand white insistence on its own innocence in relation to racism. Though nervousness was a way for whites to talk about whiteness as both precious and vulnerable-a construction with terrifying consequences for the exercise of white power against racial and ethnic "inferiors"-its emphasis on weakness among whites helped to disguise the power relationships embedded in its constructions of racial and national modernity. Thus part of my goal in this chapter is to delineate the way in which whiteness was constructed in the Gilded Age as a self-referential set of ideals in support of the development of civilization, ideals which believed themselves to be not only innocent of racial terrorism but actually benign to the limited extent that they were relevant to the "lower races" at all.

Medicine, of course, is not the world, and even within medical culture Beard's theories were not universally accepted. A handful of well-known physicians among his contemporaries rejected neurasthenia altogether, and while the diagnosis was popular among clinicians for several decades, before 1920 it had fallen from medical favor in the United States. On the other end of the middle-class cultural spectrum, many late Victorians took a spiritual stand against the godless scientific materialism represented by Beard and his ilk. Despite such oppositional voices, which I engage briefly at the end of this chapter, the language of "nervousness" and "nervous breakdown" entered popular culture and became part of the everyday emotional vocabulary of the twentieth century. Its remarkable durability indicates that neurasthenia spoke to many people about the conditions of their lives, and the state of the nation, in terms that they found meaningful.

It seems highly likely that the long-term success of the idea of nervousness records George Beard's remarkable ability to reflect his culture's conventional wisdom about sexuality, race, and modernization in America. In the historian Charles Rosenberg's words, Beard was "neither a profound nor an original thinker. His medical writings are a mosaic of the intellectual commonplaces of his time." I have supplemented Beard's theoretical expositions with a variety of individual case histories. I use these to check his theories against broader clinical practice and also against some of the most successful popular representations of the disease. At the end of this chapter I introduce a nonmedical account of the social scandal that erupted when a prominent Brooklyn minister, Henry Ward Beecher, was accused of adultery. I show that some journalistic representations of Beecher's trial draw on the same conceptual structures as the medical discourse of modern nervousness. The similarity of the description of white civilization under attack in these otherwise quite different contexts confirms that nervousness reflected a widespread bourgeois understanding of civilization as white property, developed through moral and physical self-restraint and sustained by the intersection of sexual and cultural reproduction. The different sources also emphasize the way in which that smug sense of racial superiority was entwined with anxiety over the possible loss of white self-control and social dominance. Turn-of-the-century expressions of the allegedly inherent, but never secure, identity between whiteness and modern American civilization constituted an argument for the world-historical importance of sexual self-discipline, and for the legitimacy of reserving social power for the well-bred whites who valued that discipline.

Neurasthenia and the Racial Body

From its inception, neurasthenia involved three interwoven elements: the individual body of the suffering person, with its specific predispositions and tendencies; the social body, or existing class-striated national context, in which each sufferer was embedded as a portion of some organ or limb; and the racial body, which incorporated both individual and social bodies through several generations, as they stretched out across evolutionary time. When Beard (or other contributors to the discourse of modern nervousness) wrote about any one of these elements, the other two were there as well, sometimes inarticulate, but giving depth and shape to the one being elaborated.

This multidimensional interrelationship is clear in Beard's description of neurasthenia's origins. Nervousness, he explained, was the result of complex interactions between individual bodies and the culture of postbellum America, especially in the industrial cities of the Northeast. This part of the world, he asserted, was home to a uniquely modern kind of civilization, which was "distinguished from the ancient [civilizations] by ... steam-power, the periodical press, the telegraph, the sciences, and the mental activity of women." These five developments contributed to a social environment marked by rapid material change, an unmanageable proliferation of information, and a correspondingly distressing degree of haste and competition. Beard went on to note that America's unique atmospheric and sociopolitical climate made modernization even more disconcerting than it would otherwise have been: many of his contemporaries agreed that the American air was painfully dry and the range of temperatures extreme, while the people were unusually independent in religion, civil activities, and social and business interactions.

This description of modernizing America's social body folded into a description of the nervous individual through an indirect, but crucial, reference to the racial body. According to Beard, modern life made people nervous exactly insofar as they were embedded in the evolutionary history of modern American civilization. Nervousness was not caused only by modernization and climate, but by these things as they affected people who were born into a special and privileged relation to national progress. Native-born, genteel whites were the members of the racial body who inherited civilization from their ancestors, transformed it into its uniquely modern form, and transmitted it to their descendents.

Since nervousness usually attacked this group, the disease carried connotations of high evolutionary status. Just as inbred European royalty inherited hemophilia with their blue blood, the bearers of American culture inherited "a constitutional tendency to diseases of the nervous system." Beard called this tendency the "nervous diathesis." This hereditary, physical delicacy of the nerves did not cause neurasthenia in and of itself. Rather, the nervous diathesis made its possessors extremely, painfully perceptive of their surroundings. The more stimulating those surroundings were, the more likely it was that the person with the nervous diathesis would develop full-blown nervous exhaustion. Conversely, in the absence of the inherited tendency to nervousness, the stresses of modern American civilization could not cause full-blown neurasthenia any more than a commoner marrying up could become a "bleeder."

The clearest sign that a person was a member of this natural American aristocracy of nerves was superficial appearance. The typical nervous person possessed "a fine organization," which was "distinguished from the coarse by fine, soft hair, delicate skin, nicely chiselled features, small bones, tapering extremities, and frequently by a muscular system comparatively small and feeble." Without mentioning race or class in so many words, Beard made it plain that the nervous diathesis was not to be found among the brawny laboring classes, or the stout peasants emigrating from rural parts of Europe, any more than among ex-slaves or Indians. The fine organization belonged to well-bred Anglo-Saxons.

Nervousness was therefore a "racial" trait in the simple sense that it appeared most often among white people. But just as modern civilization involved more than material development, the racialized delicacy of the nervous body was always more than skin-deep. The nervous diathesis was "frequently associated with superior intellect, and with a strong and active emotional nature." The fine organization was that of "the civilized, refined, and educated, rather than of the barbarous and low-born and untrained." Thus the physical refinement of the nervous body represented the cultural refinements treasured by the genteel middle classes as evolutionary achievements. The conflation of class with race here recalls the ideal, rather than real, nature of the "whiteness" that was under construction in the discourse of modern nervousness. The "fine organization" involved both a particular perceptual sensitivity, and a culture of bodily discipline, that together constituted an imaginary population of native-born, Anglo-American, bourgeois whites as personifications of modern civilization. Among the most fundamental elements of this imagined whiteness were a strong work ethic combined with a discriminating, even wary attitude toward fleshly appetites and pleasures.

The nervous diathesis, in sum, signified an advanced evolutionary stage in individual bodies, in their society, and in humanity. Only people with the nervous diathesis could develop nervous exhaustion; only an advanced civilization could produce the nervous diathesis; and only a highly evolved race could create a civilization sufficiently advanced to give rise to modern nervousness. Neurasthenia was the end product of a long chain of racial developments, involving body, mind, spirit, and social order, which evolved slowly and incrementally across the generations. Pale skin-literal whiteness -was not enough. The nervous diathesis arose only in those whites who had inherited a specific ideal relation to American culture. In 1888, the temperance advocate Edward P. Thwing summed up this chain of associations, linking class, race, nation, civilization, and modernity in the simple statement that "barbarians are not nervous."


Excerpted from The HEART of WHITENESS by JULIAN B. CARTER Copyright © 2007 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction. The Search for Norma 1

1. Barbarians Are Not Nervous 42

2. The Marriage Crisis 75

3. Birds, Bees, and the Future of the Race: Making Whiteness Normal 118

Epilogue. Regarding Racial/Erotic Politics 153

Notes 161

Bibliography 195

Index 211

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