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'On the different Species of Phobia’ and ‘On the different Species of Mania’ (1786): from popular furies to mental disorders in America


Benjamin Rush’s twin 1786 letters on the different species of phobia and mania sit at an extended historical juncture at which an early modern quasi-medical troping of mental disorder in American social commentary sobered up to mental medicine. The letters’ satirical drive hinged on a perennial problem still occupying George Beard almost a century onward: which idiosyncratic trepidation or ill-grounded idea warranted the nomination of national and epochal ill? Rush’s mania letter exemplified an established genre identifying popular and especially political crazes; at the same time, it foreshadowed the early 19th-century rise and mid-century fall of monomania as forensic-nosological stopgap. The phobia text established the term’s dictionary (OED) sense of specific morbid fears, but did so in the form of a mobilisation of nosological jargon for social diagnostics purposes: an ambivalent prelude to Rush’s later formal engagement with unreasonable fears and follies. Both letters draw attention to a pervasive duality in early modern and Enlightenment conceptions of hydrophobia, aerophobia, syphilophobia and lyssophobia, between public-health and mental-hygienic follies.

  • literature and medicine
  • psychiatry
  • cultural history

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