Isolating Liberty: The Home, the Prison, and the Asylum in Antebellum Literature


Kara Clevinger Temple University

What did “isolation” mean to antebellum Americans? This concept today conjures up bleak images of intense loneliness and disconnection, suffocating seclusion, even madness; yet for Americans in the first half of the 19th century, isolation offered unique possibilities for reform. In my dissertation on this fascinating, multifaceted topic, I explore the significance of isolation as a social strategy and a remedy, then use this insight to reevaluate works by major American authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sarah J. Hale, Harriet Jacobs, and Fanny Fern. My fellowship with PACHS provided time and resources to access various Philadelphia archives that held historical materials crucial to the success of my investigative journey. I am thrilled to share an account of my scholarly expedition into the vast regions of scientific, technological, and medical knowledge that constitute Philadelphia’s premier libraries. When I began my exploration in the library at the College of Physicians, I was searching for documents related to the construction and maintenance of the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane. In my previous research on architectural plans of the antebellum era, I had observed that Philadelphia was leading the nation in its reform of the private and institutional spaces we occupied. More specifically, in 1823 and 1836 construction began on two important edifices: Eastern State Penitentiary and the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, respectively. Previously, prisoners were detained in what were essentially “holding pens” according to the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site; and similarly, mental patients were crudely housed in the basement of the Pennsylvania Hospital since they were believed to be incurable. The reform spirit of the late 18th and early 19th century extended to the prison and mental health systems, and the two new Philadelphia facilities were based upon conceptions of isolation for rehabilitating and treating individuals. John Haviland designed the seven-spoked panopticon-styled prison that inaugurated the penitentiary system, derived from Quaker beliefs in solitary communion with God and meditative thought; the hope was that isolated prisoners would regret their crimes, that they would become penitent. Likewise, Thomas Story Kirkbride, who directed architect Isaac Holden’s plans for the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, believed that the mentally ill “should be removed from the everyday world and immersed in a ‘new kind of existence,’” according to Kirkbride biographer Nancy Tomes. The west Philadelphia asylum was, as noted by architecture historian Robert C. Smith, “the first American hospital [built] on the echelon plan, wherein a series of extended wings permits a maximum of isolation for the separate wards.” I thus started off believing that these facts on the penitentiary and the asylum would establish an interesting cultural context for my readings of key antebellum authors. As I trekked deeper into the archives, however, the abundance of rich historical material led me to reshape my initial plans for my project. What did I come across at the College of Physicians library? As I pored over the annual reports generated by Kirkbride, I realized that the writings of the hospital’s superintendent were important cultural and scientific documents deserving of a close literary analysis that would reveal the complex network of associations between new understandings about the nature of insanity, the construction of institutional spaces for treatment, and sentimental evangelicism. Literary scholars have not yet attended to these writings as literature or placed them within the antebellum world of letters. Yet Kirkbride’s On the Construction, Organization, and General Arrangements of Hospitals for the Insane, first published in 1854, and which I was able to see at the Historic Library of Pennsylvania Hospital, was a “bestseller” among asylum directors. His comprehensive book was the standard text for building asylums up through the 1880s. Kirkbride made some comments on insanity, but less about the nature of mental illness and more about its link to the environment around the individual. Strongly believing that the insane could be treated more successfully away from their homes (where middle-class invalids were generally kept out of sight), Kirkbride obsessively supervised and experimented with the conditions of the hospital setting. In particular, Kirkbride made considerable use of new technologies in heating and ventilation in order to control and purify the very air patients breathed and moved in. Thus Kirkbride’s major contribution to the treatment for insanity and to the nascent field of psychiatry was to improve and standardize the institutional space in which treatment occurred and to professionalize and elevate the status of the asylum superintendent. The Historic Library of Pennsylvania Hospital houses a comprehensive collection of Thomas Story Kirkbride’s papers, including his notebooks, correspondence, and reports. The library also contains magic lantern slides, a new technology that Kirkbride made use of as a mental restorative, which represent an intriguing window into antebellum cultural interests. The amount of material available for study, documents that have been little surveyed by the literary scholar, has inspired me to expand my work with Kirkbride and the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane beyond introductory matter for my dissertation. I am currently reworking my research into a full chapter, and I plan to do the same with my study of Eastern State Penitentiary, the documents for which I will view at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Library Company of Philadelphia. Such an in-depth look at the writings surrounding the construction and maintenance of these institutions will offer a fresh literary perspective on scientific, technological, and medical innovations in the early 19th century, as well as provide a unique way to think about antebellum culture. I am grateful to the Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science for supporting my work with a one-month fellowship. I would also like to thank the Center’s writing group for providing stimulating intellectual conversations, in addition to the numerous events and colloquia sponsored and co-sponsored by the Center, which bring together area scholars and highlight the incredible scientific history of Philadelphia. And my scholarly journey would not have been nearly so successful without the help of the staff at the library of the College of Physicians and Stacey Peeples, Curator and Lead Archivist at the Historic Library of Pennsylvania Hospital.

Kara B. Clevinger