The Birth of the Literary Clinic: Modernism, Bibliotherapy, and the Aesthetics of Health, 1916-1944
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Focusing on the period between 1916 and 1944, “The Birth of the Literary Clinic: Modernism, Bibliotherapy, and the Aesthetics of Health,” traces the ways in which a range of early twentieth century American writers deployed the analogy between books and medicine – what I call the trope of the literary clinic – in order to reimagine the function of literature as a tool in the medical and ethical quest for well-being in modern society. It was during this period that librarians and psychiatrists sought to establish and promote new institutions organized around the therapeutic effects of reading, which they called bibliotherapy. At the same time, literary modernists such as Christopher Morley, Kenneth Burke, and Djuna Barnes were also drawing on the trope of the literary clinic to develop their own aesthetics aimed at diagnosing the ills of modern society and producing new states of health in response. In the process, they imagined alternative forms of bibliotherapy, ones that challenged commonplace notions of language and its relationship to health, ability, care, the public sphere, and the good life. By excavating the link between the work of these modernists and the early twentieth century efforts of librarians and psychiatrists to promote the practice of bibliotherapy, this dissertation challenges the common assumption that modernists were predominately invested in impersonality and aesthetic autonomy. It does so by showing how, for figures like Morley, Burke, and Barnes, the well-known fascination of early twentieth century artists with psychoanalysis and the depths of mental life manifested itself not simply in depictions of madness, but in aesthetic projects aimed at representing, producing, and reimagining sanity. More than just constituting a minor trend within the larger field of American modernism, these writers exemplify the way in which the formally innovative work of modernists provides a fresh perspective for reassessing the limits and possibilities of an aesthetics of health. Such a reassessment is necessary today in light of current debates about the use of literature within the field of literary criticism, as well as recent interdisciplinary attempts to formulate an account of “narrative medicine” or “applied literature” in the medical humanities.