“How well one has to be, to be ill!”: Work, Pain, and the Discourse of Neurasthenia in The Diary of Alice James

Shawna Rushford-Spence


Neurasthenia, though no longer diagnosed today, was an illness that was commonly diagnosed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was an umbrella category that encompassed all manner of somatic and psychosomatic ailments. In order to make this disease more palatable to the American public, Dr. George Miller Beard constructed an economic metaphor, in which people had certain amounts of “nerve-force” that could be saved or spent and, when overspent, could result in “nervous bankruptcy.” My essay analyzes The Diary of Alice James from a disability studies perspective in order to how Alice James uses this economic terminology rhetorically to reclaim her subjectivity, to characterize disability as central to identity, to disrupt the narrative of disability as global incapacity, and to configure pain (rather than illness itself) as work.

Keywords: neurasthenia, "rest cure," invalid, discourse, nervous, nerve-force, and "nervous bankruptcy"


neurasthenia; rest cure; invalid; discourse; nervous; nerve-force; and nervous bankruptcy

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v34i3.3917

Copyright (c) 2014 Shawna Rushford-Spence

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