Aspects of both the Rest and West Cures survive in modern culture.
Women with difficult pregnancies are still put on bed rest, for instance,
while over-stressed business executives of both sexes travel to pristine
natural destinations in search of relaxation and self-discovery.
miraculously,” according to his friend
Mitchell, a self-diagnosed
neurasthenic, enjoyed the West Cure
himself. He made camping and fishing
expeditions in the Western United States
and Canada nearly every year. He saw
these trips as a necessary respite from his
intellectual pursuits and as a means of
preventing nervous breakdowns.
Because so many prominent
American men experienced the West
Cure, the therapy had a major impact
on the nation’s culture, particularly its
literature and politics. Walt Whitman
documented his 1879 journey out
West in “Specimen Days” (1882), while
novelist Owen Wister channeled his West
Cure experiences in Wyoming into the
first American Western, “The Virginian”
(1902). This successful novel went
through 16 printings in the year it was
published, and spawned an immensely
popular genre of fiction and films that
continues to be influential today.
The West Cure also influenced
American politics via U.S. President
and recovered neurasthenic Theodore
Roosevelt. In the 1880s, Roosevelt visited
the Dakotas several times to treat his
asthma and neurasthenic symptoms
(Roosevelt was friends with Owen
Wister, Mitchell’s patient and close
friend). He also hoped to develop a more
Before heading West, Roosevelt’s
effeminate looks and high voice
provoked comparisons to Oscar Wilde;
afterward, he became known for
his strenuous brand of masculinity.
Roosevelt’s motto, “speak softly and
carry a big stick,” sums up the ethos of
many Westerns, in which stoic men of
action engage in constant battles with
nature, Indians and rogue cowboys. Like
many men of his generation, Roosevelt
felt that masculinity was forged by
conflict, an attitude that carried over
into his imperialist foreign policy.
Anne Stiles, PhD, is assistant professor of
English at St. Louis University. Katharine
S. Milar, PhD, of Earlham College is
historical editor for “Time Capsule.”
• George Beard, American
Nervousness (New York: G.P.
Putnam’s Sons, 1881).
• Cheryl Leibold, “Thomas
Eakins in the Badlands,”
Archives of American Art
Journal 28 (1988): 2–15.
• Tom Lutz, American
Nervousness, 1903: An
Anecdotal History (Ithaca:
Cornell University Press,
• Silas Weir Mitchell, Wear
and Tear: Or Hints for the
Overworked (Philadelphia: J.B.
• Barbara Will, “The
Nervous Origins of the
American Western,” American
Literature 70 (1998): 293–316.