Politics & Prose June 2005

The Teddy Treatment

Theodore Roosevelt—"master therapist of the middle class"

In American Nervousness (1881), George Beard, a Yale-educated physician, identified a new illness—"neurasthenia," or "the lack of nerve force." Its symptoms included "fear of responsibility, of open places or closed places, fear of society, fear of being alone, fear of fears ... fear of everything." Among its "exciting causes" were changes in technology and culture, including "steam power, the periodical press, the telegraph, the sciences, and the mental activity of women." The railroad's introduction of scheduled hurry was emblematic of these changes, which drained the nerves of "brain workers," office-bound men and, in increasing numbers, women of the emergent middle class. Beard's diagnosis caught on. Soon the press was referring to "our neurasthenia epidemic."

Beard followed American Nervousness with the posthumously-published Sexual Neurasthenia, which discussed a symptom found among his male patients, "genital debility." A former business partner of Thomas Edison's, Beard recommended electrotherapy to the "lazy" parts, but the "masculine principle" in society was not so easily restored. "The whole generation is feminized," Basil Ransom, the Southern hero of Henry James's 1886 novel, The Bostonians, bursts out to Verena Tarrant, the Boston spiritualist he wants to save from her lesbian handlers and possess for himself:

The masculine tone is passing out of the world; it's a feminine, a nervous, hysterical, chattering, canting age, an age of hollow phrases and false delicacy and exaggerated solicitudes and coddled sensibilities, which if we don't soon look out, will usher in the reign of mediocrity, of the feeblest and flattest and the most pretentious that has ever been.

Into this late-Victorian world, in which, one critic charged, "the monthly [magazines] are getting so lady-like that naturally they will soon menstruate," came a public man with experiences like this:

I had wounded the bear just at sunset—I wounded him again, as he stood on the other side of a thicket. He then charged through the brush, coming with such speed and with such an irregular gait that I was not able to get the sight of my rifle on the brain pan, though I hit him very hard with both the remaining barrels of my magazine Winchester. It was in the days of black powder, and the smoke hung. After my last shot, the first thing I saw was the bear's left paw as he struck at me.

A man who had disarmed desperadoes in western saloons:

As I rose I struck quick and hard with my right just to one side of his jaw, hitting with my left as I straightened out and then again with my right. He fired the gun.

and had faced down Indians:

It was possible that the Indians were merely making a bluff and intended no mischief but I did not like their action, and I thought it likely that if I allowed them to get hold of me they would at least take my horse and rifle, and possibly kill me. So I waited until they were one hundred yards off and then drew a bead on the first Indian.

Theodore Roosevelt—New York Governor, former New York City Police Commissioner, and hero of the Spanish-American War—received the Republican nomination for vice-president in 1900 and became president after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901. When he ran in his own right in 1904, he won the largest majority that had ever yet been recorded. The wonder is that the all-male electorate didn't make it unanimous. Talking up "the virile virtues," warning of the dangers of "soft hitting," championing "the strenuous life" from the "bully pulpit" of the presidency, "TR" was a tonic for a "feminized" age, an anti-modern culture hero leading Americans into modernity. Richard Hofstadter called him "the master therapist of the middle class."

Presented by

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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