Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion


At the start of “Sis' Becky’s Pickaninny,” Annie has fallen into a depression so deep that “nothing seemed to rouse her.” After witnessing Annie’s sorrowful countenance, Julius tells a story that represents Chesnutt’s efforts to transcend the racial boundaries that doctors, such as George Beard,* established between white neurasthenia and black hysteria: 
"Neurasthenia, like anaemia, may, it is true, lead to hysteria as it may lead to insanity; but hysteria, when it appears, is with all its group of symptoms, including the hysterical convulsions or paroxysms, and the globus hystericus, or feeling as of a ball in the throat, quite a distinct condition. In hysteria there are some of the symptoms, besides the paroxysms, an acuteness, violence, activity, and severity that do not belong to simple neurasthenia. Hysteria is found usually in those whose emotional natures greatly predominate. Hence, relatively to neurasthenia, it is far more common in females than in males. Indeed, hysteria was once supposed to be exclusively a disease of women; hence its name. Neurasthenia, on the other hand, although more frequent in women, is yet found in great abundance in both sexes, and in both men and women of intellect, education, and well-balanced mental organizations. Hysteria of the mental or psychical form may occur in those who are in perfect physical health, without any of the symptoms of neurasthenia or of anaemia ; those of the strongest possible constitutions are the victims of this type of hysteria, the subjective psychological cause of which is an excess of emotion over intellect, acted upon by any influence that tends to produce emotional excitation. This form of hysteria is found in the stout Irish servant girls, among the Southern negroes, and among the undisciplined and weak-minded of all races and classes and ages, and, unlike neurasthenia, was more prevalent in the middle ages than in the nineteenth century" (103). 

*Permalink to Beard's Treatise

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