View Full Version : Syst Muscle Relaxation: Americanitis 1891

James Brody
February 17th, 2007, 03:16 PM
from Richardson 2006, p. 311-312

"In March 1891 James wrote a glowing review of a short book on popular psychology written by an acquaintance, Anne Payson Call's Power Through Repose...he was open to the merits of a simple self-help book that most scholars found, and still find, beneath notice.
"Call identified a common condition that she said a European doctor had called 'Americanitis,' which was not the American Nervousness or neuraesthenia of Charles Beard. Call's Americanitis was the perceived American habit of living on the edge, on the stretch, clenched and tense. James summed up the symptoms: 'The brow and eyes are contracted, the mouth screwed up or down or to one side; an expression subdued agony or anxiety, or else a smile so intense as to squeeze all further possibilities out of the countenance.' The condition Call described, a 'constant tension of so many muscles not in use' and 'the habitual over-contraction' of most of our muscles most of the time, seems to have struck James with special force. Whether it applied to all Americans or not, it certainly applied to William James, as any group of photographs of him will testify.

"What Call taught and what James was ready to hear was a gospel of relaxation, and he would eventually write a piece with that title, a piece strongly indebted to Call's book. Call was not, strictly speaking, one of the mind-cure people, nor was she a Christian Scientist. She took a direct and very physical approach. Her ideas is that if we carefully and deliberately relax the muscles not in active use, we will relax in general, and as a result, we will have more energy for things we want to do.

"Physical unclenching is the key. 'A perfectly calm and placid tone of mind is out of the question with a system that is never completely relaxed, but always quivering with residual and incipient contractions. Such a person never rests with his whole weight on his chair. His feet still press the ground, half-ready to rise, his fingers convulsively clutch the chair's arms or work at each other. On the pillow the neck muscles still are rigid.' Call recommends for everyone 'systematic training in relaxation,' one muscle at a time, deliberately. The result, she says, and James endorses, 'will regenerate their nervous strength, their temper, their ability to attend, their speech, their powers of effective work in every direction, and of course their cheerfulness, their gait, and grace of presence.'"

Her book is available at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/4337. I read it but think less of it than James did. And Richardson's description is more compelling than hers!


Call, Annie Payson (1891) Power Through Repose. http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/4337.
Richardson, RD (2006) William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. NY: Houghton Mifflin.