A sepia view of New York City.

The Sick Apple: Female Mental Illness in New York Women’s Literature, 1920 – 1945

‘I am a PhD candidate in American Literature at the University of Glasgow, investigating why so many female characters suffer mental illness in fiction set in New York between 1920 and 1945. I earned my BA (Hons) in English Literature and Classical Civilisations, and my MA in International Relations, both from Keele University. My research focuses on women’s literature, and the relationship between setting and mental state. I adopt a strong interdisciplinary approach in my thesis, bridging the gap between medical humanities and literary geography, with an element of textual reclamation.’

Deborah Snow Molloy 

You can find her on Twitter @snowmolloy and contact her at d.molloy.2@research.gla.ac.uk.


The Empire State Building as viewed from street level.

New York City, 1920-1945

Image: Street Level View of the Empire State Building.

New York City underwent unprecedented alterations in the first half of the twentieth century, with its axis of development switching by ninety degrees so that most of its growth took place on the vertical instead of the horizontal plane. The sense of dislocation and unease engendered by this change in elevation is evident in the texts written about the City by many women in the era. What is it about the city which is so bad for their mental health? How do female authors present the city, and its impact upon women? What is the relationship between geographical space and soundness of mind, and how is that captured in these fictional representations of mental illness? An opening foray into the literature highlighted a wide range of study regarding women and the city, madness in literature, mental illness in cities, female literature, female mental illness, taking in the whole scope of medicine, human geography and literary criticism, but no one was asking how the city’s impact upon female mental health is represented in literature. I contend that these female authors were giving voice to a moment of cultural anxiety, that New York City was a locus of particular tension and that valuable insight about the relationship between female mental illness and urban infrastructure can be gained from examining these under-appreciated texts.

My Authors

I consider works by five women, each tackling a different aspect of urban stress, and each broadly aligned to a different part of the city. I look at the built environment, race, ethnicity, sexuality and class in New York as depicted through these texts. 

Statue of liberty against a cloudy sky.
The Statue of Liberty.
Photo Credit: Y MORAN on Unsplash.

Fannie Hurst

Once billed as the highest earning author of short stories in America, Hurst wrote about the everyday lives of the women she saw around her. She engages with the physical aspects of New York, and captures the sensory onslaught of the most populated city in the world. The stories of hers that I focus on take in the Garment District, Coney Island and the Bowery. 

Man walking up path towards Coney Island
The Approach to Coney Island.
Photo Credit: Yohann LIBOT on Unsplash.

Ann Petry

Petry’s novel The Street (1946) tackles the devastating impact of structural racism in the US in the 1940s. Predominantly set in Harlem, Petry evokes the claustrophobia of overcrowded brownstone tenement houses, and the daily trauma of African American women living in the City.

Families sitting outside a boarding house in Harlem
Families in Harlem.
Photo Credit: The New York Public Library on Unsplash.

“Right now she couldn’t even think straight, couldn’t even see straight. She kept thinking about the street, kept seeing it.”

The Street, Ann Petry

Jane Bowles

Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies (1943) is perhaps the least well-known novel in my thesis. Described by Tennessee Williams as “My favourite book. I can’t think of a modern novel that seems more likely to become a classic”,  it has never enjoyed the engagement it deserves. Bowles sends her heroines on epic quests, leaving Manhattan to brave the wilds of Staten Island and Panama respectively in a parallel exploration of their sexuality and their sanity. 

View of lower Manhattan docks from the Staten Island ferry
The Staten Island Ferry.
Photo Credit: New York Public Library

Anzia Yesierska

Salome of the Tenements (1923) was Yezierska’s first novel, and vividly captures the poverty and potential of life on the Lower East Side. Her heroine suffers extremes of emotion as she tries to chart a relationship between her Old World neighbourhood and the Puritan reticence of Madison Avenue. 

Lots of people outside a tenement on Hester Street
Hester Street Hustle.
Photo Credit: New York Public Library

Edith Wharton

Twilight Sleep (1927) sees a return to New York for Wharton, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for her depiction of the Gilded Age in the city. This time she’s taking on the Jazz Age, and the trials and tribulations of the New Woman. Midtown matrons struggle to keep up with their daughters as Wharton presents us with mind cures, maternal anxiety and monomania. 

Lots of old ford cars on a busy street
Midtown Motoring Mayhem.
Photo Credit: New York Public Library

“When Mrs Manford did see her children she was perfect to them; but in this killing New York life, with its ever-multiplying duties and responsibilities, if her family had been allowed to tumble in at all hours and devour her time, her nervous system simply couldn’t have stood it”

Twilight Sleep, Edith Wharton

Textual Mental Illness

As part of my research I undertook a review of the variety of presentations of mental illness across my chosen texts. This allowed me to ascertain the scope and significance of female mental illness as a constant sub theme in New York women’s literature in the era under consideration.

THE STREET 
  • Agoraphobia
  • Claustrophobia
  • Hallucinations 
  • Psychosis 
SALOME OF THE TENEMENTS 
  • Manic Depression 
  • Disassociation 
TWO SERIOUS LADIES 
  • Lesbianism 
  • Alcoholism 
  • Religious Mania 
  • Compulsion 
TWILIGHT SLEEP 
  • Monomania 
  • Depression 
  • Suicidal ideation 
  • Anxiety 
Wrought iron gates of Bellevue Hospital
The Gates of Bellevue Hospital.
Photo Credit: Google Arts & Culture
‘GUILTY’, ‘SHE WALKS IN BEAUTY’ &’ THE VERTICAL CITY’ 
  • Psychosis 
  • Drug addiction 
  • Hallucination 
Old style map showing grid of streets in New York
Map of the Bowery district, 1911.
Image Credit: New York Public Library.

THE LITERARY GEOGRAPHY OF MENTAL ILLNESS 

Female mental illness permeates the New York fiction written by women in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. These authors embodied the mental otherness of their characters within the physical structures of the city, using identifiable locations to externalise the internal chaos.  So a fish market comes to stand in for the stigma of female mental illness, a beautiful hotel equates to feminine addiction and a journey downtown becomes a death trip. If we embrace the work being done in the social sciences and read texts with a geocritical eye, fictionalised settings take on new significance. These literary spaces expand beyond the everyday physical reality of New York City, becoming medicalised metaphors of female mental distress. 

LINKS TO OTHER RESEARCH

We are becoming increasingly aware of the impact of our surroundings upon mental state. My research highlights that women writers were expressing this about New York a hundred years ago, giving literary clues to the effect geography can have upon mental well being. My investigation into fictional representations of the relationship between urban environments and mental illness links to work in the fields of literary studies, architecture, psychiatry, planning and beyond. This short clip highlights this potential, being a poetic discussion of the urgent need to take mental health into account when building cities, in this case London.  
 

Please contact me if you’d like to discuss this further or explore collaborations.