Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Opal: Alpina

From Shorpy
Yesterday I read a blurb about annual festivals at the Utica Asylum in Janet Miron's book Prisons, Asylums, and the Public: Institutional Visiting in the Nineteenth Century. I wanted to learn a little bit more about those festivals. That's how I found this image which dates from the 1890s. From there, one click followed another and before I knew it I had entered into the Google rabbit hole. I came back up with The Opal. 

The Opal was published in the 1850s by the New York Lunatic Asylum in Utica. Only two of the ten volumes appear to be available online. The others are locked up in various libraries. I've unleashed my irreverent librarian network to see if I might acquire access to these other volumes. 

Benjamin Reiss writes that the patients at the asylum were given "unusual, but not unprecedented, platform to address the public. The Opal, the patients’ literary journal, grew out of a school for patients run by the doctors; its first issue in 1850 was pen-printed and distributed only within the asylum. The next issues were sold at an asylum fair, and by 1851, the journal was published on the asylum’s printing press" 

The journal, of course, doesn't present a complete view of patient life at the asylum. Reiss points out that the journal "was an outlet only for those patients whose voices were deemed appropriate; even then, those voices only partially captured the experiences and thoughts of the authors, who always had to self-censor in order to find their way into print."

So let's take a peek inside volume II of The Opal. First published in 1852, my digitized copy is 382 pages and comprises of twelve monthly installments. The periodical, as described on the opening page to the right, is "Devoted to Usefulness" and "Edited By The Patients." 

I wonder what use the volume has 160 years later? I'm more than a little excited to read through the text and see who reaches out from the past and tells us something interesting about ourselves today.

As I read along I'm going to track themes that I'm thinking about. They'll appear in my commentary in bold. See a theme that I miss or think I've got something wrong? Leave a comment--this might turn into something larger than an occasional blog post. Your help is appreciated.

First up is Alpina: A Tale of Switzerland. Our anonymous author writes seven pages of prose that takes us on a journey from her home in Switzerland, to her passage to America by sea, to her eventual marriage and settlement in Indiana. 

I've selected a few passages that stand out to me. 
"Alpina herself entered her Father's and Mother's apartment, with a fresh unction on her soul, and kneeling at the bed-side of her inebriated parent, poured fourth in convulsive sobs, half stifled ejaculations, for his restoration to reason and duty." 
The facts of the author of Alpina are undoubtedly lost to history. We'll assume the author wrote some sort of fiction that was inspired by lived experience. There are two things that stand out to me in this particular passage: (1) the author makes mention of childhood complications that have an effect on later life development and (2) the theme of restoration to a state of sanity (described as reason and duty).
"Refinement of manners is always agreeable, and this young and only daughter was the idol of a fond parent. She never told her grief for his debasement, but let concealment, like a worm in the bad, feed on her damask cheek  and unlike the custom of the world, she never intimated that her Father was an inebriate, or told him how wretched he was."
Our author again speaks to childhood complications and adds a new dimension to their experience: silence. I wonder why the author decided, unlike the custom of the world, to keep silent about the alcoholism and wretchedness of Alpina's father.
"Educated as she was to prefer others, to bring herself to the wishes of others, and to seek their best good and usefulness, she lent her ear to sorrow in its every form, and gave her heart to sympathies, and her actions to engagements that tend to woo. No reproof, nor innuendoes, let a suspicion in those whom she sought to ameliorate, but with every look of love, and every smile of sweetness  and each embrace she gave her parent it seemed as if an angel girded him around--and her kisses and tears (a lady's most powerful battery,) divested him of that rudeness he had acquired by associations with the reckless and the unprincipled."
Here our author gives some suggestions on their views of the roles of women. That role was one of limited power. Alpinia appears to have few tools of agency at her disposal: tears and kisses.
Alpina's father emigrated to the United States first and settled on a homestead in Indiana  "So soon as possible after he had made his home in order, he sent to the Counsel at Basle to convey with all despatch (sic) his wife and daughter to his adopted country.... Being the worst sailors in the world, they suffered very much from the illness generally attendant to ship board novices. Alpina and the little children recovered from their serious illness, but the mother sickened and died. Here was the outbreaking of Alpina's mental aberrations, for her gentle spirit could not broke so many sorrows, and she bent and snapped--a tender plant,--which the winds and storms had visited too roughly. As Alpina gazed at the form of her lifeless Mother, she was mute, her grief was too deep, she could not realize her loss. So powerful was her attachment, that all she heard or saw was only a part of the loved object that was motionless in death."
Themes here of grief and etiology of mental illness. The author also hints that emotions (grief, in this passage) can cause a loss of agency.
"Painful indeed it was, to see her approach the dear one in her grave dress  and that grave to be the bottomless Sea. But she did come up to the last kiss, embrace and farewell--and old salt, all bathed in tears, caught her up in his arms, and let her kiss the clay-cold lips of her Mother. Poor Alphina!--Poor Alpina! She was dumb with emotion, and loneliness -and felt the luxury of grief oozing out of her living soul--awhile after the sad ceremonials."
Here our author touches on themes about emotions (grief) and death.
"On arriving at their destined port, Alpina was placed in one of those blessings to mankind, named Asylums, where under the care of its Physician, she became soothed and restored."
Here we have our first mention of an asylum. The author suggests that an asylum is a place for caring for ones emotions (soothing) as well as restoration. I wonder if our author really found restoration at the asylum? Perhaps so, or, perhaps the author was trying to curry favor with a physician and was saying what needed to be said to be released.
"Would that all were as grateful as Alpina Swartz, for that restoration to health, induced by the skill, science and humanity of an Asylum, and as she glided over the splendid "high ways and by ways," to her new home in the far west, her countenance, manner and intelligence bespoke an interest in her behalf that words could not express."
Now the author here had not yet been released from the asylum. This passage perhaps represents a hope for the future--being released from the asylum, traveling far away, and being reunited with their family. Note here the reference to agency--here described as a self-interest.
"The hour of grief is the hour for love, and Alpina was deeply sympathized with by a kind young hoosier who had entered Justice Swartz's office to become a lawyer. And he won upon her affections; always together, their union was inseparable, and they were permitted to join hearts and hands--and live as members of the same family on Earth,--hoping to meet a dear departed mother in Heaven."
The story of Alpina ends with marriage. A hope to be cared for someone in the future in a loving way, and a hope to be reconnected once again with her dead mother in heaven. Also more reference here to the theme of emotions.

That's it for the Opal for now. Come back later for more.

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