According to a new article in the American Psychological Association journal, the 1800s saw a popular form of therapy called “The West Cure”:
The West Cure also promoted physical fitness, allowing patients to attain the manly, muscular build popular at the time.
While the Rest Cure could be an unpleasant experience, West Cure patients typically returned refreshed and reinvigorated. Eakins had the time of his life in the Dakotas, where he herded cattle, slept on the ground, mingled with cowboys and wrote fondly of his experiences to his wife, Susan. He returned from his ranching expedition looking “built up miraculously,” according to his friend Walt Whitman.
Mitchell, a self-diagnosed neurasthenic, enjoyed the West Cure himself. He made camping and fishing expeditions in the Western United States and Canada nearly every year. He saw these trips as a necessary respite from his intellectual pursuits and as a means of preventing nervous breakdowns.
Because so many prominent American men experienced the West Cure, the therapy had a major impact on the nation’s culture, particularly its literature and politics. Walt Whitman documented his 1879 journey out West in “Specimen Days” (1882), while novelist Owen Wister channeled his West Cure experiences in Wyoming into the first American Western, “The Virginian” (1902). This successful novel went through 16 printings in the year it was published, and spawned an immensely popular genre of fiction and films that continues to be influential today.
The West Cure also influenced American politics via U.S. President and recovered neurasthenic Theodore Roosevelt. In the 1880s, Roosevelt visited the Dakotas several times to treat his asthma and neurasthenic symptoms (Roosevelt was friends with Owen Wister, Mitchell’s patient and close friend). He also hoped to develop a more masculine appearance.
Before heading West, Roosevelt’s effeminate looks and high voice provoked comparisons to Oscar Wilde; afterward, he became known for his strenuous brand of masculinity. Roosevelt’s motto, “speak softly and carry a big stick,” sums up the ethos of many Westerns, in which stoic men of action engage in constant battles with nature, Indians and rogue cowboys. Like many men of his generation, Roosevelt felt that masculinity was forged by conflict, an attitude that carried over into his imperialist foreign policy.
Body, psyche, and soul: the spirit of the American West sees them integrated. It is no coincidence that the Integral / World Spirituality movement generated its most influential proponents in the mountain West.