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The Slumbering Masses

Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life

2012
Author:

Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer

The Slumbering Masses

An eye-opening look at why a “good night’s sleep” might be anything but

The Slumbering Masses addresses the phenomenon of sleep and sleeplessness in the U.S., tracing the influence of medicine and industrial capitalism on Americans’ sleeping habits since the nineteenth century. Drawing on untapped archival sources and ethnographic research with people who experience and treat sleep abnormalities, Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer analyzes and critiques how sleep and its supposed disorders are understood and treated.

A groundbreaking contribution to our understanding of sleep and its manifold discontents. With scrupulous care, Matthew Wolf-Meyer probes the current state of sleep medicine as well as its absorbing history. At a time when modern society’s dependence on sleeping pills and plush bedding has never been greater, The Slumbering Masses is all the more welcome for its ambitious compass and penetrating insights.

A. Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past

Americans spend billions of dollars every year on drugs, therapy, and other remedies trying to get a good night’s sleep. Anxieties about not getting enough sleep and the impact of sleeplessness on productivity, health, and happiness pervade medical opinion, the workplace, and popular culture. In The Slumbering Masses, Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer addresses the phenomenon of sleep and sleeplessness in the United States, tracing the influence of medicine and industrial capitalism on the sleeping habits of Americans from the nineteenth century to the present.

Before the introduction of factory shift work, Americans enjoyed a range of sleeping practices, most commonly two nightly periods of rest supplemented by daytime naps. The new sleeping regimen—eight uninterrupted hours of sleep at night—led to the pathologization of other ways of sleeping. Arguing that the current model of sleep is rooted not in biology but in industrial capitalism’s relentless need for productivity, The Slumbering Masses examines so-called Z-drugs that promote sleep, the use of both legal and illicit stimulants to combat sleepiness, and the contemporary politics of time. Wolf-Meyer concludes by exploring the extremes of sleep, from cases of perpetual sleeplessness and the sleepwalking defense in criminal courts to military experiments with ultra-short periods of sleep.

Drawing on untapped archival sources and long-term ethnographic research with people who both experience and treat sleep abnormalities, Wolf-Meyer analyzes and sharply critiques how sleep and its supposed disorders are understood and treated. By recognizing the variety and limits of sleep, he contends, we can establish more flexible expectations about sleep and, ultimately, subvert the damage of sleep pathology and industrial control on our lives.

Awards

Co-winner of the Society for Medical Anthropology’s 2013 New Millennium Book Award

The Slumbering Masses

Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

The Slumbering Masses

A groundbreaking contribution to our understanding of sleep and its manifold discontents. With scrupulous care, Matthew Wolf-Meyer probes the current state of sleep medicine as well as its absorbing history. At a time when modern society’s dependence on sleeping pills and plush bedding has never been greater, The Slumbering Masses is all the more welcome for its ambitious compass and penetrating insights.

A. Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past

The Slumbering Masses is a fascinating account of the ordering and disordering of sleep as an institutional and individual phenomenon in modern America. Wolf-Meyer brings us into the lives of people struggling—at work, at home, and in clinics—to align their nights and days with the abstract demands of sleep as a biomedical form and social norm. He takes us into the past, too—expertly laying to rest fantasies of a prelapsarian agrarian lifestyle—and into the future—investigating how global sleep patterns have started to stagger and syncopate in response to advanced capitalism. Wolf-Meyer teaches us that sleep has a social life, and a restless one at that.

Stefan Helmreich, MIT

A deconstruction of current preconceptions about sleep. Wolf-Meyer (Anthropology/Univ. of California, Santa Cruz) challenges the notion, promulgated by the medical community and pharmaceutical companies, that the norm of eight hours of consolidated sleep has been scientifically established to be crucial for medical and physical health.

Kirkus Reviews

A fascinating scholarly approach that will cause readers to question some of the givens regarding sleep habits in American culture.

Library Journal

A great primer on the history and variability of sleep patterns, this book points to more flexible, realistic expectations of sleep to avoid both the drugs and the nights of insomnia.

ForeWord Reviews

“The Slumbering Masses,” by Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer, takes a polemical view of what might be called the “sleep question.” Wolf-Meyer, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, spent four years interviewing just about everyone involved in sleep research: physicians, technicians, patients, members of patients’ families. He concludes that what Americans have come to think of as sleep problems are mostly just problems in the way Americans have come to think about sleep.

The New Yorker

The Slumbering Masses

Contents

Abbreviations
Preface: Sleep at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century
Introduction: From the Lone Sleeper to the Slumbering Masses

Part I. Sleeping, Past and Present
1. The Rise of American Sleep Medicine: Diagnosing (and Misdiagnosing) Sleep
2. The Protestant Origins of American Sleep
3. Sleeping and Not Sleeping in the Clinic: How Medicine Is Remaking Biology
and Society

Part II. Cultures of Sleep
4. Desiring a Good Night’s Sleep: Order and Disorder in Everyday Life
5. Before We Fall Asleep: Children’s Sleep and the Rise of the Solitary Sleeper
6. Pharmaceuticals and the Making of Modern Bodies and Rhythms
7. Early to Rise: Creating Well-Rested American Workers
8. Chemical Consciousness
9. Sleeping on the Job: From Siestas to Workplace Naps
10. Take Back Your Time: Activism and Overworked Americans

Part III. The Limits of Sleep
11. Unconsciousness Criminality: Sleepwalking Murders, Drowsy Driving,
and the Vigilance of the Law
12. The Extremes of Sleep: War, Sports, and Science

Conclusion: The Futures of Sleep

Acknowledgments
Notes
Index