When he published his dramatic, book-length poem The Age of Anxiety in 1947, W. H. Auden gave an enduring diagnostic name to the emotional malaise of the postwar era. To be sure, anxiety was not a new concept or concern. It had figured centrally in the work of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, acquired wider notoriety in the turn-of-the-century outbreak of a catch-all collection of nervous symptoms labeled neurasthenia, and become the subject of best-selling self-help books during the Great Depression. After World War II, however, anxiety became the defining disorder of the times. It was the name for the manifold fears, struggles, and uncertainties of life in a rapidly changing world, with new perils and new expectations, shifting social and work conditions, and an intensified emphasis on individuality. In what is “almost universally regarded as the Age of Anxiety,” Time observed in a 1961 cover story, “The Anatomy of Angst,” “the greatest single cause of anxiety” may be a “kind of compulsory freedom.” This was a freedom that required self-creation, constant effort, and productivity—in sum, the overcoming of limitations in the restless pursuit of possibilities.
Yet within a mere three decades of its Time, Inc., apotheosis, anxiety was dethroned, its position as the signature affliction of the Western world appropriated by depression. How had Sovereign Anxiety fallen? Among the many explanations, three are especially noteworthy.
—Joseph E. Davis