Our Viennese friend
In 1909, unheralded in Europe and virtually unknown here, Sigmund Freud made his only trip to the United States. There he met James Jackson Putnam, the Boston Brahmin who would introduce him to America.
ON SEPT. 7, 1909, Sigmund Freud stood before the most prestigious and likely the most eccentric audience he had ever faced. Along with members of the general public there were leaders in the fields of psychology, neurology, education, and anthropology; interdisciplinary geniuses and cranks; and even the odd political revolutionary. (Emma Goldman showed up, along with her anarchist consort Ben Reitman.) The setting for this crackling event was not a Viennese hall of high culture, nor a vanguard Parisian medical institute. It was an auditorium in Worcester, Mass., on the campus of Clark University.
Freud's appearance at Clark, where he gave five lectures over as many days and where he received the one honorary degree ever bestowed upon him, was the purpose of his only trip to the United States and the major forum for intellectual exchange during his visit. It was also where he first encountered James Jackson Putnam, a pioneering American psychologist and neurologist whose own work has been all but forgotten, but who would help secure the safe passage of Freud's theories into the American consciousness. As the world marks the 150th anniversary of Freud's birth, the story of their relationship is worth remembering.
Putnam's enthusiasm for the introduction to psychoanalysis that Freud delivered at Clark-extemporaneously, and in German-was striking in part because, on the face of things at least, he was Freud's polar opposite. Ten years Freud's senior, Putnam was a quintessential Boston Brahmin: descended from Cotton Mather; close friends with William James and with Ralph Waldo Emerson's son Edward; married to a Cabot; a professor at Harvard University and clinician at Massachusetts General Hospital. Where Freud turned to a global pantheon of figures-Sophocles, Goethe, Heine, Shakespeare-for his inspiration, for Putnam it was the Sage of Concord (Emerson, Emerson, and more Emerson) to whom he returned throughout his life as a touchstone of thought and faith.
Professionally speaking, Putnam had everything to lose and nothing to gain from an association with Freud, whose work at the time was largely unknown in America and largely dismissed in Europe. The invitation to Clark-instigated by the college's president, G. Stanley Hall, a psychologist who was fascinated by the role of sexuality in human development-proved to be a pivotal moment in Freud's career.
Freud was already 53, but had so far failed to win professional respect in Vienna, where the university and medical establishments were mired in Byzantine bureaucracy and an underlying anti-Semitism. ``The Interpretation of Dreams," which he considered his masterwork, had been selling, on average, well under a hundred copies a year. His fledgling efforts to establish a psychoanalytic association were already fraught with internal dissension. Dependent on an intense caseload for his livelihood, he first declined the invitation to Worcester on the grounds that the honorarium was too small. (He only agreed when Hall doubled the sum to 3,000 marks, about $750-a respectable, though not exorbitant sum.)
Yet Putnam was so excited by what he heard at Clark that on the spot he asked Freud-along with his traveling companions Sandor Ferenczi and Carl Jung-to visit Putnam Camp, his family's retreat in the Adirondacks. Squeezed among amateur dramatics, bonfire Wagner sing-alongs, tetherball tournaments, and debilitatingly rigorous mountain climbing parties, Freud and Putnam yet found time to get, as Freud later wrote, ``deep into conversation." Freud noted approvingly that Putnam was ``much more at home" with psychoanalytic concepts than he had expected. Indeed, Putnam was beginning a process of quasi-religious conversion to Freud's vision of human psychology.
Putnam would remain a tireless champion of Freud and his work on the page and in public forums for the remaining nine years of his life, writing close to two dozen major papers on behalf of the psychoanalytic movement, defending it with eloquence and pluck against charges that it was an obscene project-"pornographic stories about pure virgins," as one detractor put it. In the summer of 1910, Freud petitioned Putnam to become the first head of the American branch of the International Psychoanalytic Association, writing him that ``only you and only Boston could be the starting point" for such an organization.
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There was in Boston at the time a great ferment in the discipline of psychology. Putnam, James, and the philosopher Josiah Royce, among others, sought scientific means of treating prevailing mental illnesses, thereby providing an effective alternative to the faith-based healing offered by rising populist movements such as Christian Science.
For all the enthusiasm about new psychotherapeutic treatments among eminent Bostonians, however, cure rates remained disappointing. What Putnam thrilled to in Freud's work was that it provided an overarching theory of the mind, in contrast to the piecemeal findings of Putnam and his peers.
At Clark, Freud explained that the main task of psychoanalysis was to make unconscious wishes conscious. Doing so enabled patients to avoid ``repression," which led the mind's unconscious energies to turn into dark neuroses. When we knowingly refuse our uglier (often sexual) instincts we have power over them, Freud believed. But there were also rare cases when the unconscious wishes uncovered by psychoanalysis need not be ``condemned." In a brilliant handful of individuals-among whom Freud counted himself-these unconscious wishes, once owned up to, could by force of character be converted into fuel for grand, nonsexual achievements. Freud called this process sublimation.
Freud considered sublimation of minimal relevance when it came to the practice of psychoanalysis. He almost certainly introduced the concept in his lectures at Clark in an attempt to make less threatening for his American audience his core notion that sex was at the root of almost all mental illness and human behavior. For Freud, the idea of sublimation was really a side bonus-something that might or might not happen to the enlightened few after the analyst had already wrapped up his work.
Yet the idea of sublimation struck a deep chord in Putnam's imagination, becoming for him a missing key to the whole science of psychology. He embraced the notion that the energies of neuroses-in particular ones formed in the crucible of sexual despair-could be converted into a positive force that enabled patients to transcend their previous selves. In the darkness lay the secret of illumination.
This idea led Putnam to see psychoanalysis as an ultimately optimistic practice, which fit right into the Emersonian ideas in which he was steeped. It meant, among other things, that the psychologist would serve not only as a therapist, but as a kind of philosophical and spiritual guide to his patients. It wasn't sufficient to strip patients of their neuroses and leave them to find their own way forward; to do so would risk, as Putnam wrote Freud in 1914, making patients feel ``as Dante would have felt if Virgil had deserted him somewhere on the slopes of the Mount of Purgatory."
Putnam pressed his notion of the psychologist as metaphysical guide on his friend from Vienna, but with little success. When Freud at last, in late 1911, voluntarily took up the study of religion (in preparation for writing ``Totem and Taboo," his first in-depth study of the psychological roots of our spiritual beliefs and practices), he reported to Putnam on the various authors he was delving into, mostly folklorists and anthropologists. In response, Putnam pleaded that Freud ``read certain ones which I will send you," hoping to pass along with his reading list his belief in the importance of spiritual conviction as well.
We don't know how many of Putnam's reading recommendations Freud took up, but my guess is not many. Freud wasn't searching for epiphany. Salvational truth was not his chosen poison. When Freud read religious works, as he admitted to Putnam, he did so to dissect his own ``lack of a religious need." Indeed, Freud embraced doubt, writing at one point to his aristocratic advocate, Marie Bonaparte, ``Only the real, rare, true scientific minds can endure doubt, which is attached to all our knowledge."
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The Clark lectures provided Freud with a vital beachhead in the New World from which his influence began to ripple outwards. Demand for translated versions of Freud's work began to spread, marking the onset of a public curiosity about psychoanalysis that developed in tandem with Putnam's professional commitment to win over American physicians to the cause.
The eventual success of Freud's theories in the US, even while dogged by controversy, is well known. For Putnam, however, the alliance with Freud came at considerable personal and professional cost. While his unflagging advocacy on Freud's behalf damped down the fury of some of Freud's fiercest American opponents, and prepared the ground for future American psychologists to take up the cause of analysis with relative impunity, in Putnam's own lifetime most of the professionals adopted, at best, attitudes of cool toleration toward Freud's ideas-if not outright distaste.
Freud's emphasis on sex, and his notion that spiritual impulses amounted merely to displaced erotic desires, was anathema to William James, among others of Putnam's Boston colleagues. Putnam's wife, Marian, responded to his enthisiasm for analysis with ``tragic bitterness," according to one of their daughters, seeing in it the ruin of his career. Putnam's standing and patient load did sink after his decision to join the psychoanalytic cause. But for Putnam, who cared more about truth than glory, what mattered was his conviction that psychoanalysis was the real thing, even as he disagreed with its founder about its ultimate purpose.
George Prochnik, great-grandson of James Jackson Putnam, is the author of ``Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam and the Purpose of American Psychology," to be published in September by the Other Press. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.