Why Freud hated America

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Author: Howard L. Kaye
Date: Spring 1993
From: The Wilson Quarterly(Vol. 17, Issue 2)
Publisher: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Document Type: Article
Length: 4,167 words

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Sigmund Freud came to the United States in 1909 an eager admirer of this nation and left after a brief visit one of its more vehement critics. Baffled scholars have gone so far as to wonder if it was the American taste for barbecue that alienated the father of psychoanalysis. Here Howard Kaye argues that Freud was appalled by what American reality revealed about his own theories.

Sigmund Freud was well-established but far from famous when he received a letter in December 1908 from G. Stanley Hall, a noted American psychologist and the president of Clark University, inviting him to give a series of introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. The 52-year-old physician would be one of several distinguished speakers at a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the Worcester, Massachusetts, institution. It was an exciting opportunity for Freud, but he had misgivings. Like most cultured Europeans of his day, he viewed the United States with casual contempt, considering it a land of vulgarity and prudishness. More to the point, he thought it unlikely that his sexual theories would be well-received by a nation of uncultured prudes. Despite such misgivings, Freud's ambitions for psychoanalysis and vanity prevailed. After further correspondence with Hall, he accepted the invitation. To Carl Jung, then his closest disciple, Freud confessed, "This has thrilled me more than anything else that has happened in the last few years...and I have been thinking of nothing else."

To Freud the invitation was tangible evidence that his reputation was at last beginning to grow and that psychoanalysis was achieving respectability. Slowly, he was putting behind him the long years of what he called his "splendid isolation." In 1908, more than 20 years after he had begun the long journey from neurology to psychoanalysis, he reconstituted and formalized as the Vienna Psycho-Analytic Society, the Wednesday-night group of obscure, Jewish, and all-too-bohemian physicians who met at his Vienna flat to smoke and discuss his ideas. He had also attracted new disciples, including several promising foreigners who lent his movement more respectability. As well as Karl Abraham in Berlin and Sandor Ferenczi in Budapest, there were the essential non-Jews, Ernest Jones in London and Jung in Zurich.

Although Freud had written several books, including The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), they had found only a small and specialized audience. The lectures at Clark, which Hall had already made an important American center in the fledgling field of psychology, would mark Freud's first public presentations on psychoanalysis. In attendance would be intellectual eminences such as philosopher William James, anthropologist Franz Boas, and neurologist James J. Putnam (later the first president of the American Psychoanalytic Association). Freud's ideas might finally gain a sympathetic hearing within established, albeit American, intellectual circles.

There was, however, another reason for Freud's excitement. As he explained to Jung, Hall's invitation had reawakened his "youthful enthusiasm" for the United States. According to his sister Anna, that enthusiasm was kindled when the 17-year-old Freud encountered the Gettysburg Address and some of Abraham Lincoln's letters at...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A13905340