The Magazine

Brainstorm

How psychoanalysis came to America.

Dec 11, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 13 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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Putnam Camp

Sigmund Freud, James

Jackson Putnam, and the

Purpose of American Psychology

by George Prochnik

Other Press, 480 pp. $29.95

However strenuously one might resist the metaphor, classic Freudianism bears the unmistakable marks of a religious faith--founder and pope, apostles and schismatics and heretics, and, not least, a special keregma or proclamation: the sexual origin of all neurosis. And while he scorned even the idea of religion, Freud himself believed that his psychoanalytic movement might wither, or become a parochial Jewish sect, unless it recruited missionaries to partes infidelium: chiefly America, where, presumably, there were neurotics in abundance with plenty of money to pay for treatment.

This volume tells the story of the recruitment of one key missionary, the eminent Boston neurologist James Jackson Putnam, Harvard Medical School's first professor of diseases of the nervous system and, incidentally, the great-grandfather of the author. George Prochnik's credentials as the chronicler of this old world/new world alli ance include a dual ancestry. His father's family fled Vienna after the Nazi Anschluss in 1938. His mother, James J. Putnam's granddaughter, came of that echt-New England strain, so that in Prochnik we have an emblematic juncture of the two cultures united, not without tensions, in the Freud-Putnam collaboration.

James J. Putnam, rather late in a distinguished career, became Freud's leading exponent in America following Freud's visit in the summer of 1909. Stanley Hall, president of Clark University, invited Freud, along with a host of other world-class savants--"men with bulging brains," observed the local newspaper--for an anniversary celebration. Putnam, having just removed his favorite daughter's inflamed appendix in an emergency kitchen-table operation, hastened to Worcester for the Freudian revelation that would radically alter his life and practice.

Putnam Camp, from which the title is drawn, was a rustic family retreat in the Adirondack wilderness where Freud, with his companions Carl G. Jung and Sandor Ferenczi, spent a long weekend at Putnam's invitation in June 1909, immediately following the Clark jamboree. It was Freud's maiden exposure to the exotic recreational rituals of Yankeedom, a sort of miniature coed Bohemian Grove where country cooking, long hikes and steep climbs, silly songs and sillier versifying, bonfires and skits, handicrafts, and Serious Talk were the order of the day. In their discussions at the camp, Putnam and Freud sealed a friendship that would have enduring echoes in American psychology.

As one might expect, the mixture produced volatile cultural and ideological frictions that wore upon, without fatally damaging, the collaboration. Freudianism was suspected in Putnam's professional circles of an unwholesome obsession with sex; and when the new convert read a paper at one neurological conference, a colleague accused him of telling "pornographic stories about pure virgins." The "pornography" suspicion has dogged psychoanalysis from the start, and was even shared, it seems, by both Mrs. Putnam and Mrs. Freud.

In any case, Freud welcomed Putnam warmly into the psychoanalytic verein, and invited him to keynote its Weimar conference in 1911. Even so, Putnam, a decade Freud's senior, remained his own man. Until his death in the Armistice year, he sought to blend a Freudian clinical practice with some enlargement of personal vision. Far more than Freud's, his emphasis was on some sort of sublimation, the conversion of libido to "higher" uses.

He viewed the need as elementary. Psychoanalysis might bring a patient to grasp the buried sources of his neurosis, but what followed? Did the therapeutic task end there, with personal insight? Or might the therapist--Freud, again, drastically resisted the transformation of psychoanalysis into mere therapy--encourage his client to imagine an ideal self-transcendence? Putnam's interest in transcendence was reinforced by his Emersonian heritage (the Concord sage and his son were Putnam family friends) and, even more so, by his patient Susan Blow, an eminent Hegelian philosopher and educator, the "mother of the American kindergarten movement," and also a depressive. In her long, intimate dialogue with Freud's chosen American, Blow advocated an idealism infused with Hegelian dialectic leading to some "higher" synthesis. The precise content of that synthesis might be undefined; but in Blow's view, psychoanalysis could only be the threshold of a larger vision.

This, of course, spelled trouble. Freud fiercely denied that psychoanalysis could or should promote a "world-view," least of all a religious one. When what he viewed as a "black tide" of obscurantism and mysticism cropped up in Jung's thought, he forced Jung to withdraw from the psychoanalytic movement. Yet Freud was inclined to humor Putnam's visionary quirks, up to a point. While he adopted Freud's system, Putnam lobbied delicately for Freud's endorsement of a metaphysical goal. Freud's letters transmitted signals of amiable appeasement of the high-minded Bostonian, but what the founder was saying privately to Ferenczi about Putnam's spiritual hobby horse suggests a certain disingenuousness.

Clinically, Putnam was soon weaned from the quackish, physiologically oriented neurological "cures" popular at the turn of the century, the era when "neurasthenia" was treated by hydrotherapy to restore mental energy, and when the Rev. Sylvester Graham invented his eponymous cracker as, in part, a deterrent to masturbation. Putnam assuredly found that psychoanalysis, the talking cure, produced better results, and was startled to find that he had hardly known what went on in the heads of patients he had been treating for years. Meanwhile, he continued his personal analysis with Freud, tendering intimate disclosures by mail about his marital life that must have seemed awkward to a dignified New Englander in his seventh decade.

Putnam Camp is, then, a revealing chronicle of cross-cultural polarities: Boston and Vienna, Jew and Gentile, American and European, sexuality and transcendence. It is also a story of the mechanics of intellectual transmission and, with the exception of an occasional runaway sentence, well told.

The American psychoanalytic movement established by James Jackson Putnam flourished in its fashion. "Don't they know we are bringing the plague?" Freud had asked his companions Jung and Ferenczi as their ship sailed into New York Harbor that epochal day in 1909. The gist of that gnomic (and presumably lighthearted) question remains elusive, but it was perhaps an instance in which a joke in proper Freudian fashion veiled unconscious complexities.

Whatever it was, the bacillus certainly had a future.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is a former editor and columnist in Washington. His novel, Lions at Lamb House, about Freud and Henry James, will be published next year.