The Magazine

Brainstorm

How psychoanalysis came to America.

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