Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology

By Richards, Arnold | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, February 2008 | Go to article overview

Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology


Richards, Arnold, International Journal of Psychoanalysis


Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology by George Prochnik Other Press, New York, 2006; 471 pp; $29.95

George Prochnik, the son of a Viennese Jew and the great-grandson of James Jackson Putnam, has written a fascinating account of the relationship between his great-grandfather, a Boston Brahmin neurologist, and Sigmund Freud, the Viennese Jewish neurologist who founded psychoanalysis. Putnam's association with Freud began during Freud's trip to the United States to deliver a series of lectures on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the founding of Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

Though Putnam had been interested in Freud's work for several years and had read most of Freud's published papers at the time of their first encounter, he had misgivings about Freud's psychoanalysis as a method of treatment. Prochnik writes: ''He felt that analysis took too much time and demanded too thorough and degrading a generation of patients' histories to constitute any sort of redemption of psychotherapy''. Prochnik continues, ''Elements of the treatment could be useful, but nothing truly seized the higher Bostonians' imagination''.

However, in Worcester, when Putnam heard Freud's lectures, he found them riveting. Putnam was so affected by his encounter with Freud that he invited Freud, Jung and Ferenczi to spend a weekend with him at his family compound in the Adirondacks (near Keene, NY) just so that he would be able to spend more time with Freud. Much has been written about Freud's visit to the Adirondacks, his encounter there with nature, his search for a porcupine (he found a dead one), and his game of tether ball with Francis, Putnam's 12 year-old child.

The comings and goings of the foursome are described in some detail in the first two chapters of the book, The Utter Wilderness and To Find One's Porcupine, after which the book leaves the Putnam camp and turns to Putnam's development as a psychoanalyst, his interest in transcendental philosophy and spirituality; Freud's interest in religion and the occult; and the interaction of Freud and Putnam until Putnam's death in 1919. Along the way we watch them as they appear on various psychoanalytic and historical stages, the Weimar and Nuremberg Congresses, and the periods before, during and after World War I. We look in on Freud in Vienna, in Rome, on vacation. We learn about the relationships between Putnam and his wife Marian and his children, especially his daughter Molly (Prochnik's great-aunt), and the similarities between the relationship between Putnam and Molly and Freud and Anna, as well as the similarities in Molly's and Anna's professional careers. We also learn a lot about Freud's interaction with his followers and his defectors, including Ferenczi and Jung, the other two visitors to the Putnam camp.

The subtitle of Prochnik's book is The Purpose of American Psychology, and the history of both American psychology and the American philosophy of Transcendentalism and the St. Louis Hegelian movement are considered in some depth. The ideas of the latter were influenced by Susan Blow, Putnam's former patient and spiritual and philosophical advisor and confidante, who is the third major figure of Prochnik's book. The strength of Prochnik's account comes from first-hand sources: the published Freud/Putnam correspondence edited by Nathan Hale; the other published Freud correspondences; the Putnam archives in Boston; the Blow archives in St. Louis, and a treasure trove of Putnam family letters which had been stashed away in the childhood house in which he grew up and which his mother revealed to him while he was working on this book.

Prochnik's account of the founding of the American Psychoanalytic Association in Baltimore in May 1911 does omit an important piece of history. In May 1910 the American Psychopathological Association, with Putnam as its president, was founded in Boston as an off-shoot of the American Neurological Association. …

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