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

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

by George Prochnik

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Winner of the 2007 Gradiva Award

An innovative work of biography that traces the lasting impact of the friendship between Sigmund Freud and pioneering American psychologist James Jackson Putnam.

In 1909 Sigmund Freud made his only visit to America, which included a trip to "Putnam Camp”–the eminent American psychologist James Jackson Putnam's


Winner of the 2007 Gradiva Award

An innovative work of biography that traces the lasting impact of the friendship between Sigmund Freud and pioneering American psychologist James Jackson Putnam.

In 1909 Sigmund Freud made his only visit to America, which included a trip to "Putnam Camp”–the eminent American psychologist James Jackson Putnam's family retreat in the Adirondacks. "Of all the things that I have experienced in America, this is by far the most amazing," Freud wrote of Putnam Camp. Putnam, a Boston Unitarian, and Freud, a Viennese Jew, came from opposite worlds, cherished polarized ambitions, and promoted seemingly irreconcilable visions of human nature–and yet they struck up an unusually fruitful collaboration. Putnam's unimpeachable reputation played a crucial role in legitimizing the psychoanalytic movement. By the time of Putnam's death in 1918, psychoanalysis had been launched in America, where–in large part thanks to the influence of Putnam, and in a development Freud had not anticipated–it went on to become a practice that moved beyond the vicissitudes of desire to cultivate the growth and spiritual aspirations of the individual as a whole.

Putnam Camp reveals details of Putnam's and Freud's personal lives that have never been fully explored before, including the crucial role Putnam's muse, Susan Blow–founder of America's first kindergarten, pioneering educator and philosopher in the American Hegelian movement–played in the intense debate between these two great thinkers. As the great-grandson of Putnam, author George Prochnik had access to a wealth of personal firsthand material from the Putnam family–as well as from the James and Emerson families–all of which contribute to a new and intimate vision of the texture of daily life at a moment when America was undergoing a cultural and intellectual renaissance.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Publishers Weekly

This delightfully written, erudite book intertwines the lives and works of Freud and Putnam, along with cultural and intellectual movements of the time, such as Progressivism, spiritualism, transcendentalism and American Hegelianism.

Kirkus Reviews

The great-grandson of James Jackson Putnam explores the relationship between his ancestor and Freud, as revealed in family archives, in published correspondence and other writings by the principals and in existing biographies and commentaries.

Hartford Courant

Prochnik offers a dazzling serving of bold personalities, brilliant ideas and highly unlikely situations that changed the scope of American science.

For a study of the roots of a heavy intellectual topic, Putnam Camp is delightfully spry and often funny. Prochnik is in uncommonly fine form describing how Freud, Jung and Ferenczi reacted with equal shock and wonder to America, particularly the exotica of New York City's Chinatown and Coney Island.

This author's ability to weave a richly compelling and thoroughly human dimension into a complex tale makes Putnam Camp something of a literary rarity: a scientific history that is actually fun to read.

Bookforum, Michael Roth

In Putnam Camp, Prochnik has found a compelling way to connect a specific moment of the past to our more general cultural history. His book can serve readers well who want to consider the contemporary potential of the intersecting legacies of Freudian stoicism and American social hope.

The Weekly Standard, Edwin M. Yoder Jr.

Putnam Camp is...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 New York Times Book Review

In Putnam Camp, George Prochnik approaches the encounter between Old World and New through Freud's relationship with James Jackson Putnam.

Prochnik, Putnam's great-grandson and himself a former mental health counselor, relies on his "opposing parts" — his father's family were Viennese Jews — and his access to a cache of Putnam family correspondence to add texture to the already well-chronicled story of Freud's visit and its consequences.

Nathan G. Hale’s Freud and the Americans (1971) remains the definitive study of psychoanalysis' conquest of America. But if Prochnik adds few new facts, he is an engaging companion on a stroll through quaint surroundings.

The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, Larry Kramer

I cannot overstate how important I believe this book to be....the revolutionary material Prochnik has uncovered—stuff I have never seen, read, or heard about—is that Freud had no trouble with homosexuality....and that he did not mind fantasies that he knew to be homoerotic, and that he himself had such fantasies, including on this particular tripwith Jung himself.

I couldn't put this book down, but after doing so it took me three days and evenings to absorb it.

Peter D. Kramer
Nathan G. Hale’s Freud and the Americans (1971) remains the definitive study of psychoanalysis’ conquest of America. But if Prochnik adds few new facts, he is an engaging companion on a stroll though quaint surroundings. It’s interesting to imagine how Putnam and Blow, who were inching their way toward a therapeutics grounded in civic activism and a respect for the mysterious potential of the mind, might have proceeded in Freud’s absence. Freud may have resisted its charms, but the generous spirit of Putnam Camp remains an enduring strain in American psychology.
— The New York Times
The New Yorker
In 1909, the same summer Freud delivered the Clark University lectures, introducing psychoanalysis to the United States, he joined James Jackson Putnam, a Boston Brahmin physician, for a sojourn at his Adirondack retreat. Prochnik, who is Putnam’s great-grandson, shows how Putnam championed Freud’s methods to an élite and suspicious group of American physicians. At the same time, Putnam tried to convince Freud that therapy was incomplete without some metaphysical dimension, maintaining that patients might need “more than simply to learn to know themselves.” Prochnik provides fascinating, if occasionally arbitrary, details of the historical and social context (“In a typical American meal circa 1909, starch was king”), but his narrative is strongest when it depicts Freud outside his element—trying to play his first game of tetherball, struggling amid campers who hike, sing, and play dress-up games at dinner.
Publishers Weekly
Descended from Boston Brahmins on his mother's side and Viennese Jews on his father's, Prochnik is well equipped to tell the story of the culture clash and strange synergy between the sardonic Sigmund Freud and pioneering American psychologist (and Prochnik's great-grandfather) James Jackson Putnam. Putnam hosted the father of psychoanalysis at his whimsically Waspy Adirondack retreat, Putnam Camp, during Freud's only trip to the U.S. in 1909. This delightfully written, erudite book intertwines the lives and works of Freud and Putnam, along with cultural and intellectual movements of the time, such as Progressivism, spiritualism, transcendentalism and American Hegelianism. While Putnam played an instrumental role in establishing psychoanalysis in the U.S., his intense relationship with Susan Blow, the Hegelian founder of the first American kindergarten, strongly influenced his arguments with Freud. Putnam insisted that psychoanalysis must do more than dismantle the patient's neuroses: it must offer the patient a higher spiritual and ethical purpose. Freud, knowing the long history of anti-Semitism, distrusted Putnam's faith in history's progress and in the ultimate harmony between individual and society. But while Freud's name became a household word, Putnam's views, deftly explained by Prochnik, drawing on long-lost correspondence, have arguably prevailed in American psychology. (Oct.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The great-grandson of James Jackson Putnam explores the relationship between his ancestor and Freud, as revealed in family archives, in published correspondence and other writings by the principals and in existing biographies and commentaries. Debut author Prochnik begins with a rather imaginative description of the arrival of the Viennese psychoanalyst and his colleagues, Sandor Ferenczi and Carl Jung, at Putnam's Adirondack retreat in September 1909. Clearly out of his element in this rustic setting, where an earnest athleticism prevailed, Freud, who had just delivered his famous series of lectures on psychoanalysis at Clark University, was nevertheless eager to spread his ideas to America, and Putnam, a prominent Boston psychologist who was disenchanted with the professional practice of psychology in America, was just the man to help him do it. After their brief time together at the retreat, Freud returned to Vienna, and Putnam to Boston, where he set up his clinic as a psychoanalytic laboratory, started a program of self-analysis and began writing and lecturing widely on Freud's ideas. The two men met again in Europe in 1911, when Freud gave Putnam a brief, intense analysis and Putnam delivered aA sprawling, unwieldy and uneven work.

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Read an Excerpt

Putnam Camp

Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology
By George Prochnik


Copyright © 2006 George Prochnik
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-59051-182-4

Chapter One

The Utter Wilderness

Of all the things that I have experienced in America, this is by far the most amazing. Sigmund Freud to his family, September 16, 1909

The carriage was curious; the woods were impenetrable; the mountains were mammoth; the animals were novel, noisy, and persuasively wild. Freud, Ferenczi, and Jung, knocking knees in the vehicle provided them by their hotel in Lake Placid, peered into the tangle of glacial boulders and soaring timber as they bounced ever deeper into the Adirondacks.

History offers any number of poignant, unlikely conjunctions of person and place: Ovid weeping on a remote shore of the Black Sea in present-day Romania; Benjamin Franklin promenading through the Tuileries in his raccoon-tail cap; Eichmann seated patiently in suit and tie in his glass cage in Jerusalem. However, none of these exceeds in improbability the image of diminutive, soberly outfitted, 53-year-old Sigmund Freud rattling along in a two-horse buggy over a rutted dirt road into the heart of the American wilderness. How many cigars did he puff down to steel his nerves between Lake Placid and Keene Valley? Did he fret about whether he'd brought the right walking shoes? Wonder about how he would manage his rustic toiletries? Freud was openly anxious about thehair erupting across his face, no matter how dutifully he pruned himself. There were all sorts of Semitic stereotypes to worry about in comparing his hirsuteness with the prevailing state of Christian depilation. What in God's name was Freud thinking that wind-slashed mid-September morning as he made his way to my great-grandfather's Adirondack hideaway, Putnam Camp?

* * *

In portraits from the era, Central European medical dignitaries all seem bent on butting everyone else out of the image with their own idiosyncratic renditions of "The Penetrating Glare." Freud himself, cigar cocked in his fingers like a pistol, often looks as though the photographer has just called him a name and Freud is about to shatter the bastard's lens by willpower alone. Unlike other members of his milieu, however, Ferenczi appears, in the main, hopelessly approachable. He was even more petite than Freud, not to mention pudgier and prone to wistful expressions of dreamy pleasure or pain. "Consciously I very often have ideas of smallness," he wrote in an early letter to Freud.

Ferenczi entered the expedition to America less in a missionary attitude than squire-style, to provide a measure of fawning support for the master on alien shores. He was often described as the most emotionally intuitive mad sympathetic character among the early analysts. More than Freud, Jung, or Jones, Ferenczi worked to refine the practical methodology of analytic technique in the interest of actually trying to heal patients. This led him to push for an increasingly active role on the part of the analyst in the exchange with patients-a position the reverse of the worshipful passivity he evinced in his relationship with Freud. It was only at the end of his life that Ferenczi became skeptical enough to remark in his diary that, on account of their untruthfulness, "Freud no longer likes sick people."

Yet notwithstanding his nurturing sidekick role in 1909, during the North Country carriage ride, his nerves may have gotten the better of him. It was all somewhat savage and nauseating, wasn't it? As the journey stretched on-five hours to travel a mere twenty-five miles-Ferenczi's will to play Panza at the psychoanalytic round table began to peter out.

Jung's unstoppered relish for the whole scene could not have made things easier. As Ferenczi and Freud held on for dear life in a carriage shaking as though it were riding the belly of a dyspeptic divinity, Jung was eating up the view with the same gusto he'd displayed at the ramshackle hotel mid-journey, where they'd been plied by the natives with corn on the cob and brown bread with slabs of bacon. The message of all this was that the hour approached when Freud would need Ferenczi as never before. Freud already counted on him for "elevation of mood." Soon Ferenczi would prove himself capable of more noble repayment, as he wrote Freud, "I thank (I never get away from thanking) you."

As for Jung, the whole adventure to the northeastern tip of the United States carried overtones of the Wild West fantasies he'd thrived on, like so many of his German-speaking peers, since youth. One of the first things he asked on arriving at Putnam's retreat was about the dangers of stumbling across a rattlesnake on Camp grounds. How could Jung not love the American grandeur of scale? It was closer to his own, frankly. Of course the Americans were also silly with their overwrought, defensive formalities and blind faith in every percolation of modernly. Their technology mania carried a stupendous price in terms of social development. But they meant well and had amplitude of spirit, which appealed to Jung.

Freud himself appeared to Jung increasingly unfit for the work ahead. He sat shivering in the buggy like King David near the end, doing everything in his power to make himself look sphinxlike when his countenance far more resembled that of Oedipus realizing that the woman in his bed was his mutter.

In truth, the image of Freud on his way to Putnam Camp inspires pity. He was battling hard to maintain a sense of personal dignity in the welter of contradictory experience and antagonistic comradeship-fighting through a veritable arrow shower of conflicting signals. And in the midst of all this outward struggle, the high citadel of his self-esteem was continually invaded, as though on a circular track, by the creaky wooden horse of his own self-consciousness as aging Jew. There'd been so much promise-and humiliation-ever since he first heard America's siren call. The missives to Ferenczi finalizing their travel plans carry a note of pathos. In late July, Freud wrote him to say that he'd expended his budget of strength for the year and had to rest. He requested that his disciples tell him what to lecture on at Clark. All he felt fit for was advising on wardrobe. It was important to remember to buy a good coat for sea travel, he wrote Ferenczi, and further recommended that Ferenczi wait to purchase a top hat until reaching America because they didn't travel well. At journey's end, Freud prescribed, the top hat should be pitched into the ocean before boarding the ship home.

We see Freud keeping it up in solemn professorial attire, sharpening the blade of his beard with bare fingers, frowning into the mirror, doing his utmost to hold onto his upright pose at all costs-practicing the eternal reassertion of the same martial pose-until, over and over, the façade would disintegrate.

First, there was the simple fact of Hall's invitation in December 1908: "We believe that a concise statement of your own results and point of view would now be exceedingly opportune, and perhaps in some sense mark an epoch in the history of these studies in this country," Hall declared to Freud. When the invitation to take part in the University's vigentennial celebration where a host of other scientific luminaries were to present their vanguard work arrived in Vienna Freud was fleetingly astonished. It didn't matter that Hall was known as a bit of a maverick with a fitness fetish who'd famously declared, "The culture of muscles is brain-building." Psychoanalysis had received no academic validation whatsoever on the continent. And now, to receive an invitation from America-where at this point in time Freud barely believed his name existed, despite the brave, heavy-handed translations of Freud's work into English by the Austria-born A. A. Brill in New York, and Jones' flattering assurance that there was a "great call for his work there"-what did it signify? It was true, Freud's letter of invitation hadn't come from Harvard-hardly-he'd barely heard of Clark in fact (Clark, clerk, cloak, cloacal) but still, were his fortunes posed to turn?

Freud declined the invitation.

Who could get anywhere on the pittance they were proposing? Were they expecting him to paddle to America on his analytic couch? Furthermore, July was a peak month in Freud's practice and he couldn't afford to miss the income.

It's possible, of course, to consider it a sign of ambivalence on Freud's part that immediately after turning down Hall's offer he sent off a flurry of letters to colleagues trumpeting the fact of his refusal.

The very next day he wrote Jung to explain that he hadn't even bothered consulting him about the rejection because while it was a pity-the trip was unthinkable as it would put him a few thousand kronen in the hole.

About a month later, he wrote Ferenczi regretting, again, the decision to decline the invitation but saying, "I do find the presumption to sacrifice so much money in order to give lectures there much too 'American.' America should bring money, not cost money. By the way, we could soon be 'up shit creek' the minute they come upon the sexual underpinnings of our psychology."

His colleagues reinforced his suspicions. Jones observed to Freud that he found the American attitude appalling. "They want to hear of the 'latest' methods of treatment, with one eye dead on the Almighty Dollar, and think only of the credit, or 'kudos,' as they call it, it will bring them."

Nine months later, in response to one of a litany of nasty gripes from Freud about Putnam's colleague Morton Prince, Jung wrote Freud, "For some time now I have noticed the gentle zephyrs of prudery blowing across from America, for which Morton Prince seems to have a quite special organ. Everyone is terribly afraid for his practice, everyone is waiting to play a dirty trick on someone else."

Thus, from the outset, as would be the case for the remainder of his career, Freud's feelings about America were directly tied up with issues of money. And questions of money were associated with fears of American prudery, which in turn went hand in hand with fears of American whorish trendiness.

In point of fact, in the matter of Hall's invitation Freud's paranoias were not unjustified. On the very same day that he'd sent out the letter to Freud, Hall wrote an invitation to his own former teacher, William Wundt, the star of Leipzig who'd set up the world's first institute of experimental psychology and had been William James' mentor. To Wundt, Hall offered an honorarium of $750 (3000 marks), almost double what he'd proposed to Freud. Hall indeed was trying to hustle Freud to Worcester on the cheap.

Matters might easily have ended there. And the history of psychology in America could have veered off in any number of other directions. Putnam, for one, might have been dead by the time opportunity rolled around again for Freud to visit America. And without Putnam's impassioned Fifth Column defense of analysis from within the ranks of Boston's medical elders, the reception of Freud's theories in America might have been very different.

However, in mid-February Hall sent Freud a second letter saying that the financial situation had changed (hmm), enabling the Clark board to double Freud's honorarimn (to exactly Wundt's quotient of $750 or 3000 marks), and also announcing that the date of the conference had been changed to September.

Freud now happily accepted, but the pattern of lurching between extremes of hope and hopelessness that would characterize the whole trip was in place. Freud had fallen straight into the classic American bipolar rake's progress-a kind of Hogarth saga sans morals: back alleyway poverty to limelight lottery-winner on a whim of blind fate.

The doctors sailed to America on a North Lloyd liner named the George Washington. As their ship entered New York harbor, Freud, Ferenczi, and Jung watched the approach of envy-green Lady Liberty, the ghost necklace of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the panoply of downtown scrapers circa 1909. Tired and ill after their ten-day passage, they floated through the East River mist toward the approaching land mass of America. Suddenly, Freud turned to his companions and said, "Don't they know we're bringing them the plague?"

Three weeks later, they were on their way to Putnam Camp.

As Freud came closer to Keene Valley, Putnam paced in an accelerating fluster around Camp's rocky, uneven ground. It's a March Hare picture with long-legged Putnam substituting for the rabbit's cry of "Oh the Duchess! Oh the Duchess!" the lament of "Oh the Professors! Oh the Professors!"

Putnam was above average in height, trim and hale, with bony cheeks, a close-cropped white beard, and spectacles. On an average day, dressed in a well-worn black suit, jogging at a dogtrot along the Charles from his house in Back Bay to Mass General, he looked the picture of spare, conscientious, post-Calvinist pluck. And yet, this was not a typical day and his lucid vigor was imperiled. When Putnam felt the convergence of too many conflicting demands he tended to go a bit blurry, and unfortunately such was the case on the 15th of September in 1909. He'd arrived at Camp much later than planned-only a couple of hours in advance of the doctors-because he'd had to tend Molly, his favorite daughter, as she recouped from an appendectomy back in Boston. Putnam himself had performed the emergency operation on the kitchen table right on Marlborough Street, with light streaming in pale milk from the dusty street level panes. He'd wiped clean the table's wooden grain himself. He could still see the bloody incision and bare glow of Molly's 16-year-old body.

Yet, even before that medical crisis, things had been off kilter and overcharged. The decision to go hear Freud had been last second. Neither he nor his close friend William James was planning on going to the Clark Conference at all. Putnam had warned Jones that if Freud lectured at an off-the-beaten-path location like Clark he'd be neglected. Though logistical demands would never stand in the way of the grail of intellectual enlightenment for Putnam himself, he had sufficient misgivings about the materialist course Hall was championing to consider skipping the celebration. Hall's advocacy may well have detracted from Freud's already limited appeal. Basically, Putnam agreed with James' assessment of Hall as a figure whose personal psychology was "queer and torturous" and who could not bear clarity in any form because clear-mindedness offered his fearful nature no avenue of retreat.

Whereas Putnam enjoyed the feistiness of Ernest Jones and had been interested enough in Freud's work for several years to read most of his papers that made their way to the States, he felt that analysis took too much time and demanded too thorough and degrading a penetration of patients' histories to constitute any sort of redemption of psychotherapy. Elements of the treatment could be useful, but nothing truly seized the higher Boston imagination.

Further complicating matters, Hall had incomprehensibly not bothered to publicize the final dates for the conference until the summer, so that everyone in the effulgent squint and squirm of New England chandelier society had already booked their Septembers. Putnam himself had planned a long overdue trip the weekend of the Clark Conference to Cazenovia, New York, to visit the most stimulating woman he knew, his ex-patient and philosophical mentor Miss Susan Blow. Putnam saw no problem with the fact that this brilliant lady had gone from being his medical charge to being his spiritual guide in the wilderness of contemporary philosophy. He paid homage to her genius and hoped he'd done something to help free her to use it. More than that, he acknowledged the vital place of her teachings in his own understanding of the universe. Just as she was dependent on him in ways that required trustful, homely attentions, there was no conversation that gripped him more strongly than hers in the glassy twilight languor of her lake country verandah.


Excerpted from Putnam Camp by George Prochnik Copyright © 2006 by George Prochnik. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

George Prochnik

George Prochnik's essays, poetry, and fiction have appeared in numerous journals. He taught English and American literature at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and has also worked as a therapist for the chronically mentally ill. He lives in New York City.

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