Like the major topics that he addressed, the psychoanalyst Erik Homburger Erikson came into his own in the America of the 1960s. From his newly created position as professor of human development at Harvard, Erikson claimed that there were major psychological differences between men and women, a view that was taken as a challenge and a provocation by the nascent women’s movement. Decades-long studies of troubled youth in several countries culminated in his concepts of “identity” and the “identity crisis,” notions that rapidly entered into the popular culture and took on special meaning for college students, hippies, draft resisters, and aging members of the “beat” generation. Incorporated in his much-praised study of Mahatma Gandhi, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Erikson’s notions of identity came to be applied as well to the emerging nations of Africa and Asia.
As the themes and concerns of the 1960s faded, so did much of the aura surrounding Erikson. His concepts, his writings, and even the way in which he led his life came under sharp and often unsympathetic scrutiny. He wrote much less and his work no longer captured public attention. As the social sciences, and society generally, moved on to new concerns, Erikson seemed to some a beleaguered defender of an increasingly discredited Freudian perspective, to others an unduly optimistic chronicler of human nature. By the time of his death in 1994 at age ninety-one, Erikson had been absorbed into a long list of mid-century émigré intellectuals, reduced to a respectful paragraph or two in psychology textbooks.
Already the subject of two books and scores of praising and critical articles, Erikson might seem an unlikely candidate for a new and relatively long study. But the sympathetic portrait of Erik Erikson by the historian Lawrence J. Friedman proves to be well worth reading. Erikson’s unusual life affected his work in ways that are fascinating and revealing, even for those who are not much in sympathy with his ideas. As someone who knew Erikson off and on for thirty years, I might have emphasized somewhat different aspects of his work; yet, in my view, Friedman’s achievement as his biographer is definitive.
Erikson was less of a scholar and more of a seer in both senses of that term: he used his eyes probingly, and he discerned patterns that were invisible to others. A study of Erikson must take up fundamental questions: What did Erikson see? How lasting were his insights? With respect to these issues, Friedman’s achievement is less satisfying.
In a stirring preface to his book, Friedman describes how he presented the ninety-year-old Erikson with photographs of two Danish photographers—one of whom in all likelihood was Erikson’s biological father. (Alas, Erikson was too senile to appreciate that his long search for his biological father might be over.) From his earliest childhood, the man who came to be known as Erik Erikson sensed that his paternity was surrounded by mystery. His Jewish mother, Karla Abrahamsen, had become pregnant, in all likelihood during a brief fling with a Danish Protestant artist and photographer. She subsequently married a Jewish stockbroker named Valdemar Salomonsen, about whom little is known. The marriage was probably unconsummated, and Karla left her native Denmark, perhaps in disgrace, and traveled to Germany.
In Frankfurt, she gave birth to a boy whom she named Erik (perhaps after the biological father) Salomonsen (who was certainly not that father). Young Erik Salomonsen was somewhat sickly and Karla took him to see a pediatrician named Theodor Homburger. Years later Erik recalled his impressions of “that intruder, the bearded doctor with his mysterious instruments,” whom Karla soon married. A condition of marriage was that Erik would be told that Theodor was his biological father; eventually he was formally adopted and reared as Erik Homburger. Yet neither the newly renamed Erik Homburger nor the neighbors were fooled, since Erik was the blond, blue-eyed, light-skinned child of two dark-haired Jews.
An unusually sensitive young man, Erik Homburger spent many years dreaming about three father figures (the real one, unknown; the second, the mysterious Salomonsen; the third, the physician who had taken his mother away from Salomonsen). He was extremely close to his mother, dating back to the days when they had lived alone, and remembered especially her remarkable beauty, her intelligence, and their intense eye-to-eye contact; no doubt Erikson had her in mind when he said that identity (the feeling that “I am somebody”) begins with the recognition of a mother’s smile. One needs neither the techniques nor the beliefs of psychoanalysis to conclude both that Erik was in search of a father figure, even as he was especially dependent upon strong maternal figures, and that he was eventually to encounter the parents he desired in Sigmund Freud, his intellectual father, and Anna Freud, who became his teacher and his personal psychoanalyst.
Erik Homburger’s youth was troubled. He was as uncertain about his religion as about his parentage. His observant Jewish family was jarred when he formally broke off relations with the rabbi at the local synagogue. He began to study the Christian Gospels, and was electrified one morning when he heard the Lord’s Prayer spoken in Luther’s German. He disliked primary school and, despite Karla’s daily tutoring, did not perform well. He was even more alienated at the classical gymnasium in Karlsruhe, repelled by its rote learning, strict discipline, and absence of artistic subjects. (One thinks of Albert Einstein’s similar disaffection, a generation earlier.) Karla insisted that he finish and he did so, though in the bottom half of his class. Thereafter, and forever, Erik Homburger forswore formal schooling. He used to joke that he was the only Harvard professor who lacked a college degree and had flunked the only course that he had ever taken in his subject (a psychology course in the 1930s at Harvard).
While perhaps less dramatic than his quest for parents, Erik Homburger’s search for a profession was equally pained. Coming from an intellectual, artistic, and professional family, he was under considerable pressure to choose a legitimate career. His adopted father wanted him to become a pediatrician who would practice in Karlsruhe. But instead the adolescent Homburger went off on a Wanderjahr of immoderate length. For seven years, he meandered across Europe, trying to work as an artist, in his memorable phrase “a young man with some talent, but nowhere to go.” He made numerous sketches and woodcuts, though for some reason (which psychoanalysts would likely probe) he was unable to express himself in color.
It is less widely known that Homburger also kept a journal in which he speculated about a wide range of spiritual, philosophical, and psychological questions. Like other adolescent intellectuals (and the “other” psychologist of children, Jean Piaget, who also kept a journal), Erik Homburger dealt in his jottings with many of the same issues that he would eventually write about professionally: they included the despair of adolescence, idealistic goals for social change, the personality of the leader, “genuine selfhood,” death as a return to “the meaning of the beginning,” the “cycles of life,” and the “stages of character.” Homburger later acknowledged he had been deeply neurotic during this period: “I was probably close to psychosis,” he once said.
Perhaps the most important event in Homburger’s life was his encounter, in 1927, with the Freud family. On the recommendations of his lifelong friend Peter Blos and of Dorothy Burlingham, an American heiress in analysis with Sigmund Freud, Homburger was hired to teach in a small school for the young children of those in the Freudian circle. For the next six years, he remained in Vienna, where he was analyzed daily by Anna Freud, mastered the new field of child psychoanalysis, and was accorded the unusual honor of being elected as a full (rather than an associate) member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society with automatic membership in the International Psychoanalytical Association.
Much remains unclear about the attraction between young Erik Homburger and the Freud family. They evidently found one another personally appealing and professionally useful. Homburger was looking for a parental relationship and a career; the Freuds were happy to welcome a handsome, talented young man of Gentile appearance who was attracted to their revolutionary enterprise. Yet—and here is the obscure part—Homburger evidently had a very special talent. Without any credentials, he was hired on the basis of his way with children, and he advanced through the psychoanalytic (and the teaching) ranks because of his understanding of children’s “psychosocial and psychosexual development”—words that only later came into widespread use. Homburger/ Erikson’s genius lay in his extraordinary clinical insights—as he put it, he became a “clinical artist”; unless this “way of seeing” emerged full-blown upon his move to Vienna, we have to assume that he somehow acquired it during his own troubled childhood, his long Wanderjahre, and his reflections on both experiences. At any rate by the time Homburger left Vienna, he had come “as close to the role of a children’s doctor as one could possibly come without going to medical school.”
If his early years were stressful, Erik Homburger had an astonishingly successful middle life. In Vienna he met and married an unusually attractive, talented, and warm Canadian woman, Joan Serson, on whom he remained lovingly dependent for over sixty years. (Characteristically for two people who had doubts about their identity, they held three separate marriage ceremonies in 1930.) Intensely aware of the fascist trends in Central Europe, Erik and Joan attempted to settle in Copenhagen, but when this proved difficult, they chose to move to America in the autumn of 1933. As a gifted young child analyst bearing the imprimatur of the Freud family, Homburger was welcomed into the psychological and psychiatric communities of the United States. In the 1930s and 1940s, he held a series of academic and clinical positions at Harvard, Yale, and the University of California at Berkeley. He began to publish, first under the name of Erik Homburger, and then, after he became a citizen in 1939, under a name that he made up, Erik H. Erikson.
With the help of the anthropologists Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, H. Scudder Mekeel, and Alfred Kroeber, Erikson visited Indian communities in the Southwest; these visits inspired important writings about the impact of Euro-American practices on traditional child-rearing and adult character. He also began to write about the distinctive ways of growing up in different industrialized countries. Fried- man tells us that Erik Homburger wrote a perceptive essay about Hitler’s appeal to youth in the very year that Hitler came to power; and that he was aided in translating his essay into English by an American that he met, the diplomat George Kennan, who happened to be traveling on the ship that took the Homburger family to America.
Homburger arrived during the worst depression in the history of the nation. He knew little English, had no formal degrees, and was an expert in a field that did not really exist. Nonetheless, something about his person, knowledge, and what I would call his charismatic vulnerability caused even those in the competitive fields of scholarship and medicine to come to the aid of the young clinician and his growing family. In addition to positions at major scholarly institutions in this country, he received regular grants and fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Fund, the General Education Board, and the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation. The “old boy” and (in child study and anthropology) “old girl” networks went to work on his behalf.