American Prophet

Life History and the Historical Moment

by Erik H. Erikson
Norton, 283 pp., $9.95

Erik Erikson
Erik Erikson; drawing by David Levine

The appearance of another collection of Erik Erikson’s incidental pieces, loosely connected in theme, is not in itself an event of great significance—not, certainly, one to be compared with the arrival of the brilliant and novel studies on which his reputation mainly rests: Childhood and Society, Young Man Luther, Gandhi’s Truth. It has been six years now since Erikson’s last major book, and though everything he writes merits attention, his career has recently been in a phase of clarification, consolidation, and response to criticism. Recently Erikson the author has been much occupied with Erikson the figure: with the benevolent adjuster of social polarities (as in his cautious and labored encounter with Huey Newton at Yale); with the prophet and catalyst of a “new identity” for Americans and others;1 and with the psychohistorical pioneer whose well-intentioned dicta, twisted by partisan opponents, must be patiently restated, not without an occasional note of injured majesty.

Now we have Erikson’s most explicitly personal book, in which he directly discusses his early life and career, spars posthumously with Freud, recounts the origin and methodology of his research into Gandhi, and politely rebukes the feminists who took him to task for theorizing about the “inner space” of womankind. In these conference papers, addresses, and reviews, Erikson always has at least one eye on his reputation. It is, in short, his own achievement, rather than any new area of inquiry, to which our attention is now persistently directed. A prior concern with Erikson is requisite if Life History and the Historical Moment is to take on importance.

No one who cares about the vicissitudes of Freudian thought, however, will lack that concern. For Erikson above all other ego psychologists has turned psychoanalysis, a doctrine plagued by mechanism, reification, and arbitrary universalism, into a reasonably flexible tool for addressing historical particulars. It is Erikson, again, who has expanded and most clearly systematized Freud’s ideas about early development, making all those zones, modes, modalities, and stages look less like crackpot categories than like ordinary observables of childhood. And it is Erikson who has done most to combat the gloom imparted to psychoanalysis by Freud’s temperamental bias. The currency of such Eriksonian terms as “basic trust,” “identity crisis,” and “moratorium” may remind us how successful he has been in urging a nondeterministic view of crises and their solutions. His success has been won through vivid and delicately handled examples—not just in the three famous books, but also in essays that subtly blend analytic penetration and restraint. He is at once the most resourceful, the most humane, and not coincidentally the most popular of all Freud’s heirs.

Erikson’s prestige is the more remarkable because psychoanalysis as an intellectual movement has plainly fallen on hard times. There is wide agreement that the logic of Freudian reasoning is suspiciously loose; that its data are too private and inferential to be scientifically trustworthy; that…

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