The American Mind in Action
by Harper & Brothers. 1924. 8vo. viii+336 pp. $3.00.and . New York:
JUDGED by prevailing currents of interest, nothing could be more timely than this book. There are very few Americans who are not interested just now in Americanism, and those who are not are interested in psychoanalysis. A book on the psychoanalysis of Americanism ought, therefore, to interest everybody.
Its originality lies, first, in what might be called its clinical method. It is not a study of institutions, or of literature, but of cases. The reader is allowed to stand by and observe while Mark Twain. Abraham Lincoln. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Andrew Carnegie. Anthony Comstock, P. T. Barnum, Benjamin Franklin. Henry W. Longfellow. Walt Whitman. Mark Hanna, Julia Ward Howe, Anna Gould Shaw, and Margaret Fuller are carried into the amphitheatre, laid irreverently upon the table, and their inner works exposed to view by an exploratory operation.
The present book is original, second, in that it employs for the diagnosis of American symptoms. the ‘new psychology,’ or the method of psychoanalysis. The result, as might be expected, is to prove that Americans are afflicted with ‘complexes, ‘repressions.’ ‘conflict.’ ‘anxiety. ‘soul-fear, and ‘sense of inferiority. A nose and throat specialist would probably have found that Americanism consisted in having bad tonsils. In other words, the result is to identify Americanism with human nature as the Freudian sees it, or to suggest that Americans inherit the ills which mind is heir to. The name for the affliction when Americans suffer from it is Puritanism, but one is left to infer that to the psychoanalyst all men are Puritans. The present study, in other words, suffers for lack of the comparative method. To prove that what is American is also distinctively or peculiarly American it would be necessary to introduce and analyze at least one perfectly healthy-minded non-American.
This same absence of negative cases, or failure to support the method of agreement with the method of difference, appears in the diagnosis of individuals. Thus. Mark Twain’s humor is explained as a means of ‘draining off suppressed hatreds,’ being unconsciously egoistic and malicious. At the same time the kindliness of his humor is explained as affording a means of proving his own superiority by laughing at himself. But what kind of humor, then, would he characteristic of a man whose egoism was not repressed, or who had none to repress? Would he laugh at others, or at himself, or would he laugh at all?
Lincoln, it seems, was governed by a ‘subconscious humility.’ The result was not, as might be expected, a conscious and compensatory arrogance. No — Lincoln was more ‘cunning’ than this; he professed humility ‘in order to get under his opponent’s guard.’ How then would a man behave who was subconsciously arrogant? Evidently he might behave either humbly to compensate his arrogance, or arrogantly to put others on their guard. In short, he would behave precisely as a man behaves when he is subconsciously humble. Emerson is an advocate and exponent of ‘self-trust,’ and might be thought, therefore, to be an example of mental health. But no — his subconscious is the Puritan conscience. In this case conscience is not the oppressor but the oppressed, and its release means only its power to become in turn the oppressor. In other words, if you act from constraint and apprehension you are a Puritan; while if you act with whole-hearted spontaneity and freedom, you are still, if you happen to be Emerson, a Puritan.
The chief trouble with the psychoanalytical method is that it works too well. If it fails to work in one way then you can always stand it on the other end or turn it inside out, and make it work. You would find it more convincing if, once in a while, it failed to work; just as you would be more inclined to believe that Bacon wrote the plays of Shakespeare if it were possible by the same cipher to show that there was something he did not write.
RALPH BARTON PERRY.