How Freud’s Only Visit to America Made Him Hate the U.S. for the Rest of His Life
As a young man, Sigmund Freud loved the United States. His fervor began at age 17, when he came across a copy of the Gettysburg Address displayed at the 1873 International Exhibition in Vienna. Freud was so taken with Lincoln’s expressions of liberty and equality that he memorized the speech, then recited it to his sisters. A few years later, he even considered moving to America, particularly as anti-Semitism grew in his native Austria. But instead he chose to stay put, contenting himself with hanging a copy of the Declaration of Independence above his bed.
In the years that followed, Freud developed many of the same prejudices against America held by many cultured Viennese (mostly that Americans were backward and uneducated). But his youthful passion for the country was reawakened in December 1908, when he received a letter from G. Stanley Hall. Hall, the president of the small but prestigious Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and the first president of the American Psychological Association, invited Freud to deliver a series of lectures to mark the university's 20th anniversary, in September 1909. After some negotiation, Hall also offered an honorary doctorate—Freud’s first and only—as well as a stipend of $750 (about $20,000 in today’s money). The founding father of psychoanalysis was delighted, writing to his disciple Carl Jung, “This has thrilled me more than anything else that has happened in the last few years."
At the time, Freud had achieved only modest success with books like 1899's Interpretation of Dreams. But in America, things were different. The first clue came during the steamer trip to New York, when Freud found the cabin steward reading his book, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life; the psychoanalyst passed time on the journey analyzing fellow passengers' dreams. Once in Massachusetts, Freud was shocked to find out that the faculty at Clark University was not only acquainted with his work, but had been lecturing the students about it as well. He was also delightfully surprised that in “prudish America one could, at least in academic circles, freely discuss and scientifically treat everything that is regarded as improper in everyday life.”
All the attention given to his work gave Freud a renewed belief in himself and fresh enthusiasm for his subject matter. In his autobiography, he would recall his American lectures as “the realization of some incredible daydream: psychoanalysis was no longer a product of delusion, it had become a valuable part of reality.”
But despite the glow of his success, not everything went smoothly on the three-week trip. Soon, Freud found much to complain about—and began nursing a resentment against America that would last the rest of his life.
The psychoanalyst's chief problem: stomach trouble, which he blamed on American cooking. There was one meal in particular that inflamed his stomach and his ire, a steak prepared by culinary “savages” at a campfire during an excursion in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. For the rest of his life, he would refer to this trip as the beginning of his “American colitis.” (Some scholars, though, say his digestive problems long predated the cookout.)
Freud's ego was also bruised on a side visit to Niagara Falls, where a guide at the Cave of the Winds called him “the old fellow." (His mood improved when he saw a wild porcupine, one of the main objectives of his trip.) But a bigger problem was his own personal Niagara Falls, courtesy of prostate trouble and exacerbated by the lack of public bathrooms, even in New York City. Of the bathrooms that did exist, he complained, “They escort you along miles of corridors and ultimately you are taken to the very basement where a marble palace awaits you, only just in time.”
Perhaps worst of all was his insomnia: American women were giving him erotic dreams and affecting his ability to get a good night’s sleep. While in Worcester, he confided in Carl Jung, who had also been invited to speak, that he hadn’t “been able to sleep since [he] came to America” and that he “continue[d] to dream of prostitutes.” When Jung pointed out a rather obvious solution to this problem, Freud indignantly reminded him that he was married.
Freud also found Americans far too informal. As radical as his ideas seemed for the time, Freud was a highly proper man, and he could barely conceal his distaste when an amiable Yankee dared to address him by his first name.
Beyond lack of formality, Freud (or “Sigmund,” as his improper American buddies called him) took issue with the coeducational system then more prevalent in the U.S. In his view, explained a few decades later, “The girls develop more rapidly than the boys, feel superior to them in everything and lose their respect for the male sex.” The consequence was that American women “lead the men around by the nose, make fools of them, and the result is a matriarchy ... In Europe, things are different. Men take the lead. That is as it should be.”
When it came time to speak at Clark, the patriarchal thinker presented five lectures on "The Origin and Development of Psychoanalysis," each of which was “prepared only a half-hour before it was given,” as B. R. Hergenhahn and Tracy Henley relate in An Introduction to the History of Psychology. Since Freud’s English was less than stellar, these lectures, which were open to the public, were delivered in his native German. The media gave the lectures limited attention, but the exposure to others in the U.S. scholarly community led to an increase in the circulation of Freud’s ideas, as well as their translation into English.
The Freudian influence was underway, and as the Roaring Twenties arrived, his notoriety skyrocketed in America. But he never returned to bask in the glory.
Instead, he harbored a grudge against America, and continued to blame the U.S. for a number of personal issues (including, somehow, the degeneration of his penmanship). On a grander scale, he contended that the nation’s “present cultural state” was a “damage to civilization.” He said to a friend: “America is a mistake; a gigantic mistake it is true, but none the less a mistake.”