Sigmund Freud’s Sortie To America

PrintPrintEmailEmail

From Niagara they moved on to the Adirondacks, where a party of about forty was to gather. Putnam’s camp was at the foot of Giant Mountain in Keene Valley, New York, set up by himself and fellow physicians from Boston. Log cabins had been built in a clearing through which ran a fast-flowing stream; some had been elaborately furnished, and the visitors lived in an unusual combination of luxury and austerity.

For September 16 the Putnam Camp Log Book recorded that “Dr. James Putnam arrived from Boston—Louisa Richardson and Miss Annie Putnam and three foreign doctors came over from Lake Placid (on the 15th).” There was some confusion about the nationality of the visitors, and Freud the Austrian, Jung the Swiss, and Ferenczi the Hungarian found their cabin decorated in the colors of Imperial Germany.

Freud had been writing to his wife, Martha, regularly—remembering to send her a good-wishes cable on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year—and on the evening of his arrival at the camp he sat down and described his impressions to the family. “It is four weeks today that I set out on my travels,” he began, “and this is likely to be the last letter to arrive before I myself arrive.

Of all the things I have experienced in America this is probably the strangest: a camp, you must realize, in a wilderness in the woods, set on an Alpine meadow, as it might be on the Loser [a mountain near Alt Aussee, one of Freud’s favorite holiday resorts in Austria]. On three sides stones, moss, groups of trees, and uneven ground merge into densely wooded slopes. The camp is a group of roughly made log cabins each of which, as one discovers, has its own name. One is the ‘Stoop,’ a parlor containing library, piano, desks, and card-tables. Another is the ‘Hall of the Knights,’ full of old interesting objects, with a fireplace in the center of the room and benches along the walls as in a peasant’s dining-room. The rest of the cabins consist of living quarters. Ours, with just three rooms, is called ‘Chatterbox.’ Everything, rough but natural in character, seems artificial in a way, yet looks right. Mixing bowls do service as wash basins, mugs as drinking glasses, because nothing is lacking—everything is available in one form or another. We have found special books dealing with camping and containing detailed instructions about how to use such primitive appliances.

“Our reception at 2:30 consisted of an invitation to go for a walk on the nearby mountain, where we were able to appreciate the utter wilderness of such an American countryside. We went along rough tracks, and down slopes where even my antlers and hooves were not adequate.

“Fortunately it is raining today. There are many squirrels and porcupines in these woods; the latter are invisible so far. Even black bears are seen in the winter.”

After supper that evening one visitor accompanied Jung on the piano as he sang German songs. Two others taught Freud and Ferenczi a board game. The Putnams spoke German, and everyone relaxed and enjoyed themselves. Freud himself suffered only two inconveniences. One was some internal trouble that has been variously diagnosed as appendicitis and as gastroenteritis. The other was lack of a barber to trim his beard, a refinement which he sorely missed.

Later there came the incident of the porcupine. When discussing the Clark University lectures before leaving Europe, Freud had said that when faced with a difficult task, such as speaking to a foreign audience, “it was helpful to provide a lightning conductor for one’s emotions by deflecting one’s attention on to a subsidiary goal.” So, before leaving Europe, he maintained that he was going to America in the hope of catching sight of a wild porcupine and to give some lectures.

His hosts at the Putnam camp were willing to help, and two visitors who knew the area well were assigned to accompany him. “They started the climb up a rather gentle hill,” says a relative of one of them, “and had not gone very far before they were greeted by the smell of carrion. As they proceeded, the stench grew steadily stronger, so much so that their companion, Mrs. Wearn, suggested that they turn and go down-wind. Freud refused, so they continued, and at last came upon a bloated porcupine, long dead. Freud approached it, cautiously prodded it with his staff, then turned and announced, “It’s dead.”

There seems to have been no time for a further search, and Freud’s ambition was therefore only half, and rather miserably, fulfilled. However, there was a minor consolation when, before he left, the Putnams presented him with a small porcupine paperweight made of metal. It was to sit on his desk for the rest of his life.

The party now returned to New York for the start of the eight-day voyage back to Bremen. On board the “Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse” Freud wrote a discursive seven-page letter to his eldest daughter Mathilde, remarking that the whole trip had been highly interesting, “very meaningful for our work,” and a great success; but he was very glad that he did not have to live in America.