Trained as a neurologist, Freud developed psychoanalysis after studying with the French expert in hypnosis and hysteria, Jean-Martin Charcot, from 1885-1886. Freud published his ground-breaking The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, and by 1902 he had acquired a number of followers who formed the Wednesday Psychological Society – later known as the Viennese Analytic Society – a weekly gathering in which physicians discussed psychoanalysis. Remembered as the “inventor” of psychoanalysis, his monumental works include Civilization and Its Discontents and Beyond the Pleasure Principle. With his students and colleagues, Freud not only shaped the future of psychoanalysis, but the very consciousness of modernity.
Freud was deeply affected by World War I in which his sons fought for Austria and which dissolved the Austro-Hungarian Empire; he came to hold a deep antipathy, as stated in our letter, towards President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924). “The harsh realities of the negotiations at Versailles had converted Freud’s limited and fleeting hopes for Wilson into furious dissatisfaction. Freud was not disposed to forgive the American messiah for letting him down… In 1921, he made some of his anger public, disparaging ‘the American president’s Fourteen Points’ as ‘fantastic promises’ that had found too much credence,” (Freud: A Life for our Time, Gay).
In 1925, Freud took on as a patient, Ambassador William C. Bullitt, one of Wilson’s plenipotentiaries at the Paris Peace Conference who resigned his position because of the treaty’s terms and who later married Louise Bryant, the widow of socialist journalist John Reed. During the 1920s, Freud and Bullitt collaborated on “The Tragedy of Woodrow Wilson,” which remained unpublished. In 1930, Bullitt proposed a project to Freud that became Thomas Woodrow Wilson: Twenty-eighth President of the United States: A Psychological Study. “Before Bullitt broached the subject, Freud, already suffering from cancer of the jaw, had been lamenting that his own death would be insignificant since he had nothing more to say. But as Bullitt described his idea, in which studies of the principal actors at Versailles would elucidate the reasons behind the treaty’s failure, ‘Freud’s eyes brightened,’ Bullitt recalled, ‘and he became very much alive.’ Freud implored Bullitt to allow him to write the chapter on Wilson,” (“Hail to the Analysand,” The New York Times, Prochnik). The work, however, remained unpublished until 1966, decades after Freud’s death. “The basic premise of the book is that Wilson’s resolution of the Oedipus complex caused him to become exceedingly neurotic: he cast his father, a Presbyterian minister, in the role of God and himself as Christ, thus becoming the suffering servant and betrayed savior of mankind. Ultimately, for Freud and Bullitt, the Treaty of Versailles as directed by Wilson was an abysmal failure because of his unmitigated and inarbitrable belief in his own divine rightness,” (“To Bury Freud on Wilson”: Uncovering Thomas Woodrow Wilson, A Psychological Study, by Sigmund Freud and William C. Bullitt, Modern Austrian Literature, Campbell). Bullitt, despite his opposition to Wilson and the Versailles treaty, was appointed America’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union and later U.S. ambassador to France by President Franklin Roosevelt with whom he maintained a close personal relationship.
“And now let me add in a purely confidential way: I detest the man [Wilson] who is the object of your study[.] As far as a single individual can be responsible for the misery of this part of the world he surely is.“
Our letter’s recipient, “William Bayard Hale, who in 1911 had hailed Wilson as the ‘prophet and captain’ of a ‘political revolution,’ condemned what he considered the president’s emotional oratory in The Story of a Style (1920),” (The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940, Young). Hale was a Boston minister turned journalist who was a writer and editor, known for his keen political analysis on the pages of such high-profile publications as Cosmopolitan Magazine, the New York Times and the Philadelphia Public Ledger. His ground-breaking interview with German Kaiser Wilhelm II garnered him much attention. A friend and advisor to New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson, he penned his 1911 biography Woodrow Wilson: The Story of His Life. After Wilson’s 1912 presidential victory, he sent Hale on a diplomatic mission to Mexico which culminated in America’s interference in the Mexican Civil War several years later. Shortly thereafter, Hale fell out with Wilson and became a propaganda advisor for Germany. “Discredited and shunned as a traitor, Hale spent most of the time after the war until his death in 1924 in Europe,” (William Bayard Hale – Icon or Traitor?, von Feilitzsch).
Freud’s letter was written in response to Hale’s The Story of a Style, of which H.L. Mencken noted: “Dr. Hale operates upon it with machetes, hand grenades and lengths of gas-pipe… [critiquing Wilson] with considerable ferocity, and it must be added, vast effect. His analysis of the whole Wilsonian buncombe, in fact, is downright cruel,” (“The Style of Woodrow Wilson”, H. L. Mencken’s Smart Set Criticism). Interestingly Mencken’s critique compares Hale to an anatomist similar to the metaphor of a vivisectionist used by Freud. In his biography, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, Ernest Jones records Freud’s reading of Hale’s book: “A few years before [his collaboration with Bullitt] Freud had read with gusto a semi-analytical book on Wilson, a detailed study of the peculiarities of his style of writing which was very revealing.”
Freud’s interesting linguistic slip of the pen, “that psychoanalysis should not be used practiced on a living individual,” likely means that Freud believed either that psychoanalysis ought not to be practiced “publicly” on a living personality, or, if there is to be a public discussion of psychoanalysis, then the subject of that analysis should no longer be alive.
A remarkable letter. Folded with some creasing and wear, but in fine condition. Content letters by Freud written in English are very rare. Provenance: Ex Forbes Collection; sold at Christie’s New York, November 15, 2005, lot 173, for the hammer price of $17,000.