Freud’s Biographers and Biographies

Among the more than two dozen biographies of Freud, I have selected for commentary those which I believe represent various interpretations and even biases  about Freud, the person, and Freud’s ideas and practices.

The first unauthorized biography of Freud was “Freud: His Life and His Mind” (1847) by Helen Walker Puner, who was neither a psychoanalyst, nor an historian or philosopher. She was a reporter. Her biography is readable but with very little knowledge of the inner workings of psychoanalysis or the cultural contexts within which Freud developed his ideas. She also did not have access to the volume of correspondence between Freud and significant others, which later biographers had.

The first authorized biography of Freud was Ernest Jones’s three volume “The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud” (1953,1955,1957). While some critics claim that Jones’s biography is close to a hagiography, others believe that this biography is comprehensive and fair, with some balance, yet, since Jones was a member of Freud’s inner circle and definitely a defender of Freud and psychoanalysis, some obvious bias is expected. Nevertheless his biography sets a baseline for all successive ones to build from. Since Anna Freud  selected Jones to write the first official biography of her father, she made available certain (not all) correspondences that Freud had and which were unavailable to any previous researchers.

For this post I am listing , according to publication dates, my selection of Freud biographies which I believe are worth investigating. There are a few biographies I recommend as essential and will comment further on these in a future post. In addition to Jones’s three volume work, they are: Peter Gay’s  “Freud: A Life for Our Time” (1988); Louis Breger’s”Freud: Darkness in the Midst of Vision” (2000); Richard Wollheim’s “Freud” (1991); and Elisabeth Roudinesco’s “Freud in His Time and Ours” (2016).

After Jones’s three volume biography, Philip Rieff wrote “Freud: The Mind of a Moralist” (1961).  Rieff was a sociologist and his critique of Freud is generally favorable. Following Rieff’s biography there were three biographies, Paul Roazen’s “Freud and His Followers” (1976), Frank Sulloway’s “Freud: Biologist of the Mind” (1979), and Adolf Grunbaum’s “The Foundations of Psychoanalysis: A Philosophical Critique” (1984), which are generally considered among the most critical of Freud and his ideas. Roazen was a political and social scientist, Sulloway’s background was the history of science, and Grunbaum, a philosopher. One of the obvious weaknesses in their critiques of psychoanalysis is that they were not analysts themselves and their lack of clinical experience weakens their arguments about Freud’s and other analysts’ practice.

Steven Marcus published “Freud and the Culture of Psychoanalysis” in 1987. He was a professor of english and comparative literature. He focuses on an analysis of Freud’s famous cases of Dora and the Rat Man. His biography is generally favorable about Freud and his ideas. He also devotes a chapter to “Freud and Biography” wherein he assess various Freud biographies prior to his own. Peter Gay’s masterful biography was published in 1988. His background was in psychoanalysis, history and biography. I will comment on his book later. Richard Wollheim’s “Freud” in the Fontana Modern Masters series, published in 1991, is one of the best brief introductions to Freud’s ideas available and I will comment further in a later post. Stephen A. Mitchell and Margaret J. Black wrote “Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought” in 1995 and I believe it is the best link between Freud’s ideas and the evolution of psychoanalytic theory and practice after Freud. Psychoanalysis has definitely evolved even beyond what they identified in 1995, but their book is essential for an understanding of the context of Freud’s influence within psychoanalysis.

Leate Lohser and Peter M.Newton ( both psychologists) published “Unorthodox Freud: The View From the Couch” in 1996. They identify significant differences between what is usually known of Freud’s analytic techniques and how he actually practiced. They investigated five cases as reported by the analysands to determine Freud’s actual practice. Paul Ferris, a biographer, wrote “Dr. Freud” in 1997. This is a generally fair and favorable, readable biography. Louis Breger’s “Freud: Darkness in the Middle of Vision” (2000) is a significant critical biography which I will comment on later. Mathew vonUnwerth’s “Freud’s Requium: Mourning, Memory, and the Invisible History of a Summer Walk” (2006) is not a general biography but focuses on Freud’s ideas about mortality and transcendence. “The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days” by Mark Edmunson was published in 2007. Edmunson has been a literature and culture critic. This biographic work concentrates on Freud’s thinking and writing during the erupting years of Hitler and Freud’s eventual escape to England just before he died in 1939.

The most recent two biographies, which I will comment on later, are Elisabeth  Roudinesco’s “Freud in His Time and Ours” (2016) and Joel Whitebook’s “Freud: An Intellectual Biography” (2017).