Freud Biographers: Peter Gay and Richard Wollheim

One of the best and most thorough biographies of Freud is Peter Gay’s “A Life for Our Time” (1988). Gay may have been the most qualified of Freud’s biographers as he was trained in psychoanalysis, and was a professional historian and biographer. While some of the most extreme of Freud’s critics argued that Gay was insufficiently critical of psychoanalysis and of Freud’s ideas and his personal behavior, I believe Gay provides a relatively balanced analysis and critique of all of these. At more than 800 pages, Gay’s biography offers considerably more than an introduction to Freud’s life and ideas as well as the development of psychoanalysis. Gay also includes a 38 page biographical essay, which is indispensable for Freudian scholars.

Gregory McNamee, in the March/April, 1989 “Bloomsbury Review”, had this to say about Gay’s biography:

“A library devoted to the work and influence of Freud would be vast, a Borgesian universe; even a modest, basic collection would number many dozens of volumes, the most important of them written by the prolific Freud himself. That basic library should now include Peter Gay’s new biography “Freud: A Life For Our Time”.”

Richard Wollheim, in his Preface to the second edition ¬†of “Freud” (1991), says, “Gay’s biography is a magisterial work. It invites comparison to, though it is ultimately incommensurable with, Ernest Jones’s great three-volume biography. Jones had the inestimable advantage of having lived within Freud’s intimate circle for several decades. Another difference between Jones and Gay lies in their general biographical strategies. Jones was evenhanded between life and thought, and the result is a huge sandwich in which the two alternate. By contrast Gay adopted the plan of alternating life and thought. In tracing Freud’s formation, Gay is able to balance internal, or psychological, factors, or the events of the time, into which, as an accomplished historian, he has excellent insight.”

Wollheim’s biography, originally written in 1971, with a 1991 second edition is , perhaps, the best brief introduction to Freud’s life and thought, and the development of psychoanalysis. I would recommend Wollheim’s “Freud” for it’s analytic strength and fair treatment of the many strengths and weaknesses of Freud himself, as well as the project and prospects of psychoanalysis.

A number of more recent biographies of Freud have used the Jones and Gay biographies as well as that of Wollheim in building their own projects.