My intellectual work has been profoundly affected by a conversation I had with the psychologist Theodore Millon, then my colleague at Lehigh University, in which he recommended that I read such writers as Erich Fromm, Harry Stack Sullivan, and Karen Horney. This was 1958, I was writing my doctoral dissertation (subsequently published in 1965 as Experiments in Life: George Eliot's Quest for Values), and I had no time for such reading. I recommended these writers to my wife, however, and she was especially enthusiastic about Horney.
While I was writing my dissertation, I was a true believer in George Eliot's Religion of Humanity. Indeed, I wrote with a proselytizing zeal that annoyed my dissertation director (Hillis Miller) and the members of my committee and that had to be edited out of the published version. After completing the dissertation, I taught a graduate course in George Eliot and was surprised (and dismayed) to discover that I had lost my enthusiasm for her ideas. I thought my account of them was accurate, and I didn't distinctly feel that anything was wrong with them, but they just didn't excite me any more. It was at this point that I first read Karen Horney, and I think she made such a deep impression on me because she helped me to understand why I had been so receptive to George Eliot's beliefs and why they had lost their power.
I have returned to George Eliot, and my experience with her back then, in Rereading George Eliot: Changing Responses to Her Experiments in Life (2003), where I not only reinterpret her last two novels from my current perspective, but also examine why my response to her has changed so radically over the years. I still admire her as a great novelist, but I am now very critical of her Religion of Humanity, which, with its glorification of living for others, seems unhealthy to me. I have posted a draft of the self-analytical first chapter of Rereading George Eliot on this website.
After I completed my dissertation, I moved to Michigan State University, where the need to publish and my difficulty writing led me to enter psychotherapy. While I was in therapy, my ideas kept changing almost daily, and I wrote nothing new for a number of years. Fortunately, I had left graduate school at Johns Hopkins with a lot of publishable material, so I did not perish. Then, in 1964, I had an "aha" experience the implications of which I have been unfolding ever since. While teaching Thackeray's Vanity Fair, I was explaining that the novel did not make sense because it was full of thematic contradictions. I suddenly remembered Karen Horney's observation that inconsistencies are as sure a sign of psychological conflicts as a rise in body temperature is of physical disorder. The novel began to be intelligible as a system of inner conflicts, such as Horney describes in Our Inner Conflicts and Neurosis and Human Growth. Not only that, but I saw that the main characters -- Becky, Dobbin, and Amelia -- were wonderfully complex creations who could be understood in motivational terms. Thackeray's rhetorical presentation of these characters was often confused and misleading, but his psychological intuitions and mimetic portrayals were amazingly subtle and accurate. Armed with this new perspective, I then reread The Mill on the Floss for the first time since completing my dissertation and found it to be a much different book from the one I had read before. George Eliot's psychological portrait of Maggie was brilliant, but I could no longer agree with her interpretations and judgments.
My discovery of the applicability of Horney to the study of literature led to my second book: A Psychological Approach to Fiction: Studies in Thackeray, Stendhal, George Eliot, Dostoevsky, and Conrad (1974). Since my training in graduate school had been in the History of Ideas and in textual explication of the New Critical sort, I had to equip myself to approach literature from a psychological perspective. My experience in therapy was like a second graduate education, and I read widely and sat in on courses in the Department of Psychology at Michigan State. I also established connections with The American Institute for Psychoanalysis in New York (the institute Horney founded in 1941), consulted with analysts, and submitted my work to them for comment. They assured me that I was using Horney correctly and that I knew what I was talking about. I have since been elected an Honorary Member of the American Institute and also of its parent organization, The Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis. I have been appointed to the Editorial Board of The American Journal of Psychoanalysis and for years was a Scientific Associate of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis.
In the course of my reading, I discovered a number of other theorists who are highly compatible with Horney and who, together with her, belong to Third Force or Humanistic psychology. In addition to using Horney in A Psychological Approach to Fiction and my subsequent books, I also draw on the work of other Third Force psychologists, such as Erich Fromm, Carl Rogers, Ernest Schachtel, and especially Abraham Maslow. I sent a draft of my chapter on Third Force Psychology in A Psychological Approach to Fiction to Abraham Maslow and received an enthusiastic letter from him saying that it was "excellent and accurate."
Much of the time I was in therapy, I felt that I had missed my calling, that I should have been a therapist, since that made much more difference to people's lives than teaching literature or writing criticism. Toward the end of the process, however, I realized that this was a vestige of a belief I had shared with George Eliot: that only by living for others can we give meaning to our lives. Actually, teaching and writing were more in keeping with my talents and my desire to express myself. Being a therapist seemed to call for too much self-suppression, too much seeing things and keeping one's mouth shut -- until the right moment, at least. As a teacher and writer, I could say whatever I thought. Moreover, once I started developing a psychological approach to literature, I could use the insights I had gained in therapy, as well as in my study of psychological theory, and combine them with what I had learned in graduate school. Writing psychological criticism came to feel like what Maslow calls a self-actualizing activity, something that I found to be intrinsically satisfying and that allowed me to unfold my potentialities. I had discovered my calling: exploring the value of Karen Horney and other Third Force psychologists for the study of literature.
Horney appealed to me partly because she had taught me so much about myself (the theories we choose are very self-revealing) and partly because her theories seemed highly congruent with a great deal of the literature I was reading and teaching. Her theories seemed particularly suited to the study of literature because of their synchronic character. Instead of trying to explain the present in terms of the past, as does mainstream psychoanalysis, Horney analyzed behavior in terms of its function within the present motivational system, the current constellation of defenses. That system is an evolved product of the past, but it has an inner logic of its own that can be understood even if we know little or nothing about its origins. I felt very comfortable with this approach, having been trained to explicate works of literature in terms of their "internal organizing principle." Moreover, while literature does not provide the kind of information about infantile origins needed for orthodox psychoanalytic explanations (Horney argued that even in analysis such information is not really available), in realistic characterization we usually learn a great deal about adult behavior, relationships, and character structure. With a Horneyan approach, we can utilize the information we actually have instead of explaining the present in terms of a past we have inferred from the present to begin with. We can stay with the text, with the words on the page, which is what I was taught to do in graduate school.
I followed A Psychological Approach to Fiction with a series of books employing Horney in the study of literature, each of which is described on this website. After completing Character and Conflict in Jane Austen's Novels (1978), I devoted more than a decade to working on Shakespeare, the greatest literary psychologist. This issued in two books, Bargains with Fate: Psychological Crises and Conflicts in Shakespeare and His Plays (1991) and Character as a Subversive Force in Shakespeare: The History and Roman Plays (1991). Between them, these books deal with almost the entire Shakespearean corpus. The first half of Bargains with Fate is devoted to the four major tragedies and the second half to Shakespeare's authorial personality as it can be inferred from all of his works. Both books focus on tensions between form and rhetoric, on the one hand, and mimetic characterization, on the other. In these books, in A Psychological Approach to Fiction, and in my book on Jane Austen, I try to show that great literary characters are, in E. M. Forster's phrase, "creations inside a creation" who can be understood independently of the formal and thematic structures of which they are a part and who tend to subvert those structures. We do not register their subversive effect unless we understand them in motivational terms, independently of the author's interpretations and judgments. So a proper understanding of the relation of a mimetically drawn character to the work in which he or she appears is dependent on a psychological analysis of the character.
Most of my work on Shakespeare was done at the University of Florida, to which I moved in 1981. In my fifteen years at UF, I taught courses in nineteenth century British literature, literature and psychology, and Shakespeare. In 1983, Norman Holland joined our department, and together we founded IPSA (Institute for Psychological Study of the Arts), of which I was director from 1985 to 1992. Under the aegis of IPSA, the University of Florida became a major center for the psychological study of literature.
I devoted most of the 1980s to my work on Shakespeare and most of the 1990s to work on Karen Horney. My critical studies met with a good deal of resistance both from those who did not like any psychological approach to literature and from psychoanalytic critics, who either didn't know Horney or who echoed the dismissive attitude toward her that they found in mainstream psychoanalysis. Tired of being asked to defend Horney in books of literary criticism, I decided to write a book about her that would make the case for her importance. After drawing up a proposal for such a book, I was asked to write a review of Susan Quinn's biography, A Mind of Her Own: The Life of Karen Horney (1987). I admired Quinn's book and learned a great deal from it, but I did not think she understood how much Horney had revealed about herself in her Adolescent Diaries. I therefore rewrote my proposal to include a biographical component, received a contract, and set about writing the book that became Karen Horney: A Psychoanalyst's Search for Self-Understanding (1994).
My first step was to reread Horney's books, and I started with the one I remembered least well -- Self-Analysis (1942). I had reread the Adolescent Diaries while working on my review of Quinn; and, with the diaries fresh in my mind, I realized that the Clare case in Self-Analysis is highly autobiographical and that it provides information about Karen's early life that can be found nowhere else and which throws an entirely new light on the diaries. I became convinced, moreover, that its account of the breakdown of Clare's relationship with Peter is a fictionalized version of the breakdown of Karen's relationship with Erich Fromm. Equipped with the insights provided by the Clare case and the diaries, I began to see almost all of Horney's writings as covert autobiography.
My understanding of Horney the person was further enhanced by the interviews I conducted with people who knew her and by the correspondence and interview notes of her first biographer, Jack Rubins. Working in the 1960s and 70s, Rubins interviewed over 100 people who had known Horney, most of whom had died by the time I embarked on my project, and had taken notes in an idiosyncratic shorthand that he probably used during analytic sessions. When my research assistant finished deciphering the hundreds of pages of these notes, I discovered that Rubins, a Horneyan analyst who had had close ties to his mentor, had suppressed a great deal of unflattering information. I do my writing at home, and I remember leaving my study frequently to tell my wife the disturbing new thing I had just learned about Karen Horney.
Writing the book was therefore quite a balancing act. As a scholar, I was committed to telling the truth, but I did not want to diminish Horney. I cited James Hillman's statement that we read the biographies of artists to learn what they made of their traumas. I came to feel, quite honestly, that many of Horney's profoundest insights emerged from her struggle to understand her own difficulties and to cure herself. She did cure her problems with work and became remarkably productive in her later years, but she continued to have troubled human relationships. It was her effort to fathom her unresolved problems that kept her theory evolving. The striking thing to me was that, for the most part, she did not normalize her problematic behavior. She understood its destructiveness and never stopped trying to change. I admired her for that. She was not the serenely wise woman, who had resolved her own problems and was ready to help us with ours, that she appeared to be in her books; but this in no way diminished the power of her theory and the value of her contribution.
As might be expected, many Horneyan analysts were unhappy with my book, but it was generally well received and was selected as a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times. I have posted on this website a short piece that I wrote in response to a pained notice of the book in the Newsletter of the Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis: "The Writing of Karen Horney: A Psychoanalyst's Search for Self-Understanding."
In the course of my research, I discovered a number of previously unpublished lectures and essays by Karen Horney, and I followed up my biographical study by editing two collections of Horney's previously unpublished and uncollected writings: The Therapeutic Process: Essays and Lectures (1999) and The Unknown Karen Horney: Essays on Gender, Culture, and Psychoanalysis (2000).
As part of what I think of as my "Horney decade," I founded and directed the International Karen Horney Society (IKHS). The Society was very active in the first half of the 90s, with several international conferences, including one in Rome in 1994; but I grew weary of doing almost all the work and allowed the Society to become largely dormant in the second half of the decade. It continued to support translations of Horney's works into Russian and Chinese and research on Horney around the world. Two Horneyan analysts and I gave a series of seminars at the East European Institute for Psychoanalysis in St. Petersburg, and I oversaw the Chinese translations as external editor of "The Karen Horney Series" of the Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing House. The IKHS is currently active in the form of a website, on which is posted some of my writings about Karen Horney.
In between Karen Horney (1994) and The Therapeutic Process (1999), I published Imagined Human Beings: A Psychological Approach to Character and Conflict in Literature(1997), some chapters of which are posted on this website. This book, which is part of the Literature and Psychoanalysis Series of the NYU Press, was the fruit of the courses in Victorian fiction and Psychological Approaches to Literature that I taught at the University of Florida. It has chapters on characters and relationships in A Doll's House, Hedda Gabler, The End of the Road, "The Clerk's Tale," The Merchant of Venice, and Antigone; and it explores the relations between character, plot, rhetoric, and narrative technique in Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Madame Bovary, The Awakening, and Wuthering Heights.
After completing my work on Horney, I returned to literary criticism with my second book on George Eliot. In addition to an introductory chapter that traces my shifting views of her work and speculates about why my responses have changed so much (posted here), there are chapters on Dorothea, Lydgate, and Mary Garth in Middlemarch and on Gwendolen and Daniel in Daniel Deronda. My views of these characters differ radically from those I find in George Eliot’s rhetoric and in most literary criticism, including my own in Experiments in Life. A version of my treatment of Dorothea was published in The American Journal of Psychoanalysis [59 (1999), 237-255] as part of a special issue on Psychoanalytic Approaches to George Eliot that I guest edited. All the essays on George Eliot from that issue, along with my editor’s introduction, have been republished electronically as part of the 2000 volume of PSYART.
I have devoted the first decade of the twenty-first century to writing about works I have read and taught many times over the years, with an emphasis on character analysis. In addition to Rereading George Eliot (2003), I have published Conrad’s Charlie Marlow: A New Approach to “Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim (2005) and Dostoevsky’s Greatest Characters: A New Approach to “Notes from Underground,” Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov (2008). Heaven and Its Discontents: Milton’s Characters in Paradise Lost is scheduled for to appear in May, 2010. These books are all described in the Books section of this website. The tentative title of my current project is Thomas Hardy and His Characters. I have had a long-standing interest in Hardy, as “Experiences of Thomas Hardy,” posted in the Essays section, testifies.