Sigmund Freud spars with Henry James in this light and amusing historical novel.
Although there is no evidence that Freud ever met novelist James, the contemporary thinkers would have had much to discuss. In this fanciful imagining of such a meeting, Yoder (Telling Others What to Think, 2004, etc.) envisions a visit brought about by the novelist’s brother (and Freud’s psychological colleague) William James, who fears that Henry’s increasingly ornate later literary style is the result of obsessive neuroses. The year is 1908, when the younger James was in fact revising his earlier works. Yoder creates a young scholar, Horace Briscoe, to observe the events both at the time and from a later date when, as a noted academic, he must decide what to do with Freud’s incomplete case notes taken during a brief, informal psychoanalysis performed on the novelist during the visit. Briscoe also serves as the hero of a romantic subplot, as his courtship of the troubled but beautiful Agnes brings more human drama into play. But the action in this brief novel is really between the great men, and they are at odds from the start. James’ famed celibacy, for example, makes an obvious focus for Freud, who was then disseminating his theories of infantile sexuality and the Oedipal complex. But to the fastidious, if not prissy, James, such notions are repellent. To James, the Austrian intellectual is primarily a wonderful character; he is chiefly concerned with capturing the doctor’s mannerisms as fodder for letters to his dear friend, Edith Wharton. When James begins poking fun at Freud, his young assistant steps in to warn the doctor, and the long passages detailing the great minds’ views of each other are the highlight of the book.
Yoder, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, doesn’t get much more dramatic than these high-minded face-offs, but the overall effect is knowledgeable fun.