Whom Freud Would Not Otherwise Reach: Ashley Montagu, Psychoanalysis, and U.S. Anthropology at Midcentury

Had Selected Writings by Sigmund Freud been published by the Pelican press in 1948, it is likely Ashley Montagu—the prolific British-American anthropologist, and the work’s main compiler—would today have been recognized as a noteworthy figure in Freud’s postwar US reception. Yet after several months reading Freud’s corpus, deciding which texts and passages to include, writing an introduction, and compiling a bibliography, Montagu was forced to shelve the project, thwarted by the Freud family’s famous reluctance to allow such maverick publications. His attempts, a decade later, to initiate a sibling study under a new title, Freud Re-Examined, comprised of reprints of scholarly essays mostly by contemporary psychologists, also went nowhere, frustrated by a publisher’s aversion to the genre. By the 1980s, if Montagu discussed these works at all, he presumed them “irretrievably lost.”

Yet several folios of materials were preserved, including those relating to the aborted 1940s anthology. Today all are gathered in box 65 of the Ashley Montagu Papers, held at the American Philosophical Society, in Philadelphia.[i]

Figure 1. Folder ‘A Critique of Freud’ [#3462], Box 65, Series III, Ashley Montagu Papers, MS Coll 109 American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, PA.

These documents enrich our understanding of Montagu beyond his recognized association with the UNESCO Statements on Race (1950/51), and his countless publications on gender, aggression, and human nature—all of which vaulted him, in the words of Henrika Kuklick, to a position “below Margaret Mead, but far above many others.”[ii] Surrounding correspondence with co-editors, publishers, and Freud’s sons, Oliver and Ernst, also help to define American anthropology’s midcentury relationship with psychoanalysis. In relief, they offer us a sturdy platform from which to consider the terms by which we standardly discuss this period, and subject, in the history of the field.

The idea of compiling a short selection (200 pages) of Freud’s works aimed at a general readership, particularly “the college audience,” reflected the growing US interest in psychoanalysis. With few rival editions, the collection would have preceded by several years the burst of biographies and official translations that began to appear in the 1950s. It would certainly have expanded access to Freud’s corpus beyond the six texts that the psychoanalyst A. A. Brill republished in 1938, and, costing just 25¢, would have been a fifth of its price. It would almost certainly have returned respectable sales, as its publisher, Pelican, new to the US market, hoped.[iii]

Working with a co-editor, his friend from the New School, the psychoanalyst Eric Fromm, Montagu spent several months choosing twenty-two of Freud’s essays, books, and cases to republish, and identifying illustrative passages from each. While much would have been sampled, Freud’s Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex (1905) would not have been one of them, probably because Montagu remembered Bronisław Malinowski’s bracing handling of the text in the 1920s, and because he thought it was not the most ‘fruitful’ for future anthropological work.

Figure 2. Draft ‘Introduction’, c.Oct. 1947, Folder ‘A Critique of Freud’ [#3457], Box 65, Montagu Papers, American Philosophical Society.

The four pages Montagu typed for the intended work’s introduction, in October 1947, made clear his compilation’s aim to “orient the reader in relation to Freud” through his “most representative writings.” “Psychoanalysis is largely the creation of one man, Sigmund Freud,” the draft introduction begins, before it moves to provide “a post-Freudian historical conspectus of the development of psychoanalysis,” placing “Freud’s enormous contribution in perspective.” While he ran into forbidding headwinds around copyright in November, Montagu continued to revise his manuscript, hoping to add “a good word” for Otto Rank and Alfred Adler, heretics to most strict Freudians, to the final copy. In such modest ways, the document implies the wider appeal that neo-Freudians held for those anthropologists who engaged psychoanalysis in these years.[iv]

Montagu seems to have been drawn to the project, beyond commercial reward, out of a belief he was providing “a public service”, widening the audience to those “whom Freud would not otherwise reach,” and regarding it as a tool of social policy, “increas[ing] mutual understanding and sympathy.” These were lofty claims though they chimed with his wartime enthusiasm for scientific humanism, and, crucially, his sense that anthropology was improved as it conversed with other fields. The book’s blurb would have described Montagu not as an anthropologist, though he was trained in that field, but as one with expertise in the “borderland in which the social and biological sciences meet.”

Although neither of Montagu’s books about Freud made it into print, they nevertheless influenced the direction and character of his later work. References to Freud abound in several of the books he wrote in the 1950s, and they drove his interest in alternative branches of psychoanalysis: to object relations theory; to Adler, who buttressed his views on the importance of social interaction in shaping personality; and to the Glaswegian analyst Ian Suttie (whose The Origins of Love and Hate Montagu presciently introduced for a US audience, in 1952, twenty years before US psychoanalysis discovered the work) who colored his comparative studies of love and cooperation in societies.[v] When in the late 1960s and 1970s Montagu debated Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz about the nature of human aggression, he characterized them, not unreasonably, as putting “new garb” around what Freud had written on the topic; his 1976 monograph The Nature of Human Aggression opens with an epigraph from Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). That Montagu, in 1947 and again in 1959, expressed interest in publishing works on Freud and psychoanalysis, also testified to the fact these subjects remained “important undercurrents” for anthropology, even as some took aim at “culture and personality,” presuming the tributary was running dry.[vi]

We should not try to wrench Montagu’s commitment to these projects, which admittedly sprang from several sources, into the “culture and personality movement,” which was only one phase in a dense process of interaction between psychoanalysis and anthropology around midcentury. What, I think, the materials in box 65 instead suggest is our need to resuscitate the distinction that Montagu’s friend, the Duke University anthropologist Weston La Barre, drew between “the culture-and-personality movement in general,” and psychoanalysis’s “larger and more diffuse influence upon American anthropology as a whole.”[vii] It is within this latter category that Montagu’s work best fits, offering a strand of inquiry that has been absent from histories of American anthropology. Such diverting projects certainly burnished Montagu’s reputation as one of America’s “most versatile anthropologists”; at least that’s what Clifford Geertz wrote in 1961.[viii] Had he known of them, Geertz would likely have understood Montagu’s midcentury engagements with Freud as characteristic of an earlier group of scholars who, he said in 1991, came “in from an angle” to anthropology, bringing “influences from outside” that enriched the discipline. Such traits had been eroded, Geertz regretted, by the insular character the discipline developed in the twenty years after the 1950s.[ix]

These materials, like many discussed in the History of Anthropology Review, testify to the value and excitement of archival work as discovery. Had Montagu published either of these books, a younger generation, including students of anthropology, would have read Freud’s work firsthand, and plausibly found fresh ways of reckoning with it, nurturing an alternative orientation better able to endure the decimation of ‘culture and personality’. In the absence of such publications, later historical treatments of American anthropology condensed, and dismissed, the influence psychoanalysis had on the field to this “fashionable slogan,” in ways that might soon no longer hold up.[x]

[i] Folios: A Critique of Freud, Box 65, Ashley Montagu Papers, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, PA.

[ii] Henrika Kuklick quoted in Anthony Ramirez, “Ashley Montagu, 94, Anthropologist and Popular Author,” New York Times (Nov. 29, 1999). Montagu was a prodigious writer and commentator, addressing both scholarly and popular audiences on many subjects between the 1940s and 1980s. Among his best-known works are: Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race (1942); On Being Human (1951); The Natural Superiority of Women (1952); The Nature of Human Aggression (1976).

[iii] On Pelican’s origins and market see Peter Mandler, “Good Reading for the Million: The ‘Paperback Revolution’ and the Co-Production of Academic Knowledge in Mid Twentieth-Century Britain and America,” Past and Present 244 (Aug. 2019): 235-69.

[iv] Robert A. LeVine, “Culture and Personality Studies, 1918-60: Myth and History,” Journal of Personality 69 (Dec. 2001): 803-18.

[v] Suttie’s reception among American psychoanalysts is described in Elizabeth Lunbeck, The Americanization of Narcissism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).

[vi] George Stocking, “Anthropology and the Science of the Irrational,” in Malinowski, Rivers, Benedict and Others: Essays on Culture and Personality, ed. George W. Stocking, Jr, vol. 4: History of Anthropology (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), 13-49, at 43.

[vii] Weston La Barre, “The Influence of Freud on Anthropology,” American Imago 15 (Fall, 1958), 275-328, at 286.

[viii] Clifford Geertz, “Aspects of Mankind Examined Provocatively,” Chicago Daily Tribune (June 18, 1961), D4.

[ix] Richard Handler, “An Interview with Clifford Geertz,” Current Anthropology 32 (Dec. 1991), 603-13.

[x]  Clyde Kluckhohn and O. H. Mowrer, “‘Culture and Personality’: A Conceptual Scheme,” American Anthropologist 46 1 (1944): 1-29, at 1.


  1. Dr. Montagu mentioned this aborted project to me when I interviewed him in September 1993. Prof. Fearnley has done valuable digging to bring to light all the details.

    • Dr. Andrew Fearnley

      August 14, 2020 at 4:20 am

      My thanks for this comment, William. I’d be keen to hear more about your ’93 interview with Montagu, would you mind sending me a direct email (listed above) to discuss further please?

  2. Dr. Fearnley, Did you go through all of Montagu’s papers at the APS? Is there a written report or book on your findings? I corresponded personally with Ashley from 1994 until months before his death. It’s my hope to finish examining all his papers there someday and give Montagu his due. His contributions are undermentioned in anthropological circles.

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