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De Voto, B. (1940). Freud in American Literature. Psychoanal Q., 9:236-245.

(1940). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 9:236-245

Freud in American Literature

Bernard De Voto

Statements about the influence of any psychological theory on literature must be made cautiously. The indirect influences are apt to be more important than the direct ones, and the evidence for either is mixed, complex, and easily overinterpreted. On the one hand, the artistic intelligence is one of the least analytical in the world, and any artist who tries to begin with theory and move from that to the creation of imaginary characters or to the imaginative portrayal of emotion may end by deceiving himself as well as the critic who tries to follow him. On the other hand, artists are also peculiarly sensitive to the ideas, theories, hypotheses, dogmas, and intellectual currents of their time. No matter how unanalytical they may be they are always to some extent mirrors, frequently distorting mirrors, which reflect the thinking of their scientific and philosophical contemporaries. Moreover, the best of them may be psychological innovators on their own behalf and may make valuable contributions not only to the layman's understanding but to the clinical psychologist's as well.

So long as imaginative literature has existed it has been aware that unconscious forces have a determining effect on behavior. Freud took the name of his first great generalization from a poetic drama written in the fifth century before Christ. In a recent issue of American Imago Dr. Sachs treats Measure for Measure as a coherent study of unconscious motivation, and he is by no means the first analyst to find good hunting in Shakespeare's plays. In fact one of the pleasantest surprises to the student of literature who ventures into this field is the readiness of psychoanalysts to accept the imaginary behavior of fictional characters as data for clinical study. Yet nothing like a literary theory of the unconscious has ever been formulated. There were no psychologists in the Athens of Sophocles and though there were psychologists, of a kind, in Shakespeare's England, they had no hypothesis about the unconscious.

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