Erik Erikson and the American Psyche:
Lanham, MD (USA): Jason Aronson, 2007.
Reviewed by David Waterman
Daniel Burston’s recent book on Erik Erikson is the logical continuation of a lifelong interest in the history of psychoanalysis, after preceding works devoted to Freud, Jung, Fromm and Laing—the author is Professor of Psychology at Duquesne University (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA). Although not a practitioner of psychoanalysis, there is no problem of credibility in Burston’s work, as he is more interested in the psychoanalyst as public intellectual than scientist, and, at least in North America, the diminishing importance of such holistic thinkers as “preceptor[s] to humanity at large” .
Chapter One, “In Hitler’s Shadow,” gives a brief overview of the decline of psychoanalysis, after a century of priceless contribution to society (Erikson’s concept of intergenerational identification, for example), largely due to economic factors—“quick fix” pharmaceutical solutions are much cheaper than analysis, hence favored by insurance companies. A condensed biography of Erikson’s childhood follows, giving the reader essential information about the crisis of identity which would plague Erikson all his life, including questions regarding paternity, nationality and Jewishness, all of which would leave Erikson “unsettled” in both literal and figurative ways, even after his association and training with the Freuds.
The following chapter presents Erikson’s interest in the psycho-profiles of great thinkers, specifically Luther and Gandhi, thus creating the contentious category known as psychohistory. While such case studies can be very interesting and enlightening, their frequent shortcomings in terms of scientific methodology cause much disagreement in analytic circles, criticism to which Erikson was not immune:
After all—and by his own admission—Erikson was searching Luther’s life for evidence to justify and illustrate his evolving theories of identity and the life cycle. Therefore, he was reproached with trying to make the evidence fit a preconceived theoretical schema. 
Burston also takes Erikson’s portrait of Luther as a humanitarian and a revolutionary to task, given Luther’s tendency toward violence, his selective emphasis on certain Biblical texts (while ignoring others), not to mention his rabid anti-Semitism [110-15]. Gandhi fares better among Erikson’s critics, despite some concern that Gandhi’s sense of virtue (in the sense of celibacy) often involves violating human instincts .
The seventh chapter, “The Historicity of Dreams,” tackles the delicate subject of treating dreams as data or as historical artifact, which, like all other data and artifacts occur in a socio-historical context, an often-overlooked element in dream analysis. Then the reader learns of Freud’s disagreements with Wilhelm Fliess regarding alleged plagiarism on the subject of bisexuality—as it turns out, Burston contends, Freud was often inspired by other thinkers without properly acknowledging the debt . The final chapter, “Erikson’s Erasure,” examines the question of how one of the foremost authorities on adolescence in 1965 could be largely forgotten today. The decline of psychoanalysis is a partial answer, Erikson’s biological foundation of the life cycle as politically incorrect is another [192-93]. Childhood in the 1950s was much different than childhood in the early twenty-first century, especially regarding the banalization of sexual activity and violence, rising illiteracy, not to mention the accelerated rate of technological and social change. Politically, there is also suspicion that Erikson’s insistence on an ultimate human nature is merely yet another attempt to impose a dominant set of norms and values on subaltern groups . While this is a legitimate concern, Burston cautions against taking up the opposite point of view, namely a total disbelief in human nature, for without some idea of human nature we are incapable of defining “universal human rights or fundamental human needs” . Despite certain legitimate criticisms, Erikson has left an immense body of work that we ignore at our peril, and his passing into oblivion is one of the factors leading Burston to the pessimistic conclusion that “the basic developmental needs of children and adolescents are no longer being met in our society” .
Daniel Burston has produced an excellent work which succeeds by its balanced approach to Erikson’s troubled life and career, never falling into hero worship while highlighting the immense social contribution, especially in adolescent development, which is Erikson’s legacy. Readers within disciplines from psychology and sociology to history and anthropology will be attracted to this thorough and well-researched book, which, in spite of being categorized as “Psychology / Biography” by the editors, will be of interest to anyone within the much broader scope of Cultural Studies and the articulations among and between the various disciplines. Thanks at least in part to Burston’s work, Erik Erikson has been (re)placed where he belongs, as an engaged public intellectual.