Michael talked a bit about Eric Erikson and concluded his comment with some very kind words about me so I thought I would take the occasion to tell you all the little bit I can about my experience with Erikson. The year that I started my instructorship at Harvard, 1958, was the year that David Reisman was appointed to a university professorship there. Reisman’s office was on the third floor of Emerson Hall where the Social Relations Department had its home. He had the habit of gathering around him a group of young untenured faculty and when I published a letter in the New York Times which caught his eye, he dropped me a note and suggested that I come by. I found my way to his office and in the deferential way in which junior faculty then spoke to senior faculty I said that I hoped I was not disturbing him. He welcomed me into his office and complained that although he was just down the hall from Mr. Sociology (by whom he meant Talcott Parsons), he never talked to the great man and nobody ever came to see him. I became part of a group of antiwar pro-nuclear disarmament folks around Reisman who called themselves The Committee of Correspondence, taking their title from a group during the American Revolution. We published a newsletter (in which my student and later friend and co-teacher Todd Gitlin regularly published) and met from time to time. When Erikson joined the faculty, I think in 1960, he became part of the group and that was when I met him.
Erikson was an odd duck. At the age of 58 he was roughly 10 years older than Reisman and since I was then 26, they both seemed ancient to me. Erikson had a shock of white hair and as I recall sparkling blue eyes and he made quite an impression on me. I found him very distant and have no recollection of having an actual one-on-one conversation with him in the time I knew him, but the graduate students and young instructors who served as his assistants in the course he taught loved him and idolized him. It is my impression, rather than my genuine recollection, that some young folks who later became quite distinguished served as his assistants in those days. Reisman, by the way, had the quite extraordinary habit of reading and writing extended comments on each of the essays submitted by the hundreds of students who took his large lecture courses, even though it took him well into the next semester to complete the task.
Erikson had published Childhood and Society in 1950 and I read it, I believe, sometime during my years at Harvard. It had a very great effect on me and I have quoted from it often in all the years since. The centerpiece of the book, of course, is Erikson’s expansion of Freud’s three stages of psychosexual development in the young child – the anal, the oral, and the genital – to a total of eight stages stretching throughout life. He is one of the great theorists of what came to be called Ego Psychology. One of the things in the book that I found particularly impressive was Erikson’s report of fieldwork he had done among Native Americans in the northwestern United States which enabled him to draw contrasts and comparisons between their stages of psychosexual development and those of Europeans and Americans of European descent.
When I came to write my long 800 page autobiography on this blog, I chose a passage from Childhood and Society as the epigraph for it.