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Wilson: A Psychological Profile

ISSUE:  Winter 1983
Woodrow Wilson: A Medical and Psychological Biography. By Edwin A. Weinstein. Princeton. $18.50.

In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson, in a rare moment of public introspection, confided to the National Press Club: “You may not believe it, but I sometimes feel like a far from extinct volcano, and if the lava does not seem to spill over it is because you are not high enough to see the cauldron boil.” Undoubtedly, most of the president’s contemporaries could perceive nothing of these heights of psychic and sexual energy to which Wilson alluded. Theodore Roosevelt, after hearing rumors in 1912 of Wilson’s involvement in a sexual liaison, dismissed him as an “apothecary’s clerk”—too much of a boy to become involved in an extramarital scandal. Yet others—Sigmund Freud among them—believed that Wilson’s rigid behavior and his flamboyant moralism actually disguised deep-seated conflicts. In the historiography of Wilson, these two tendencies have continued. But the propensity to dismiss or overlook psychological factors has been more than matched recently by a growing recognition of the importance of psychological data. The result is that Woodrow Wilson has become the most psychoanalyzed president in American history. Only Richard Nixon (who invokes Wilson’s heritage) has been subjected to anything of the same sort of scrutiny.

One reason for this intense psychological interest comes from Wilson’s letters, most of them preserved and now published in Arthur Link’s fine series. These letters reveal, even to the most casual reader, a passionate Victorian, in love with language, life, and self—a man with a rich, surprising, and revealing inner life. In addition to this important literary source, Dr. Edwin Weinstein’s discussion of Wilson’s neurological illness, published in 1970, stirred a good deal of discussion about the workings of the president’s mind. Based upon his diagnostic training, Weinstein gathered and interpreted evidence from correspondence, doctors’ reports, and other sources, to trace the progress of Wilson’s neuro-vascular disease. In his original article, Weinstein suggested that Wilson’s disease left traces in his behavior and writings in at least three ways: it directly affected the structure of his language as Wilson chose words that alluded to disease and health; it modified his behavior, making him more irritable and less compromising; and it forced him to disguise his infirmity in increased activity.

These speculations form the basis of Weinstein’s extraordinary new biography of Wilson. And to this foundation of medical history, Weinstein has added a psychological history. The result is a book that goes some distance toward restoring the credibility of psychohistory and psychological interpretations of prominent historical figures. At the same time, the interpretation, because of its singular emphasis, illustrates rather starkly, the problems that inevitably confront the psychohistorian.

In his biography, Weinstein accomplishes three things that add immensely to our understanding of Wilson. He speculates freely, and with a good deal of insight, about the psychological relationships between Wilson, his family, and acquaintances. He establishes more firmly than ever the nature of the affair that Wilson initiated with Mrs. Mary Alien Hulbert in the years immediately before he became president. And he weaves the story of Wilson’s physical state into the story of his attitudes and behavior, from the effects of his initial dyslexia to his final, fatal stroke. This is a major achievement, and the author succeeds because his tone is at once speculative, experimental, and authoritative.

Wilson’s childhood established his patterns of ambition, competitiveness, and dependence upon women. His father, Joseph Ruggles Wilson, was a successful and prominent minister and power in the Southern Presbyterian Church. The father’s feelings of frustration and failure, compounded by his ebbing fortunes late in his career, strengthened his tendency to live through his son’s accomplishments. To the future president, Joseph Ruggles imparted a compulsion to fight beyond and through failure and to treasure success more than almost anything else. In his relationship with his mother, Jessie, Wilson developed a pattern of dependence, loyalty, and a need for intimacy that he reproduced in his later relationships with women.

Weinstein has little to say about the development of Wilson’s political ideas or about their content, but his descriptions of his years in college, his apprenticeship in law and history, and his early teaching career are rich with psychological growth and implication. In this early period, Wilson established patterns of behavior and speech that he carried throughout the next 25 years. As Weinstein notes, this sometimes involved a heavy measure of projection—of putting sentiments and ideas into speeches and letters that he might have found deeply embarrassing to express in personal meetings. More often than not in such utterances, Wilson called upon organic metaphors associated with health and disease (heart, life, pulse, and so on) to express his deepest emotions.

Apparently, Wilson’s first stroke occurred in 1896, and it seriously encumbered the use of his right hand for some time. His response to this malady was to deny its seriousness, although the doctor he consulted at the time may not have recognized the causes of his paralysis. Nonetheless, Wilson probably understood, at least in part, the danger of the incident. In any case, his denial of weakness and frailty, and his increased activity and heightened ambition, became a pattern which he repeated in subsequent bouts of neurovascular illness. Weinstein painstakingly explores these episodes and their impact on Wilson’s behavior. Most strikingly, some of Wilson’s principal mistakes—his futile fight to reform Princeton and his fruitless and dogmatic struggle to secure passage of the Versailles Treaty in 1919—become explainable in part because of debilitating illness.

Weinstein does far more than redirect historical attention to the state of Wilson’s physical health. He provides a running psychological commentary on Wilson that goes far beyond the physiological interpretation suggested in his original essay. This psychohistory is at once informative, playful, astute, and often widely speculative. For example, Weinstein comments on Wilson’s temporary agreement, during the 1910 fight over control of the Princeton graduate school, to maintain two sites, one on and one off campus. As Weinstein says, this may have symbolized the “dichotomy in his emotional life” as he divided time and affections between his wife Ellen in Princeton and his friend Mary Alien Hulbert in New York. The author also notes that during a period of almost eight years, while Wilson was seeing Mrs. Hulbert, he frequently used the American flag as a metaphor in his speeches. But during this period he avoided all reference to the color white (representing purity) until he confessed his affair to his second wife, Edith Boiling Gait; thereafter, the symbol of white returned to his speeches.

There is much else in this interpretive vein that makes Weinstein’s work a fascinating portrait of Woodrow Wilson. Yet there is a serious drawback to this approach. What is lacking in this biography is any sense of development, an explanation for the positive, triumphant moments that mark Wilson’s career. In part, this stems from the overriding attention to pathology. Weinstein’s method works best in the darker moments of Wilson’s life, in times of stress and disease. What is missing is a larger sense of the development of Wilson’s whole personality in and through time.

Furthermore, in spite of the usefulness of psychoanalytic and pathological analyses, Weinstein does not try to explain two of the most important facts about Wilson: his decision to pursue politics as a career and the texture of his political thought. Wilson’s personality traits and his physical disabilities impinged heavily upon his political career, but they do not define it or the nature of his political stands as a leading reformer. Nor does Weinstein offer much to explain Wilson’s remarkable political appeal. Why did this singular, stern, moral character attract such positive attention in 1912? The answer lies in perspectives that individual analysis cannot provide. What Wilson said—and the way he said it—struck deep resonances in American politics because, in some ways, he represented the epitome of a national self-image. And what Weinstein points out to be the remarkable and unique character traits of Wilson was, in fact, true of a great many other men of his generation. As latter-day Victorians, these staunch and stern reformers shaped that burst of political morality called Progressivism which divided the 19th from the 20th centuries, and the age of industrialization from the modern era.


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