Teaching and Writing Psychohistory: Andrew Rolle

Geoffrey Cocks, Albion College

Andrew F. Rolle was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1922.  He graduated from Occidental College in Los Angeles in 1943 and served as a Military Intelligence Officer in Europe.  In 1953 he received his doctoral degree in history from UCLA.  From 1953 to 1988 he taught at Occidental College, being named Robert Glass Cleland Professor of History in 1965.  A specialist in  the  history  of  California and the West,  Rolle was also one of the first historians to introduce psychohistory into the undergraduate curriculum and into the consciousness of the historical profession in America.  He completed his own psychoanalytic training at the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute in 1976.  His many publications include: California: A History, fifth edition forthcoming (New York: Crowell, 1963); “The Historic Past of the Unconscious,” in Lasswell, Lerner, and Speier (eds.), Propaganda and Communication in World History (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1980); The Italian-Americans: Troubled Roots (New York: Free Press, 1980); and John Charles Frémont:  Character as Destiny (Norman, OK: Oklahoma University Press, 1991).  Rolle has been the recipient of numerous grants and awards and has twice been honored by the government of Italy, where he served as American Vice Consul in Genoa from 1945 to 1948.  This interview, conducted by Geoffrey Cocks (“GC”), a former student of Rolle and Peter Loewenberg, took place at Rolle’s (“AR”) home in San Marino, California, on May 29, 1997.
GC: Please tell us about your family background.

AR:  My parents came to America in 1922.  They were what we call Swiss-Italians in the sense that there’s a little town called Rolle on Lake Geneva between Geneva and Lausanne, but my parents actually were born in Northern Italy.  They lived in Rhode Island for the first few years.  Then my mother became tubercular and we moved to California to save her health when I was six years old.  I’ve been a Californian for all these many years.

My father was an engineer, my mother was a housewife, but they were both interested in learning and in books.  I would say that my father was an intellectual.  I had a brother who was an avian-ecologist, an expert on the transmigration of birds from Africa to the Americas.  He was a professor at the University of Puerto Rico and he committed suicide when he was about 30 years old.

GC: Did your brother’s suicide have a significant impact on your career?

AR:  No, but what did have an impact was the difference between the experience of immigrants on the East Coast versus those on the West Coast.  I wrote three books about Italians in America.  The one called Troubled Roots is really psychoanalytic, even more so than the Frémont book.  It goes into what it means to live in a family that has come from abroad.  It’s heavily involved with the mechanisms of defense developed within an ethnic constellation, long before ethnicity became popular.  As a person who had grown up in an ethnic family I could not extricate myself.  I couldn’t just say “Well, let’s examine this clinically.”  I was part of the picture, whereas with Frémont I was not.

GC:  You and Bruce Mazlish were two of the first to teach and practice psychohistory back in the sixties?

AR:  My career is rather different than Bruce Mazlish’s.  It’s more like Peter Loewenberg’s.  We’re both people who entered analysis on a personal level.  I had a pretty big crisis in my life when I was about 40 years old and I’ve had two analyses which are really rather complete.  Peter was lucky because his brother-in-law was Sam Eisenstein — a powerful figure in the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute [SCPI].  My analyst, Warren Jones, MD, was a less influential figure.  But at the end of the first analysis he said, “Look, we’re opening the Institute to a certain number of non-MDs and I’d like you to apply.”  I did apply and was accepted.  So, Peter was the first person to be trained in a course that lasted four years and I was the second.

GC:  Did your experience regarding Ezra Pound after World War II have an influence on your interest in this field?

AR:  I was the American Consul in Genoa, Italy, for three-and-a-half years and Ezra Pound lived in my consular district.  So I had something to do with bringing him back to the United States.  Of course, he was pronounced insane and placed in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.  Though I never actually met Ezra Pound I was moved at what had happened to him during the Fascist era.

GC: You could see the connection between creativity, activity, and madness?

AR:  Right.

GC:  Did what you saw going on or not going on in the field of history also inspire you?

AR:  It was a real shock of recognition.  If all these things could happen to me in my lifetime, what about other people?  What about FDR?  What about Gandhi?  What about so many other leaders?  Napoleon and, of course, John C. Frémont (1813-1890), whose biography I wrote.  There was a natural fit between history, biography, and psychoanalysis that seemed to me to be completely troweled over by historians.  Indeed, I’ve been deeply disappointed at the lack of assimilation of this important dimension.  In my Frémont book there is a note about the non-acceptance of psychoanalysis and dynamic psychiatry by historians.  Progress has truly been almost glacial in its impact.

GC:  What made Frémont a particularly good psychohistorical subject for you?

AR:  It had to do with exploration.  I end the book with a trenchant quote from T.S. Eliot in which he says that we continue to explore — and he meant internal exploration as well as external.  Frémont seemed to me a person who repeatedly shot himself in the foot.  Every time he was at a point in his career when he might have moved forward in a creative way, he would somehow sabotage himself.  I contrasted the five exploratory expeditions that he made to the American West with his own lack of internal exploration.  Frémont was in complete denial, as people of his generation tended to be.  He would never speak about his father and never wrote one line about his father — who either disappeared or died when Frémont was five years old.  He also never acknowledged his illegitimate origins and just seemed to be tailor-made for analytic probing.

GC:  I’ve noticed that your work tends to have a very light touch with theory.  Nevertheless, when I looked at the bibliography in your Frémont biography I found a wide range of sources: the Freuds, Mahler, Bowlby, Kohut, and Kernberg.  You’re obviously extremely well-read in the field, yet you don’t let the theory intrude very much on the narrative.

AR:  I am much more cautious than most “psychohistorians.”  I’m much less courageous in my deductions about a person like Frémont than Peter Loewenberg would be.  I’m extremely careful about the use of generalizations concerning psychiatry and psychoanalysis.

I remain more of a historian.  I think Peter has become more of a psychoanalyst.  I went back to my history roots.  But, I’ve been a little too careful about what my colleagues would say.  I wish now that I’d been bolder, because what difference does it make when you’re 75 years old what the hell they say?  Besides, it’s so sad that the major critics of psychohistory often have experienced not even one hour of either analytic training or analysis.  So the judgments they make are often invalid.  It’s pathetic to see books reviewed in the American Historical Review by people who don’t know anything about the field.

One of the reasons I’ve remained cautious was the people who launched the History of Childhood Quarterly [now The Journal of Psychohistory].  So much junk was done in the name of psychohistory in the early days that I was determined that I would not allow myself to be accused of some of the vapid and shallow generalizations that detracted from psychohistory being more accepted.

GC:  Are you eclectic in your use of psychoanalytic and psychological theory?  Or do you hew to one particular direction more than another?

AR:  I’m a Freudian — a neo-Freudian.  Freud was a very great man, a very great mind, one of the epic figures of history.  I don’t participate in all of this Freud-bashing that goes on publicly.  Because, after I finished my four years at the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute, I had three more years as a virtual resident-observer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.  I was in those wards day after day, week after week, and I saw what young psychiatrists had to put up with.  I am deeply offended by people like Ken Kesey who wrote the book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  He simply doesn’t understand the depth of the problems that psychiatrists face.

I’ve also been very much influenced by Harold Lasswell.  I have an article in his last book.  That essay is the closest I’ve ever come to straight psychoanalytic theory as applied psychoanalysis without the idea of dealing with only one person like Frémont.  Lasswell’s whole concept of what a leader does and what the needs of the leader are is highly relevant in American history as applied to Clinton or Nixon or Lyndon Johnson or FDR.  Lasswell believed that the leader has an extreme craving for deference, an absolute passion for a following that will be deferential and awestruck — almost reverential to him.  That idea was most appealing and I applied it to Frémont.  This was natural material for my teaching and writing, and I entitled my last seminar “Studies in Personal Leadership.”

GC:  What are you working on now?

AR:  As Occidental did not pay very well, I’ve earned an added livelihood in the field of California history.  I’m doing a fifth edition now of my standard text, California: A History.  There is also a cut-down version called The Golden State which is used throughout the high schools.  I’m editing a diary of a young woman who came around Cape Horn during the Gold Rush.  And I do lots of encyclopedia sketches.  These projects keep me very busy.

GC:  Do you bring any psychoanalytic insights into those works?

AR:  I do, almost unconsciously, but I have this feeling that most historians consider what we psychohistorians do as cluttering up the narrative.

GC:  Well, it’s very difficult to achieve the sort of balance between theory and material.

AR:  If you really want a readership you’ve got to tread a fine line between professional psychoanalytic theory and what the audience will accept.  That was true last night when I gave a talk to a Civil War Roundtable.  You can’t turn them off right off the bat by giving them jargon.

GC:  What training should a person who wants to be a psychohistorian enter?

AR:  In an article in the Occidental magazine some years ago, I pointed out that if you had a model world and it was well-funded, a young person like yourself, who had taken my psychohistory course, would then go on to a proseminar on leadership and the psychoanalysis of leaders.  After this and following the doctorate, you would be nominated and admitted to a psychoanalytic institute for four years of training, just as I was.  Then, after you came out, you would be beautifully equipped with both an academic PhD and a psychoanalytic PhD.  (Although I resent that immensely because in four years their equivalency of a PhD is nowhere near what we require to get our standard academic PhD.)  I don’t agree with Mazlish whose interview [Clio’s Psyche, December, 1996] suggests that this dual training would be too skewed in the direction of psychoanalytic theory.

GC:  What is happening to psychohistory and what is its future?

AR:  That’s a really crucial question.  I think what has happened to it is really sad, and I believe that my reply will be pretty original: all this attention to gender, race, and class, which we’re subjected to constantly.  Historians today want to do the California Gold Rush in terms of gender, race, and class.  They also want to do the fur trade in terms of race and class.  This approach has sidetracked a lot of interest in psychohistory, which was quite exciting after William Langer gave his moving talk in 1958.  Now, I don’t mean that a person who is interested in gender, race, and class shouldn’t use psychohistory.  The ideal graduate with two degrees would be better equipped to work on these subjects.  Today, a lot of the generalizations that are being made about gender, race, and class are not informed by psychoanalysis or by dynamic psychiatry — they’re a mishmash of sociological theories (many deconstructionist in tone).  Our little pip-squeak attempt to stay alive in academia has been hurt by all this overemphasis on only three aspects of human history.

Here in California, if you have a young Chicano historian who is out to change the history of California and rewrite it along ideological lines, then this defeats what we’re trying to do.  If you’re out to prove that Cesar Chavez was more important than any other figure in California history including Father Junípero Serra, you’ve got a bias.  I know this literature very well.  An objective person like Mauricio Mazón [USC] is a rare exception.  Or, if you’re out to prove that Carrie Jacobs Bond was a greater composer than Beethoven because she was a woman, then this approach damages the objectivity we’re both trying to achieve.  We’re seeking to look at phenomena reasonably and to get some balance going in a field that is often accused of imbalance.  So, academics who have gender, race, and class foremost in their intellectual armamentarium are not genuinely our allies — they’re fighting in another direction.

GC:  So you’re not optimistic in terms of university departments of history furthering psychohistory and of psychoanalytic institutes also furthering some sort of combination of the fields?

AR:  Not for the immediate future.  Look at Occidental.  The minute I left, the study of psychohistory vanished.  They put up with that course only because I had some seniority and was a pretty forceful guy.  Otherwise, if I’d been some assistant professor who had gone to a psychoanalytic institute and then tried to introduce a new course to the curriculum committee, it would have been voted down.  They tolerated it but they didn’t really like the fact that it was a pretty popular course with good enrollments.

The same thing happened to the study of the history of California.  For 36 years I taught the course on California and I had pretty big enrollments.  Well, the minute I retired Occidental didn’t have a course on California anymore.  The History Department simply eliminated the field.  Now you can find out all about medieval lesbian nuns there, but you can’t find out about the history of California.  Because the department is a woman’s department — there are five women and three men, and the men are rather weak.  Talk about the feminization of the profession!

But, I don’t think psychohistory can be permanently ignored.  Maybe it’ll take a generation or two for it to re-emerge, but I don’t see how provable truths in this field can be permanently deleted from the story of mankind.  How can you ignore human motivation?  And yet, my generation and your generation will continue to face a kind of obdurate, dull, middle-class inability to embrace what could be a highly informative, unique explanation of why human beings often act irrationally.

GC: How can psychohistorians have more influence in academia?

AR:  You and I would have fitted in better if we had been in a major university like UCLA or Berkeley and not in a small liberal arts college — it would have advanced the field much more.

GC:  But there is great value and great joys in educating undergraduates.

AR:  That doesn’t help this field.

GC:  No, it doesn’t, because very few go on from undergraduate.  They have to be caught at the graduate level.

AR:  That’s right.

GC:  Did you have any particular mentors in psychohistory?

AR:  I would have to say no.  Peter Loewenberg would be the closest, although I saw him more as a colleague than a mentor.  It was by my vicarious reading and study mostly, because I was quite alone in this field.

GC:  Would you list the five or so people — in order — that you think have been most influential in psychohistory?

AR:  You have to start with Erikson.  Then I put Lasswell pretty close to Erikson.  Then Kohut, although Kohut is even more of a theoretician.  Don’t forget Anna Freud and Margaret Mahler and those people who studied childhood behavior.  And then the more modern practitioners like Rudolph Binion, John Demos, Peter Loewenberg, and Bruce Mazlish — these are not insignificant people.  They’ve done good work, very good work.  The field has attracted some awfully talented people like Charles Strozier.  It’s very sad that Binion and Mazlish had no psychoanalytic training — they both should have been afforded four years of training.  In the case of Bruce Mazlish, I don’t know why — he had really far more powerful connections, being a member of the MIT faculty and in that Boston academic constellation.  He’s a remarkably talented man, but he does lack that dimension.

GC:  Maybe it was a choice, too, because they could have gotten training.

AR:  I would think so, but maybe it was not offered.  Such matters are awfully dicey because members of the psychoanalytic institutes sometimes get into terrific fights among themselves over candidates.  They’re not models of ethical behavior, they’re rife with politics.

GC:  The last few questions have to do with some particular interests of the Psychohistory Forum.  Are high achievers more identified with their fathers?

AR:  That would be very hard to prove, yet I think of Mazlish’s study of John Stuart Mill and his father [James and John Stuart Mill (1975)].  Mazlish could answer that better than.

GC:  Are psychohistorians more father-identified than others?

AR:  I think I identify with my father much more than with my mother.  My mother was a tubercular who temporarily disappeared when I was about two years old.  I was raised by an aunt for a number of years until my mother came back from a sanitarium.  I think it’s likely, yes, but I wouldn’t generalize too broadly.

GC:  That’s the true historian’s answer, of course!  What is the impact of parental loss on level of achievement?

AR:  An enormous subject, and, of course, my Frémont book is all about that: the missing father.  Frémont had no male modeling, so he spent the rest of his life lashing out at older authority figures — even President Lincoln and Generals like Sherman and Grant.  The absence of the father is an enormously rich subject that I think we all ought to be working on.  Frémont’s illegitimate origins brings a comparison with Alexander Hamilton to mind.  They both married into prominent families almost as compensation for the deprivation they felt for not having the father, because being illegitimate in the 18th and 19th centuries was a true scourge — nothing like these Hollywood marriages where illegitimate children are seen as almost normal.

GC:  In following Kohut, and the whole tradition of object relations, of course, there’d be a like emphasis on the role of the mother of the child.  Any other things you wanted to say?

AR:  Academia is such a polyglot field.  I wish I could be more sanguine about the future of this marvelous discipline, psychohistory, but I’m afraid that it gets lumped in with dozens of other demands.  If you’re a dean or a president of a college, you have so many pressures on you from all sides that something like psychohistory gets lost.  Unless some young genius comes along and somehow has the ability to popularize it in a way that hasn’t been done yet, ours will be merely another specialty subject.  One would have to be a kind of Space Age Lindbergh, who combines all of the qualities of Peter Loewenberg, Kohut, and Freud, and somehow cohesively draws massive attention to this field in an engaging and entertaining way.  If Langer had lived longer — he came to psychoanalysis very late in life.  But Langer and his brother, who did that study of Hitler for FDR during World War II, were wonderfully predictive.  Both men had the capacity to take a field and move it up “center.”  Until that’s done, we’re going to be at the margins, we’re going to be at the edges.
When I go to the Huntington Library, I don’t ever bring up psychohistory or talk about my training. 

Conversations merely feature names, dates, facts, election statistics, and battles, or prosaic, surface-level, seemingly objective explanations of political and economic life.  That’s what most academics talk about.  The literary scholars are a little more friendly, but philosophers are absolutely in the Stone Age.  They even make historians look pretty good.  They just do not want to hear about motivation, only ideas.  My wife, Myra Moss, a philosopher, is doing a book on Giovanni Gentile, called Philosopher of Fascism.  Gentile, a true intellectual, was Mussolini’s Minister of Education; he actually wrote the Encyclopedia Britannica article on Fascism which Mussolini signed.  I keep telling her to make that first chapter a biographical one and get into what he was like when he was a child and what the influences on him were.  She’s reluctant to do this.  Most philosophers would plunge right into the philosophical ideas of Gentile without biographical detail.  So, you see, some fields are even more marginalized than ours.

I just wish I could live long enough to see psychohistory move forward more quickly.  The trouble is, you get to be 75 years old and you meet an alumnus and he says, “I don’t remember just what course I took from you.  I think it might have been California.  Or did you teach something called ‘psychohistory’?”  That doesn’t make you feel like Mr. Chips!

Geoffrey Cocks, PhD, took a course with Andrew Rolle as an undergraduate at Occidental College and studied with Peter Loewenberg while earning his master’s and doctoral degrees at UCLA.  He is Royal G. Hall Professor at Albion College in Michigan.  The best known of his publications on German history and psychohistory are Psychotherapy in the Third Reich: The Göring Institute (1985), which this year has been revised, expanded, and republished in a paperback edition by Transaction Publishers in New Jersey, and the co-edited Psycho/history: Readings in the Method of Psychology, Psychoanalysis and History (1987).

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