Elizabeth Wirth Marvick (1925-2005)

Betty Glad, University of South Carolina

A woman of extraordinary talent, with a wide range of interests, and a genuine relish for the intellectual life, her work has been cut short.  A study of the Founders of the U.S. who lived near each other in Virginia was nearly complete at the time of her death.  Her goal was to study the geographic, cultural, class, and kinship ties connecting five Virginians (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Marshall, and Edmund Randolph) to the creation of the U.S. government.

Traditional psychoanalytic thought had a great impact on both her personal and intellectual life.  Her interpretative framework was primarily Freudian.  Though she avoided psychological lingo, she saw the infantile and early childhood body and related sexual activities and fantasies as crucial to the development of the adult political leader.  Her work on Louis XIII was a masterpiece along these lines.  With the drive and tenacity of a historian and detective, she translated the journal of Louis’s physician in which he noted, minute-by-minute, every intake and outtake of the royal baby from the day he was born.  In addition, she discovered many entries that had previously been edited and suppressed.  These included the physician’s concerns with Louis’s “constipation” in the first days of his life.  In describing his attempts at bowel training, the physician also noted Louis’s stubbornness.  Later entries gave evidence of the physician’s anxiety over Louis’s homosexual tendencies.  Having discovered this controlling force at work in Louis’s life, Marvick began to do further research on the life of the doctor, which led to her first paper on the two men, which was published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History in 1974.

For this scholar she had a major impact.  My analysis of presidents and their relations to their aides was inspired by her work on the imperial courts.  She was also a woman of vigor, with strong opinions that she expressed diplomatically, with a sparkle in her eye whenever the talk turned serious.

Her approach to psychobiography, she explains, was a kind of “spiral analysis” in which one evaluates the relationships between childhood experiences and adult decisions, a process which in turn leads to further investigation of the childhood, thus bringing to light new questions about the political behavior of the subject.  But she was also a historian, immersing herself in the tedious job of digging in large and small manuscript collections in an effort to find all the relevant and potentially available facts.

Her early history prepared her for the rich life she would lead.  Her father, Louis Wirth, was the renowned sociologist of race relations, mass media, and public policy at the University of Chicago.  Even before the civil rights movement in the US, the improvement of African-American relations and opportunities was a major concern of his.  His oratorical skills and moral integrity were major touchstones for her.  Her mother, Mary Bolton, was born and raised in Paducah, Kentucky.  She met Louis when they were both students at the University of Chicago.  After their marriage, they both worked as social workers until Wirth’s dissertation was finished.  For Elizabeth, her family provided her with a racially integrated social life when she was growing up and a setting in which she met many of the intellectual giants at the University of Chicago at the apex of its influence.

Marvick earned her MA in political science at the University of Chicago and then moved to Columbia University where she received her PhD in American politics.  Like her mother before her, she also married a fellow student, Dwaine Marvick, who later became an eminent political scientist.

Her father never influenced her professional works directly, but most of the people who did were connected to him.  Over time she became close friends with Ed Shils, Nathan Leites, Maure Goldschmidt, and Harold Lasswell.  Later she met Fawn and Bernard Brodie, as well as other giants in American political, sociological and psychological circles.

She testified that she was influenced by Freudian psychology.  Elizabeth Marvick had read Freud’s work as a teenager, finding its explanations of people’s functions to be compelling.  During her studies, she also followed the works of Harold Lasswell, although he had already left Chicago, and she later came to know him personally.  She also underwent a classical Freudian psychoanalysis with Dora K. Hartmann in New York.  According to her own testimony, they met four or five sessions per week for about two years between 1948 and 1941 and employed a “pretty classical Freudian interpretation” of the feminine psyche.

Certainly she relished the role of mother and wife.  Quoting Margaret Mead in her interview in Clio’s Psyche, she noted that “children—or at least one’s own as Mead would have added—are more interesting than anything else and I became immersed in them.”  Her first son, Louis, was born in 1954, followed later by Andrew.  During this period she began to study the psychoanalytical studies that had been done on children.

She also enjoyed, by her own testimony, a supportive relationship with her husband Dwaine.  They stayed in touch with each other’s studies, and she found him, next to her father, the “least chauvinist man she knew.”  He was very proud of a most deserved honor when the Women’s Caucus named him a “Mentor of Distinction” for Political Science of the American Political Science Association in 1991.

Marvick’s work, however, has not received the attention it merits.  This is partly the result, as she recognized, of the dislike of Freudian analysis in academic circles.  Her problems in finding a publisher for her book on Richelieu, though ultimately placed with the prestigious University of Chicago Press, bear witness to this problem.  This might  have been due to the fact that her work was interdisciplinary and therefore could not easily be pegged.  But it was also undoubtedly due to the fact that she was an independent scholar—a woman without the place that would have given her work greater authority.  She taught at several different institutions – at Elmira College, CCNY, the American University in Paris, Cal Tech, the Claremont Graduate Institute, and UCLA.  But she was always freelancing.  Her stint at UCLA between 1960 and 1990, proved to be her longest academic connection.  There she taught courses on public opinion, propaganda, and the American Presidency.  She also was able to set up and teach on “a psychoanalytic approach to world leaders.”

She also held positions in the following scholarly organizations: Western Society of French History, International Society of Political Psychology, and the International Political Science Association of which she was one of the founders and Chair of the Research Committee.

Marvick’s thoughts on the relevance of psychobiography to political analysis can also be found in several articles, including: “Beyond the Narcissistic Leader: Toward Comparing Psychopolitical Roles,” found in Mind and Human Interaction (1997), and “Jefferson’s Personality and his Politics,” a paper written for The Psychohistory Review (1997) (which she said could have been called “Jefferson in a Nutshell,” if not for the undesirable tone that it would have generated).  She also felt that she had an original interpretation of George Washington’s personality in “Family Imagery and Revolutionary Spirit” (in Mark J.  Rozell, et al, eds., George Washington and the Origins of the American Presidency [2000]).  Her latest work along these lines (which I co-authored with her) was “Personality Theory in the Analysis of Political Leadership” (to be published in The World of Political Science – the Development of the Discipline, IPSA Series, March 2006).

Like many other outstanding women, Elizabeth Marvick was, at least in part, a product of her time and place.  No doubt influenced by her own inclinations and buttressed by a Freudian psychoanalysis, family came first and she pieced together a career around that primary fact.  It was a choice that was satisfying to her, but it also meant that like many other females, her voice was not heard as far and wide as it might otherwise have been.