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Cover of volume one of the first edition
Cover of volume one of the first edition

The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud is a biography of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, by the psychoanalyst Ernest Jones. The most famous and influential biography of Freud, the work was originally published in three volumes (first volume 1953, second volume 1955, third volume 1957) by Hogarth Press, in London; a one-volume edition abridged by literary critics Lionel Trilling and Steven Marcus followed in 1961. When first published, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud was acclaimed, and sales exceeded expectations. Although his biography has retained its status as a classic, Jones has been criticized for presenting an overly favorable image of Freud.


According to philosopher Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen and psychologist Sonu Shamdasani, the events leading to the writing of The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud occurred as follows. Leon Shimkin, director of Simon & Schuster, contacted Jones in October 1946, to ask whether he was interested in writing a biography of Freud. Jones in turn contacted Sigmund Freud's daughter, Anna Freud. Jones had recently taken sides with Melanie Klein in her dispute with Anna Freud. Consequently, Anna Freud was unsure how much she could trust Jones, and suggested that he collaborate with Siegfried Bernfeld, an old friend of hers. However, Bernfeld was even more suspicious of Jones than Anna Freud was, and was working on his own biography of Freud, meaning that a collaboration with Jones would conflict with his project. Nevertheless, Bernfeld was willing to work with Jones. After Jones displeased Anna Freud by writing a preface to Freud's The Question of Lay Analysis (1926) with which she disagreed, she asked Ernst Kris to inform Shimkin that she was considering withdrawing her agreement to Jones writing the book. Shimkin replied that Bernfeld should be entrusted with the task, with Anna Freud's assistance. Anna Freud did not wish to directly participate in writing the book, and therefore proposed instead that the it should be written by Bernfeld and Kris. In September 1947, the publisher offered Jones a contract. Nothing followed from this until 1950, when Jones wrote to Bernfeld to ask for his collaboration, along the lines originally discussed.[1]

Bernfeld offered to place his research at Jones' disposal. Borch-Jacobsen and Shamdasani comment that the collaboration between Bernfeld and Jones was "very close, and much greater than one would have been led to imagine by Jones' acknowledgement in the first volume." Jones questioned Bernfeld on numerous matters, including Freud's date of birth, his essay on 'Screen memories', and his relations with Franz Brentano and Theodor Meynert. Bernfeld undertook research to help Jones and corrected the drafts of Jones' chapters. According to Borch-Jacobsen and Shamdasani, James Strachey also collaborated on the volume. Jones eventually gained the confidence of the Freud family, after showing the first chapters of the book to Anna Freud. In April 1952, the Freud family showed Jones the letters that Sigmund Freud and Martha Bernays wrote to each other during their engagement. Bernfeld, however, lost Anna Freud's support during this period, as she believed that his research tended towards sensationalism. She became so appalled at what she saw as Bernfeld's intrusions into private matters that she decided to stop replying to his requests for information. In discussing Freud's use of cocaine, Jones nevertheless relied on an article by Bernfeld.[2]


In addition to discussing Freud's life, Jones discusses and criticizes previous works about Freud, such as Helen Walker Puner's Freud: His Life and His Mind (1947).[3]


The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud was acclaimed, and sales exceeded expectations, with 15,000 copies being sold in the first two weeks after publication in New York City alone. The work was reviewed in periodicals such as the Manchester Guardian, which wrote that Jones had "drawn the portrait of a man who deserves to be acclaimed, by general consent, among the greatest of any age". Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim adopted a more critical view of the work, accusing Jones of multiple "errors and omissions", and of lacking objectivity. Borch-Jacobsen and Shamdasani credit Bettelheim with being the first observer to point out "what should have immediately been apparent" to specialized critics: Jones' biography relied on restricted documents and correspondence held by the Sigmund Freud Archives, meaning that it was impossible to determine its accuracy.[4]

Historian Peter Gay described Jones' book as "beautifully informed".[5] Writing in Freud: A Life for Our Time (1988), called the work "the classic biography of Freud", adding that it "contains many astute judgments" despite Jones' graceless style and tendency to "separate the man and the work." Gay argued that there is less merit than commonly thought to the charge that Jones, motivated by jealousy, was scathing about rivals such as psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi, maintaining that while exception has been taken to Jones' suggestion that in his last years Ferenczi was subject to psychotic episodes, it "echoes the opinion that Freud expressed in an unpublished letter to Jones."[6] Psychologist Hans Eysenck, writing in Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire (1985), described Jones' biography of Freud as the "most famous", but saw it as "more a mythology than a history", charging Jones with suppressing data which might reflect unfavourably on Freud.[7] Historian Roy Porter described Jones' work as "hagiographical and bowdlerized".[8]

Philosopher Jerome Neu called The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud the most useful biography of Freud, alongside Gay's Freud: A Life for Our Time.[9] Philosopher Richard Wollheim called The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud a "great" biography, but observed that while Jones had "lived within Freud's intimate circle for several decades", he was able to write only what Anna Freud found acceptable. Wollheim commented that, "Jones was even-handed between life and thought, and the result is a huge sandwich in which the two alternate."[10] Sociologist Christopher Badcock, writing in 1992, stated that although "routinely denigrated by more recent competitors, Jones's work remains unrivalled and is the only biography to include summaries of all Freud's works known at the time of writing."[11] Richard Webster wrote in Why Freud Was Wrong (1995) that while Jones' avowed objective was to correct a "mendacious legend" about Freud, Jones was unreliable and replaced the negative legend with a positive legend.[12]

Historian R. Andrew Paskauskas found that Jones' use of his correspondence with Freud in The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud involved significant problems, especially where Jones altered Freud's English. According to Paskauskas, while Jones stated that he had not altered Freud's grammar, "there are nevertheless many dissimilarities of spelling, grammar, and punctuation between the letters quoted in Jones's published biography and Freud's originals." He accused Jones of errors in his citations of Freud's letters, such as mistakenly citing his letters to Freud as letters from Freud.[13] Historian of science Roger Smith wrote that Jones's work is an "official biography, replaced in detail but still of interest".[14] Psychologist Louis Breger considered Jones' biography biased due to its status as an official biography, as well as its author's active role in the psychoanalytic movement and hostility to other analysts, including Otto Rank and Ferenczi. He nevertheless saw the book as valuable because of its "wealth of detailed, firsthand material".[15]

Borch-Jacobsen and Shamdasani argued that Jones' collaboration with Bernfeld "illustrates the manner in which the Freud biography was a communal enterprise of Freudian insiders, and how the historical information on which it was based was centralised, filtered and controlled by Anna Freud." They write that Jones provides a misleading account of Freud's experimentation with cocaine: according to them, Jones' statement that cocaine "had for some time helped" to control the symptoms of Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow's withdrawal from morphine is "vague and misleading" and "aimed at explaining how Freud could have made false claims for success in his 1884 and 1885 articles." Borch-Jacobsen and Shamdasani called The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud is "a brilliant dramatisation of the Freudian legend", writing that Jones "was past master in the art of utilising documents and accounts to which he alone had access to flesh out and confirm Freud's accounts whilst eliding the contradictions" and guilty of major omissions. Borch-Jacobsen and Shamdasani accuse Jones of exaggerating the extent to which early reviews of Freud's works were negative, and of falsely portraying Freud as puritanical.[16]

E. James Lieberman and Robert Kramer wrote that Jones' book is the most influential biography of Freud, but that Jones had a partisan view not only of Ferenczi, but of Rank, another rival. Lieberman and Kramer believed that their edition of The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Otto Rank made clear the partisan nature of Jones' work.[17]

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