History of Psychology Copyright 1998 by the Educational Publishing Foundation

1998, vol.1 no. 1. 52-68. 1093-4510/98/S3AXI



Ian A. M. Nicholson

University of Prince Edward Island

This article examines the cultural context of early American personality psychology through a consideration of the early career of Gordon Allport. Between 1921 and 1937, Allport was among the leading figures in the movement to establish personality as a research category in American psychology. Far from being a strictly scientific concern, Allport's project was deeply embedded in the cultural politics of the age. Of particular importance was the gradual erosion of the language of character and the self-sacrificing, morally grounded self that it supported. Allport's "psychology of personality" helped fuel this trend while simultaneously attempting to resist it. His experience illustrates the elasticity and moral ambiguity of the newly emerging category of personality.

In recent years, a number of historians have documented a pronounced change in the language of American selfhood.1 Beginning in the late 19th century and continuing into the 1920s, Americans moved from a language of "character" to a language of "personality." According to most historians, this shift was no linguistic trifle: The emergence of personality and the decline of character signaled the development of a new kind of American self. This was a self for an industrialized and urbanized age: expressive, adaptable, and morally unencumbered. The cultural shift from character to personality coincided with the emergence of a new object of psychological investigation: personality. Starting in the early teens and continuing into the 1920s, psychologists devoted increasing attention to measuring personality, documenting its component parts and theorizing about the form a mature personality might take. By 1940, personality had become an entrenched category of psychological investigation.

Several scholars have studied the emergence of personality as a research category in American psychology.2 Most of these investigations have been oriented primarily around issues of methodology and marketability. For instance, in his illuminating discussion of early American personality psychology, Kurt Danziger highlighted the links between (a) personality as an object of research, (b) the methodological conventions of intelligence testing, and (c) the practical need for measures of nonintellectual traits.3 According to Danziger, the technology of mental testing helped shape the "model of the human person" that personality psychologists adopted. In this measurement-driven vision, the individual was viewed as a collection of "discrete, stable, and general qualities" or "traits," the sum total of which equaled his or her personality. The choice of categories for personality measurement was driven largely by the demands of the marketplace. "There appear to be no grounds intrinsic to the subject matter for this constantly shifting empirical basis of trait psychology," Danziger argued. "It is much more

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Ian A. M. Nicholson, Department of Psychology, University of Prince Edward Island, 550 University Avenue, Charlottetown, Prince Edward island, Canada CiA 4P3. Electronic mail may be sent to inicholson@upei.ca.

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likely that these changes represent the coming and going of research fads, but in this case [personality] the fads are directly related to events in the social environment of the discipline."4

Although recent studies in the history of personality psychology have underscored the pragmatic origins of this form of research, relatively little attention has been paid to the cultural context in which this work was situated. More specifically, few scholars have devoted any sustained attention to the relationship between personality's emergence as a research category in academic psychology and the larger cultural shift in the language of American selfhood. The goal of this article is to explore the often-neglected cultural landscape of personality psychology. My focal point is the early career and thought of Gordon Allport (1897-1967). Although Allport is frequently discussed in relation to his work in the field of social psychology, his early career was oriented largely around personality. Allport was devoted to the category, and in the 1920s and 1930s he spent most of his time campaigning on its behalf. His efforts were truly extensive, ranging from literature reviews and theoretical articles to semipopular articles, radio appearances, and a highly influential textbook. By 1937 Allport was widely acknowledged as personality's leading spokesman in American psychology. In 1939 he was elected president of the American Psychological Association (APA). With the exception of John Watson, Allport was the youngest person to have ever held the office and the first APA president clearly identified with the field of personality.5

Ailport's tireless promotion of personality and the remarkable success he attained make him an instructive case study in the cultural politics of personality psychology. As we shall see, his career dramatizes the pragmatic and methodological themes that often feature in historical discussions of the field. At the same time, however, Allport's experience helps clarify the various ways in which the new field of personality was informed by transformations in the moral economy and discursive practices of American society. Although this relationship might initially appear to be relatively straightforward-a case of psychologists mirroring the moral codes and categories of popular culture-Allport's advocacy on behalf of personality reveals a dynamic of much greater complexity. Far from being a conduit for the morally unencumbered self, Allport used psychology to hold the line on human nature. By embracing the new category of personality, and scientifically calculating its nature, he strove to safeguard a vision of the self grounded more in the agrarian world of Victorian America than in the increasingly industrialized, urbanized nation of the 1920s.

A Man of Character

In an 1891 diary entry, Gordon Allport's mother Nellie wrote of the hopes she harbored for one of her newborn sons' future:

Many important things have come to my life of which the most important is the life of another precious boy to train for God .... This event stirred my soul more than tongue can express with the great responsibility of three previous souls to train for him. I have no thought to train them for worldly praise, fame, or honor. One thought surpasses all others-to train them to be for Christ and His work. As this little one was given me I had one wish, one desire, that he would be worthy to be called to labor for him in dark heathen lands.6

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Nellie's choice of missionary as a vocation for her son reveals a great deal about the moral landscape in which Gordon Allport grew up. In the 19th century mind, missionaries were the consummate "characters." They had sacrificed all of the comforts of western civilization in order to save "heathen" souls. Moreover, by venturing into inhospitable climes they demonstrated their bravery and piety, and in so doing they deflected charges of effeminacy that were sometimes leveled against American-based churchmen. Kind, brave, pious, and self-sacrificing, the missionary embodied all the virtues that Nellie endeavored to instill in her young sons.

In a strict sense, Nellie's late Victorian missionary aspirations went unrealized. Her sons did not devote their careers to laboring in "dark, heathen lands." However, a more figurative reading of Gordon Allport's career reveals several distinct points of connection between the missionary character for whom Nellie hoped and the personality psychologist that Allport became.

Born in Montezuma, Indiana, in 1897, Allport was the youngest son of John Allport, a traveling salesman turned physician, and Nellie Wise Allport, a homemaker.7 Although both parents were spiritually minded, the Allport family subscribed to the conventional division of labor of the day. John Allport was the practical man of affairs, and his wife oversaw the family's spiritual development.8 Gordon Allport assimilated his father's reverence for hard work, but as a child he identified particularly strongly with his mother's religious interest and refined manner. Nellie was a devout Methodist from the famous "burned over district" of upstate New York.9 As a student at Falley Seminary in Fulton, New York, she was well known for her "self chosen path of personal service to a religious ideal."10 Self-sacrificing, hard working, and strict in her moral ideals, Nellie construed human nature through the language of character, and she actively strove to raise her sons to be men of character.

Most cultural historians agree that character was a dominant part of the cultural landscape of Victorian America. Susman noted that "the word character became fundamental in sustaining and even in shaping the significant forms of culture."11 Character usually referred to the nature of the internal qualities of an individual. To have character, a person's traits had to have substance, durability, and integrity. Traits had to come together in an enduring, cohesive, and morally uplifting totality. The moral dimension was particularly important. The character ideal was all about realizing selfhood by internalizing the values of a supposedly permanent moral order.12 As Emerson noted in an often-quoted passage, "character is moral order seen through the medium of an individual nature."13

In the Allport family, building character was not a theoretical ideal; it was an ongoing project, and its development was facilitated in a variety of different ways. The family attended church and religious summer camps regularly, and they frequently entertained visiting missionaries and temperance activists. Nellie was a leading figure in a number of benevolent organizations, including the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Mother's Club, an organization designed to help mothers cultivate the appropriate moral tone in the home.

As a youth, Allport did not always appreciate the unrelenting earnestness with which his mother preached the language of character. In one of his autobiographical statements, he recalled rebelling against the family faith. "The more I was prodded the more I resisted," he later recalled. By the time he reached early

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adulthood, Allport had turned away from most of the doctrines and practices of the family faith: Methodist evangelicalism. Allport recalled that even church attendance became rare and then "only [as] a way of appeasing my 'old-fashioned' parents."14 This break with Methodist practice was a significant departure from family tradition, but for Allport it did not amount to a wholesale repudiation of the values associated with character. Indeed, the records of Allport's undergraduate life at Harvard University reveal a pattern of living straight out of the characterbuilding manuals of the late 19th century.

Allport mapped out an exhaustive program of work for himself that literally stretched from sunrise to sunset. Each half-hour period was dutifully planned and executed, including slots for rest, socializing, and philanthropy.15 The Victorian themes of balance and order were thus carefully calibrated. Allport's course of study also resonated with the language of character. He developed a particularly strong affinity for what was in effect the scholarly expression of his mother's Christian outreach: social ethics. Harvard's Department of Social Ethics had been founded by theologian Francis Peabody in 1906 in an effort to bring together the 19th century denominational college's traditional concern for religion and ethics with the emerging scientific ideal of pure inductive scholarship.16 By uniting moral philosophy with the scientific method, Peabody thought that his new department could overcome a debilitating materialism and "summon the young men who have been imbued with the principles of political economy and of philosophy to the practical applications of those studies."17

The themes of self-sacrifice, duty, morality, and goodness figured prominently in the discourse of social ethics just as they did in the moral universe that Allport had inhabited since his youth. As an undergraduate, however, Allport became aware that the future of moral endeavor in America was not simply a matter of recapitulating the past. The nation was changing rapidly. The country was becoming increasingly urbanized, industrialized, and ethnically diverse. These developments did not require the re-evaluation of the ideals associated with character; however, they did call for a pointed reassessment of the means by which these ideals were to be promoted. In the past, high-minded Americans had set out to "build character" by exposing wayward citizens to the influence of educated, virtuous, volunteers.18 Sometimes known as "benevolent" volunteerism, this model of social work enjoyed widespread support in philanthropic circles throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Support for benevolent social work began to wane during the teens, and it rapidly evaporated in the 1920s. Social work theorists such as Richard Cabot, Mary Jarrett, and Mary Richmond argued that industrialization had rendered religiously based philanthropy obsolete. Contemporary social problems overwhelmed the ability of amateurs: Modern circumstances required professional attention. The issue for professional social workers such as Jarrett and Richmond was not simply the amount of time one spent working in the field; the crucial point was the way one went about tackling social problems. Professionalism required a new ethic and a new way of conceptualizing the social field.

The Professionalization of Benevolence

As a Harvard social ethics student, Allport had an opportunity to view the transformation in American social work close up. The principal hallmark of the

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"new" social work was a commitment to science. Social workers in the past had construed social problems such as illegitimacy and alcoholism as moral problems to be solved by the benevolent understanding and example of an evangelical volunteer. By 1917, social work theorists had begun a wide-ranging campaign to reconfigure the field's language and methods. "Moral problems" were redefined as scientific questions treatable by scientific methods. Part of the professionalizing trend in social work involved establishing a specialized body of knowledge that could be applied to special problems. Between 1915 and 1920, American social workers constructed a specialized knowledge around the concept of casework.19 It would be difficult to exaggerate the centrality of casework in the thought of the professionally ambitious social workers to whom Allport was exposed. As social work historian Roy Lubove noted, casework "formed the basis of a professional identity.20 Like many professional code words, casework was a broad and generic term. For most of its proponents, however, the term conveyed three ideas that were central to the practice of modern social work.

First, casework involved detailed record keeping. By encoding the lives of their clients in writing, social work theorists believed that they would be better able to accurately diagnose problems and to develop practicable solutions.21 Second, the proponents of a casework model of social work were also committed to the principle of differential diagnosis. Sometimes stated in terms of individual differences, differential diagnosis called attention to what professional social workers believed was one of the principal limitations of the older form of benevolent social work: its inattention to the nuances of each case. For the professional social workers, human diversity was the salient theme of industrial life, and it sustained an ongoing commitment to individualized treatment and diagnosis. "Treat unequal things unequally," counseled Mary Richmond, for "social workers have the great fact of ineradicable individual differences in human beings to face."22

The final component of the casework orientation was its reflexive regard for science and sentimentality. Professional social workers were convinced of the necessity and efficacy of scientific thinking. At the same time, however, they were not indifferent to the human element in their craft. Theorists acknowledged that social workers traversed a domain of lived experience and that to approach this realm with the steely detachment of the natural scientist would not be appropriate. Social workers must avoid "cold, sterilized, depersonalized ideas," cautioned sociologist Arthur Todd. In his book The Scientific Spirit and Social Work, Todd presented the emerging professional ideal. The modern social worker would "steer between" an extreme form of scientific indifference and the "warm, saccharine, oily, oozy, intoxicating, overpersonalized sentimentalism" long associated with benevolent volunteerism.23

From Allport's perspective, one aspect of this ongoing dialogue between science and sentimentality was to assume particular importance. To achieve the necessary balance between science and sentimentality, social workers adopted a new, more scientific language. One of the most consequential developments centered around the concept of character as a designation for an individual's nature. As we have seen, character had been a dominant part of the cultural landscape of Victorian America, and it was precisely this association with the past that made it a liability for the new social work. "Character" smacked of rectitude

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and prudery; it conjured up images of the benevolent volunteer preaching to the unenlightened. Professional social workers wanted to go beyond the amateurism of this earlier age. Rather than try and purge character of its moral connotations, social workers abandoned the term in favor of the newly emerging category of personality.24 Indeed, in the late teens and early 1920s, personality became the primary target of social casework. Mary Richmond put the matter succinctly in her authoritative book, What Is Social Case Work?

Let me... make the broadest generalization about social case work that I can. Its theories, its aims, its best intensive practice all seem to have been converging of late years toward one central idea: namely, toward the development of personality [italics added]25

What made personality so appealing to social workers such as Richmond was the category's freshness and flexibility. As historian Warren Susman noted, the word personality had a decidedly modem resonance, and it enjoyed increasingly wider usage as the century went on.26 Its popular appeal lay in the lightness of its moral load. In contrast to the Victorian category of character, which carried the full weight of Christian ethics, personality referred largely to the traits of selfpresentation. It tended to be associated with adjectives such as fascination, stunning, magnetic, dominant, and masterful. However, for social workers, personality's attractiveness lay not only its popularity but also in its ambiguity. For all its modernist charm, personality was an extraordinarily broad term. In scientific circles, the term was often used to refer to the "objective" self-a summary statement of the individual when viewed apart from a moral context. In literary and religious circles, commentators frequently used the term in a very different sense. In discussions of ethics and art, personality referred to that aspect of human nature that made a person distinctively human. For most religious theorists, this entailed a religiously motivated engagement with the social world.27

The footnotes of Richmond's definitive book on casework provide ample testimony to the wide range of interests that personality was able to tie together. Richmond quoted scholars from literary criticism, religion, psychology, pedagogy, biology, and social science, and each theorist used the term in a different way. For the behaviorist psychologist John Watson, personality was an objective term that referred to the " 'reaction mass' as a whole." In contrast, the literary critic Bliss Perry used personality to refer to the distinctively human element within each individual:

If the revelation of personality unites men, the stress upon mere individuality separates them, and there are countless poets of the day who glory in their eccentric individualism without remembering that it is only through a richly developed personality that poetry gains any universal values.28

For a profession struggling to navigate a course between science and sentimentality, the ambiguity of personality was not a liability but a resource to be exploited. The category had a scientific cachet, and it enabled social workers to forge alliances with professional communities in psychiatry and psychology who were interested in personality. At the same time, however, personality was not without its ethical suggestiveness. By orienting their professional project around personality, social workers could be both scientific and ethical.

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Personality: A "Benevolent" Project

Although Allport would later switch out of social work and into psychology, he would remain committed to the language and methods of professionalized benevolence. Indeed, his initial foray into psychology-his 1922 doctoral dissertation-was oriented toward psychology and social work, and it was submitted to Harvard's Department of Philosophy and Psychology and to the Department of Social Ethics. As one might expect, the logic of casework was readily apparent throughout the study. Entitled "An Experimental Study of the Traits of Personality," Allport hoped to provide social workers with something that they had up until this time lacked: the technological means to fulfill the casework ideal.29 In the late teens and early 1920s, the field of individual measurement was in its infancy. As social ethicist Richard Cabot observed:

The social worker is liable to disappointment when she tries to find textbooks on personality study. The study of personality does not exist, either as a science or an art, written down. It exists in lives and not in books or lectures. The study of personality is not yet developed.30

Allport was among a cohort of newly emerging specialists in psychology, psychiatry, and social work who were enticed by the promise of a science of personality. "To do effective social service," he noted some years later, "one needed a sound conception of human personality."31 The task as Allport saw it was to render individuality legible. Social workers could not begin to tailor their interventions to the needs of their clients until they had a means of seeing individuality. Like many of his colleagues in the early 1920s, Allport believed that laboratory experiments and intelligence tests brought individuality within a scientific register. By developing measures of what he believed to be the component traits of personality, Allport maintained that individuality could in fact be plotted on a "psychograph."

As we have seen, the social workers to whom Allport looked for inspiration were obliged to walk a delicate line between science and ethics. Excessive moralism was one of the principal failings of the benevolent tradition. To move the field forward, social workers needed to bring to their clients a scientific attitude. However, scientific excess brought its own dangers, especially in a field as deeply immersed in the complexities of the human condition as social work. In his early papers, Allport did not explicitly mention the tensions engendered when science and ethics were brought together. Nevertheless, science and ethics constituted the primary axis around which his psychology of personality revolved.

In attempting to bridge the divide between science and ethics, Allport chose to orient his study around the category that had proved so appealing to social workers: personality. This was a conscious decision on Allport's part, and the scientific and ethical implications of the category of personality did not escape him. He explained the rationale behind his use of the term personality in his first publication. Entitled "Personality and Character," this article is thought to have been the first literature review in the field of personality.32 But while its title suggests linguistic and ethical diversity-character and personality-the goal of the article was scientific order. Allport argued that character and personality were distinct entities. Borrowing a distinction from John Watson, Allport maintained

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that character was a moral category; it referred to the self when viewed from an ethical perspective. Personality, on the other hand, referred to the objective self, the fundamental adjustment patterns that an individual had formed over the course of his or her experience. "Psychologists who accept Watson's view," Allport wrote, "have no right, strictly speaking, to include character study in the province of psychology; it belongs rather to social ethics."33

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Allport acted as a kind of linguistic policeman on issues of terminology. He renewed his attack on character in a 1927 article and again in a lengthy and influential literature review that appeared in 1930.34 The rationale was always the same: Character needed to be expunged from the lexicon of scientific psychology because it was a "moral" term. This critique was clearly informed by the scientism that was spreading throughout American social science in the 1920s.35 Value-neutrality was a central tenet of this vision, and Allport drew on its logic in suggesting that the value-laden category of character had no place in a scientific discipline such as psychology. But while Allport may have revered the emerging model of value-neutral science, his inspiration was ethical. Moral propriety had been one of the salient themes of his Methodist upbringing, and it remained so throughout his undergraduate education in social ethics. Harvard social ethicists such as Richard Cabot and James Ford argued that rapid industrialization and urbanization had given rise to a growing sense of ethical malaise. There was a clearly felt need to "determine what constitutes goodness" and to then put those ideals forward for Americans to follow.36 Although Allport attempted to draw a sharp divide between science and ethics, his own program was oriented around the search for "goodness." In a 1923 letter to Ford, Allport remarked that he had "never essentially wavered from my desire to correlate psychology and social ethics. It has merely been a practical question as to how this might be accomplished." 37

Personality provided Allport with the ideal vehicle for pursuing this correlational end. The category appealed to Allport for the same reason that it appealed to social workers: It had an almost unparalleled versatility and a peculiar resonance to the modern ear. Personality captured both the sublime and basic elements of human nature, and it had both a scientific and a humanistic cachet. "Personality," Allport remarked in 1927, "like Mesopotamia, is a blessed word; it induces in both the writer and in the reader a sweet sense of stability, security, and modernity."38 The importance of personality's modernist cachet cannot be overstated. During the 1920s, a number of psychologists developed programs of scientific research around the category of character. Although much of this work was published, the psychology of character remained at the margins of scientific respectability. The problem was largely one of connotation. American psychology had embarked on a wide-ranging campaign to purge itself of anything resembling metaphysics. As one of the cultural cornerstones of Victorian ethics, character was an obvious target for objectively minded psychologists. As leading characterologist A. A. Roback remarked in 1927, "the most general use of the word 'character' in everyday life is invariably coloured with moral predicates." In a remark that reflects the positivism of the age, Roback added that the scientific legitimacy of character was "spoilt by [the] ethical atmosphere .... Just because it was born and bred in an ethical milieu, the psychologist would be apt to disown [character] as spurious."39

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Character Revisited, Personality Remade

Although Allport was anxious to forge personality into a singular scientific object, as his career unfolded in the 1920s and 1930s he frequently drew on two visions of selfhood. As a purveyor of psychological technologies he displayed an awareness of the kind of self that was coming to dominate the American social landscape. His choice of personality rather than character as his site of scientific investigation is one obvious indication of his investment in the newly emerging self. The personality ideal also was evident in one of Allport's most famous theoretical tenets: uniqueness. Cultural historians have identified qualities of uniqueness, distinctiveness, and standing out from the crowd as recurring motifs in the new language of selfhood.40 John Burnham characterized this preoccupation with distinctiveness as a "compensatory" response. "In the mass society of the twenties," Burnham wrote, "depersonalization called forth compensatory attitudes from a large proportion of the atoms of the faceless-and presumably lonely multitude."41 Allport was among the "multitude" who reacted to the era's sense of unease about the anonymity of life among the masses. Beginning in graduate school, and continuing throughout the 1920s and 1930s, he repeatedly emphasized the "unique" quality of individuals. "The first clue to understanding others," Allport wrote in a characteristic passage, "lies in the perception of their uniqueness."42

In his illuminating article on the idea of the "masses" in American popular culture, historian Steven Smith identified distinctiveness as one of the central ironies of John Watson's behaviorism.43 Watson promised deliverance from the anonymity of the crowd; behaviorism was a technology of uniqueness. Yet, as Smith noted, beneath Watson's rhetoric of distinctiveness lay a remarkably conventional social vision. Allport's psychology of personality harbored a similar incongruity. Despite his celebration of "uniqueness," Allport devised psychometric procedures that implicitly endorsed a certain kind of self. This self did not involve qualities associated with character: duty, honor, self-sacrifice. In his Test of Ascendance-Submission, Allport implicitly valorized those expressive, socially dominant personalities who tended to stand out in a crowd. The logic behind the test was simple enough. "Our current civilization," Allport wrote, "seems to place a premium upon the aggressive person, the 'go-getter'." A technology that could distinguish these individuals from the masses would have an obvious appeal in the newly emerging culture of personality.44

Anxious to exploit the possibilities that this practical, observable self offered, Allport simultaneously displayed an ongoing commitment to the morally grounded, self-sacrificing, stable, inner self that was fast disappearing in American culture: the "man of character." This attachment was much more than a nostalgic yearning for that which was lost. The stable inner self was a living reality for Allport, and as a psychologist he drew heavily on its precepts when reflecting on the kind of self he had become. His various autobiographical statements are perhaps the most revealing measure of the depth of his commitment to the character ideal. In these works, the principal theme of the personality ideal-self-realization-was consistently downplayed. Emphasis was instead given to themes central to the Victorian self: service, humility, duty, moral courage, and thrift. For instance, in his autobiography, Allport commented on his dislike of the "aura of arrogance found in presently fashionable dogmas" and of the need for psychologists to view

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humility as a virtue worthy of cultivation.45 Moral courage was another aspect of the character ideal central to Allport's autobiographical narratives. He noted on several occasions that he had "crossed swords" with powerful intellectual tendencies in order to stay true to his convictions.46 "I've never been cowardly," he remarked in one interview. "I'm going to follow [personality research] out the best I can."47 Allport drew on the language of character again when discussing his remarkable productivity. He linked his professional success to what historian Stefan Collini identified as the "very crown of character": duty.48 "I wouldn't do [research]," Allport remarked, "unless there were an overwhelming sense of duty and obligation .... It's more than intellectual curiosity," he continued. "I just work because I have to and my sense of duty makes me."49

Set in historical context, Allport's autobiographical references to courage, humility, and duty are striking. Their significance is further magnified when considered in relation to Allport's lived experience in the 1920s and 1930s. During this period, and indeed throughout his life, Allport lived in a manner very much in keeping with the character ideal. There was little room for self-indulgence, scandal, or hedonistic excess in this morally disciplined vision. For a man of character, life revolved around morally meaningful work. Allport viewed personality as the site of modern moral endeavor, and as a young faculty member he pursued his research and teaching with the same all-consuming gusto that he brought to his undergraduate studies. "I'm no good at playing," he told an interviewer some years later." Work was the order of the day, but not just any work-like any good man of character, Allport envisioned his own project in relation to a larger moral order. The specific obligations involved in his career as a psychologist were related to a general philosophy of life that he carefully nurtured.51

The particular kind of a life philosophy that Allport embraced provides another link between his career as personality psychologist and the kind of self represented by character. In Victorian America, character had a pronounced religious suggestiveness. The man of character was usually a man of Christ. He was a "true Christian gentleman, pure, upright with a strong sense of duty and possessing the 'highest kinship of the soul.'"52 Although Allport experienced some of the Progressive Era disillusionment with organized religion,53 he did not emerge from graduate school with what literary critic Joseph Wood Krutch would later describe as a "modem temper."54 For Allport, unlike most of the moderns described by Krutch, God was not dead. Christianity lived on, and indeed Allport regarded the faith as a robust bulwark against the alienation and drift so characteristic of modern life. He went "heart and soul into... the good old Church of England" in 1923, and he remained a devoted Episcopalian for the rest of his life. In a letter to a friend, Allport explained that the "ritual and sacrament" of Anglicanism provided him with an "indescribable release for my spirit."55

Allport's ongoing personal commitment to the ideals if not the actual category of character invested his scientific psychology with a peculiar duality. As we have seen, aspects of his work can be readily assimilated into the personality ideal. At the same time, however, and in some cases in the same publications, the hallmarks of character are clearly visible. In his Test of Ascendance-Submission, for example, Allport suggested that the qualities typically associated with personality ascendance, expressiveness, and being a "go-getter" -were not the only way of

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successfully adjusting to modern life. There were other traits that one could cultivate, traits which in hindsight look very much like the virtues that Nellie Allport had endeavored to instill in her character-building project: "expansion, insight, sociality, unselfishness .... [and] social intelligence."56

Scientific ambitions prevented Allport from acknowledging any link between these "other traits" and the character ideal that he so assiduously cultivated. Nevertheless, as his career developed, the human image represented by character was to assume increasing prominence despite his unrelenting commitment to the scientificity of personality. The influence of character is evident in Allport's work as early as 1924 in an article entitled "The Study of Undivided Personality" 57 Like many of his later publications, the article was informed by a logic of defense. At stake, as far as Allport was concerned, was human nature itself. Psychology had launched a frontal assault on the human subject. Armed with a behavioristic language and a set of psychometric procedures, psychologists had constructed a human image that reflected the moral uncertainties of the age. This was a self without a core; it was a plastic behavioral shell readily susceptible to external manipulation.

In "The Study of Undivided Personality," and in a series of later articles, Allport endeavored to use psychology for a rather different cultural purpose. Instead of celebrating the veneer, as many of his colleagues in personality psychology were doing, Allport argued that there was a stable core at the heart of every person. This was the basic message of one of Allport's better-known works from the 1920s: trait theory. In his influential article "What Is a Trait of Personality?", Allport took issue with the environmentalism of many of his colleagues. Instead of viewing the individual as a shell passively mirroring the environment, Allport argued that personality consisted of a powerful bundle of neurologically grounded qualities or "traits." A "trait is dynamic, or at least determinative," he wrote. "The stimulus is not the crucial determinant that expresses personality; the trait is itself decisive."58

In putting psychology at the service of a self of depth and substance, Allport subtly reintroduced many of the themes of the character ideal. Like character, the self of Allport's trait theory possessed qualities of tangibility and inner directedness. There was something deep and enduring about traits; like character they had a groundedness that transcended social circumstance. For Allport, these qualities of depth and stability all served to underscore the importance of one of Victorian America's central truths: namely, that individual conduct was largely determined by a relatively stable core of inner attributes. The Victorians identified this core with character and morals. In the scientifically minded, morally fluid world of the 1920s, Allport translated this same construction into the language of personality and traits.

Allport's commitment to the character ideal reached its apogee in what is undoubtedly his most famous publication from this period: Personality: A Psychological Interpretation. 59 The book was Allport's attempt to bring a measure of discipline to the fractious field of personality psychology. Flailed as an instant classic, Personality is widely celebrated as the book that launched personality studies into the psychological mainstream. Although professional recognition of this sort was important to Allport, the ethical ambitions that had first inspired him to enter psychology featured prominently in the book's construction. The book can in fact be read as an exercise in re-enchantment. By mobilizing science and

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exploiting the ambiguities of personality, Allport attempted to breathe new life into that model of human nature that had formally been associated with character. The nostalgic thrust of this project is apparent throughout the book. Allport accused psychologists of "drawing the blood and peeling the flesh from human personality leaving only ... a skeleton framework of mind." Psychologists were more concerned with methodological precision and scientific respectability. In the rush to professionalize they had not done "justice to the richness and dignity of human personality. 60

Personality was thus conceived as a work of restoration. Allport wanted to bring "richness and dignity" back to human nature. Not surprisingly, his vision of a rich and dignified human nature bore a striking resemblance to the character ideal of his youth. Nowhere is this clearer than in Allport's discussion of the "mature personality." As was his practice in discussions of personality, Allport began his consideration of maturity by insisting on the scientificity of his program. He suggested that there were three "universal and indispensable" ways to "distinguish a fully developed personality from one that is still unripe." However, when Allport began developing his maturity criterion his universalistic ambitions led him straight back to the moral world of character. In keeping with the character ideal, the mature personality was an active citizen, deeply concerned with social and religious causes. Unlike the "garrulous Bohemian, egotistical, self-pitying, and prating of self-expression," the mature personality was a "man of confident dignity" who could "lose himself in work, in contemplation.. . and in loyalty to others."61 Like character, Allport's model also reflected a reverence of the golden mean and a religiously derived seriousness of purpose. The mature personality had a well-developed "sense of proportion" and a "sensitive and intricate balance."62 He could "pursue his course diligently" in the knowledge that he "has a place in the scheme of things according to the dispensations of a Divine Intelligence." 63

Although the mature personality was suffused with the values of character, like most nostalgic invocations it contained a number of modern themes.64 To begin, Allport encouraged an exploratory attitude to one's individuality and an openness to experience. The mature personality would live a "creative pattern of life" rather than a "static and stupid conventionality.- 65 In another departure from character, Allport encouraged people to monitor their conduct not strictly in relation to a higher moral code but in relation to a set of psychologically derived norms. Termed insight, Allport defined this property as the "relation of what a man thinks he is to what others (especially the psychologist) think he is."66 To be high in insight was to move ever closer to the ideal of maturity. A final point of difference concerns Allport's character-like directive to embrace a higher moral code. Social historians have observed that 19th-century discussions of the self "presupposed an agreed moral code." The ideals to which one should surrender were thus not in dispute; for the proponents of character, the issue was not "moral relativism but weakness of will."67 For Allport, however, moral relativism was a presupposition. While insisting on the necessity of self-sacrifice to higher ideals, Allport left the exact content of these ideals unspecified.


Informed by the values of both character and personality, and by a spirit of nostalgia and innovation, Allport's psychology of personality is a telling illustra-

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tion of the elasticity and ambiguity of interwar American psychology. By putting science at the service of higher ideals, Allport's psychology was clearly part of a wider movement to stem the tide of moral relativism and religious decline in inter-war America. Yet, as we have seen, Allport was no ordinary cultural conservative. Far from holding dogmatically to a religiously based "language of character," Allport led the charge against it. He repudiated the category of character and replaced it with the ideal of a devaluated individual: an objective essence that existed independently of any ethical frame of reference.

Consolidating personality as a research category in psychology was Allport's consuming passion in the interwar period. However, his professional efforts in this regard harbored a paradoxical moral intent. By banishing existing evaluative frameworks from scientific discussions of personality, Allport's goal was not to destroy the traditional ethical foundations of America but to revitalize them. He wanted to celebrate the "man of confident dignity" and to scientifically affirm the values that that self represented: honor, duty, humility, stability, religiosity, and self-sacrifice. This tactic was not entirely unsuccessful; however, it came with an ironic price. By promoting the idea of a devaluated self - a self that exists independently of moral frameworks-Allport unintentionally reinforced a tendency that lay at the heart of the new culture of personality: a detachment of the self from social and cultural contexts.68

The personality ideal made the individual self "the ultimate locus of salvation."" Personal fulfillment involved an efficient mobilization of the self's own resources; social and ethical considerations were of secondary importance. Although Allport occasionally warned his readers about the dangers of "selfseeking and vanity," most of his scholarly time was spent celebrating the capabilities and prowess of the individual self.70 To "study [a person] most fully is to take him as an individual," he wrote.71 In Allport's hands, this position implied that selfhood could, and perhaps should, be considered in relation to its own internal properties rather than a broader cultural or moral milieu. By 1937 Allport thus found himself advocating a position that was largely identical to the emerging personality ideal. In both cases, the isolated individual was the proper object of scrutiny and the source of fulfillment.

Although Allport's participation in the culture of personality may have been unwitting, the moral thrust of his psychology was by no means idiosyncratic. Despite their century-long valorization of objectivity, American psychologists have frequently traversed the divide between scientific description and moral prescription. Indeed, a number of historians have persuasively argued that morality is one of the discipline's driving concerns." According to Graham Richards, American psychology has been animated by an "enduring moral project" for most of its history.73 Its mandate has been to provide a "culturally authoritative foundation for conventional morality in a society which is constitutionally pluralistic in terms of religion and ideology." 74

Allport's 20-year engagement with personality represents an illuminating illustration of American psychology's moral project at work. Like many of his colleagues in the 1920s, he was convinced that the solution to America's ethical dilemmas lay not in history, culture, or religion but in science, in particular, psychology. Psychometric methods, experiments, and case studies could cut through the layers of prejudice and distortion that had long governed matters of

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conduct. The appeal of this program lay in psychology's ability to shift the basis of ethical authority from society to human nature itself. Instead of haggling over arbitrarily defined social creeds, psychologists could use their methods to scrutinize the "actual nature of personality."" An objective understanding of human nature would serve as the foundation for a new moral code. Such a code would be ethical, as historian Nikolas Rose explained, "because it has a basis not on an external truth-be it divine right or collective good-but one essential to the person over whom it is exercised.""

Although representative of psychology's "enduring moral project," Allport's early engagement with personality provides an important historical insight of its own. Historians of personality psychology have frequently portrayed the field in modernist terms. The field is thought to have grown as a result of the confluence of bureaucratic need and methodological convention; Victorian notions of selfhood were largely absent from personality psychology. According to Danziger, " 'personality' [psychology] ... never had anything in common with traditional concepts of the person as a social agent." Although there is much to recommend this position, Allport's experience suggests that it is somewhat overdrawn. Victorian notions of selfhood continued to inform some of the most important discussions of personality in psychology long after the category of character had been formally abandoned. What is particularly important to note at this juncture is the mediating role that personality sometimes played in American moral discourse of the 1920s and 1930s. In Allport's hands, the category served as a conceptual link between the values of character and those of the newly emerging industrial order.


1. See Warren Susman, " 'Personality' and the Making of Twentieth-Century Culture," in New Directions in American Intellectual History, eds. J. Higham & P. Conkin (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), pp. 212-226; Burton Bledstein, The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), pp. 129-158; see also Stanley Coben, Rebellion Against Victorianism: The Impetus for Cultural Change in 1920s America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), especially chap. 1, "Victorian Character," pp. 3-35.

2. Kurt Danziger, Constructing the Subject: Historical Origins of Psychological  Research (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990); James Parker, "In Search of the Person: The Historical Development of American Personality Psychology" (PhD diss., York University, 1991).

3. Danziger, Constructing the Subject, 1990.

4. Ibid., 163.

5. Ian Nicholson, "Moral Projects and Disciplinary Practices: Gordon Allport and the Development of American Personality Psychology" (PhD diss., York University, 1996); Franz Samelson, "The APA Between the World Wars: 1918 to 1941," in The American Psychological Association: A Historical Perspective, eds. Rand Evans, Virginia Sexton, and Thomas Cadwallader (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1992), pp. 119-147.

6. Nellie Wise Allport, diary entry, 1896, quoted in Allport, The Quest, 1944, p. 14.

7. Gordon Allport, "Gordon Allport," in A History of Psychology in Autobiography, Vol. 6, eds. Edwin Boring & Gardner Lindzey (New York: Appleton Century), pp. 3-25.

8. For a detailed discussion of John and Nellie Allport, see Nicholson, "Moral Projects and Disciplinary Practices," 1996.

9. See Whitney Cross, The Burned-Over District: The Social and Intellectual

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History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1950).

10. Nellie Wise Allport to Gordon Allport(?), June 1, 1922. Letter courtesy of Robert and Ardys Allport. In this letter, Nellie recalled an example of the religious dedication of her youth: "The other girls in the class suggested that I wave [sic] my convictions and wear a stylish dress for once; and I remember my stand, if it be right at all, it is right for always" (emphasis added).

11. Susman," 'Personality" and the Making of Twentieth-Century Culture," 214.

12. Ibid.

13. Cited in Samuel Smiles, Character (London: John Murray, 1875), p. 1.

14. Gordon Allport, "The Appeal of Anglican Catholicism to an Average Man," The

Advent Papers (n.d.): 1-19. This article may be viewed as the religious counterpart to the

"professional" autobiography Allport published in The History of Psychology in Autobiog-

raphy. On the first page Allport describes the book as the "story of my religious development." It was published anonymously by the Boston-based Church of the Advent.

15. A record of Allport' s course of study and extracurricular activities can be found in his undergraduate scrapbook in the Allport Papers, Harvard University Archives.

16. For an insightful history of social ethics at Harvard see David Potts, "Social

Ethics at Harvard, 1881-1931: A Study in Academic Activism," in Social Sciences at

Harvard, 1860-1920, ed. Paul Buck (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965),

pp. 91-128. See also James Ford, "Social ethics, 1905-1929," in Development of Harvard

University, 1869-1929, ed. S. Morison (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1930), pp. 223-230.

17. Potts, "Social Ethics," 97.

18. Regina Kunzel, "The Professionalization of Benevolence: Evangelicals and

Social Workers in the Florence Crittenton Homes, 1915-1945," Journal of Social History

22 (1988): 20-43.

19. Roy Lubove, The Professional Altruist: The Emergence of Social Work as a

Career, 1890-1930 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965), p. 20.

20. Ibid.

21. According to the prominent social theorist Mary Richmond, casework provided the social worker with a "clearer understanding of the numberless ways in which bad social conditions affect the lives of individuals." Record keeping also served as an "indispensable guide to future action in (sic) behalf of the person recorded." See Mary Richmond, What Is Social Case Work? (New York: Russell Sage, 1922).

22. Ibid., 151, 149.

23. Arthur Todd, The Scientific Spirit and Social Work (New York: Macmillan, 1920).

24. Susman," 'Personality' and the Making of Twentieth-Century Culture."

25. Richmond, What Is Social Case Work?, 90.

26. Susman," 'Personality' and the Making of Twentieth-Century Culture."

27. For a good discussion of the place of personality in Protestant theology see William King, "An Enthusiasm for Humanity: The Social Emphasis in Religion and Its Accommodation in Protestant Theology," in Religion and Twentieth-Century American Intellectual Life, ed. Michael Lacey (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 49-77.

28. Cited in ibid., 93-94.

29. Gordon Allport, "An Experimental Study of the Traits of Personality With Application to the Problems of Social Diagnosis" (PhD diss., Harvard University, 1922).

30. Cabot's remarks appear in the "Informal Discussion" section of Mary Jarrett,

"The Psychiatric Thread Running Through All Social Case Work," Proceedings of the

Conference of Social Work 46 (1919), 587-593, p. 593.

31. Allport, "Gordon Allport," 7.

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32. Gordon Allport, "Personality and Character," Psychological Bulletin 18 (1921): 441-455.

33. Ibid., 443.

34. Gordon Allport, "Concepts of Trait and Personality," Psychological Bulletin 24

(1927): 284-293; Gordon Allport and Philip Vernon, "The Field of Personality,"

Psychological Bulletin 27 (1930): 677-730.

35. Dorothy Ross, The Origins of American Social Science (Cambridge, England:

Cambridge University Press, 1991).

36. James Ford, "Introduction," in Social Problems and Social Policy, ed. James

Ford (Boston: Ginn & Company, 1923),1-7, p. 1.

37. Allport to Ford, November 20, 1923, Department of Social Ethics Papers, Harvard University Archives.

38. Gordon Allport, "Review of Social Psychology," Psychological Bulletin 27 (1930): 731-733, p. 731.

39. A. A. Roback, The Psychology of Character (New York: Harcourt, 1927), pp. 6,

7. Allport read The Psychology of Character before it went to press. In the preface, Roback expressed his "indebtedness to Dr. G. W. Allport of Dartmouth College" for his "numerous critical suggestions" (p. xi). The difficulties Roback experienced in trying to constitute character as an object of scientific study may have underscored Allport's earlier conviction that character needed to be expunged from psychological lexicon.

40. Susman, "Personality and the Making of American Culture," 220.

41. John Burnham, Paths Into American Culture: Psychology, Medicine and Morals (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), 77.

42. Gordon Allport, "Some Guiding Principles in Understanding Personality," The Family (1930): 124-128, p. 125.

43. Steven Smith, "Personalities in the Crowd: The Idea of the 'Masses' in

American Popular Culture," Prospects 19 (1994): 225-287, p. 274.

44. J. Herman Randall, The Culture of Personality (New York: H. M. Caldwell,


45. Allport, "Gordon Allport," 23.

46. Ibid., 22.

47. Anne Roe, interview by Gordon Allport, March 1952, Anne Roe Papers, American Philosophical Society Library.

48. Stefan Collini, "The idea of 'character' in Victorian political thought,"

Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 35 (1985): 29-50, p. 36.

49. Anne Roe, interview by Gordon Allport, November 1962, Anne Roe Papers, American Philosophical Society Library.

50. Ibid.

51. Ibid.

52. Susman, "Personality and the Making of Twentieth-Century Culture," 219.

53. See Ian Nicholson, "Gordon Allport and His Religion" (paper presented at

annual meeting of the Cheiron Society, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, 1994).

54. Joseph Krutch, The Modern Temper (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1927). For a

good discussion of Krutch's work see Peter Slater, "The Negative Secularism of The Modern Temper: Joseph Wood Krutch," American Quarterly 33, no. 2 (1981): 185-205.

55. Gordon Allport to Edwin Powers, March 20, 1923. Letter courtesy of Ardys Aliport.

56. Gordon Allport, "A Test of Ascendance-Submission," Journal of Abnormal and

Social Psychology, 23 (1928): 118-136; p. 134.

57. Gordon Allport, "The Study of Undivided Personality," Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 19(1924): 132-141.

58. Gordon Allport, "What is a trait of personality," in Personality & Social

Encounter, ed. Gordon Allport (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960), p. 132. This article was read

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at the 1929 International Congress of Psychology and published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 25 (1931): 368-372.

59. Gordon Allport, Personality: A Psychological Interpretation (New York: Henry Holt, 1937).

60. Ibid., vii.

61. Ibid., 213.

62. Ibid., 224,223.

63. Ibid., 226.

64. For an intelligent discussion of nostalgia see David Lowenthall, The Past Is a

Foreign Country (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

65. Allport, Personality: A Psychological Interpretation, 218.

66. Ibid., 221.

67. Collini, "The Idea of 'Character,' "37.

68. Robert Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in

American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

69. Philip Cushman, "Why the Self Is Empty: Toward a Historically Situated Psychology," American Psychologist 45 (1990): 599-611.

70. Allport, Personality: A Psychological Interpretation, 213.

71. Ibid., 566.

72. See Geoffrey Bunn, "The Lie Detector. Wonder Woman, and Liberty: The Life and Work of William Moulton Marston," History of the Human Sciences 10 (1997): 91-119.

73. Graham Richards, " 'To Know Our Fellow Men to Do Them Good': American Psychology's Enduring Moral Project," History of the Human Sciences 8 (1995): 1-24.

74. Ibid.

75. Allport and Vernon, "The Field of Personality," 716.

76. Nikolas Rose, "Engineering the human soul: Analyzing psychological expertise," Science in Context 5 (1992): 351-369, p. 361.

Received May 15, 1997

Revision received October 6, 1997

Accepted October 6, 1997 .