Friday, September 01, 2006

W. Beran Wolfe: How To Be Happy Though Human

When I tell you the publishing history of How To Be Happy Though Human, by W. Beran Wolfe, you will wonder why I bother to mention the book at all. The answer is twofold.

First, in a lifetime of reading, this is the best book that I have ever found about human psychology. If you want to know what makes people tick, this is the book for you. The second reason relates closely to the first: because of its insights into what drives human behaviour, I have found the book to be enormously helpful in creating credible characters for fiction and drama.

Of course, if you've ever read any of my stuff, you may think that I've never succeeded in creating convincing characters; nevertheless, I at least feel that I have understood their background and motivation, and was therefore able to have sufficient sympathy with them to be able to write about them.

Now for the publishing history. How To Be Happy Though Human was first published in New York in 1931. Routledge did a UK edition in 1932, which was reprinted periodically. The book must slowly have come to be regarded as a minor classic, because twenty-five years later Penguin UK brought out a paperback version under the Pelican imprint; it was reprinted in 1959. And, finally, Routledge issued a hardback edition in the UK in 1999.

The Routledge edition of 1999 was aimed firmly at the academic library market. How do I know that? Because it was priced at £135, although Amazon will sell you one for £89.10. What this 1999 edition suggests is that Beran Wolfe, and How To Be Happy Though Human, are now recognised as having a significant place in the history of psychology.

I can tell you little about Dr Beran Wolfe, beyond what is printed on the back of the Pelican edition. He was born in Vienna in 1900, but educated in the USA. He went back to Vienna for postgraduate study, and became an assistant to Alfred Adler. He must have been thoroughly bilingual, because his grasp of English is immaculate (few people can explain complicated issues so clearly) and he translated some of Adler's work.

After his time in Vienna, Wolfe returned to New York, where he practised psychiatry. His writing work was done between 11 pm and 3 am, and he always wrote to music on gramophone records (the neighbours must have loved him). He was apparently killed in an accident in 1935.

Alfred Adler, by the way, was on one of the great Viennese triumvirate of psychologists, the other two being Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung. All three men initially worked together but eventually fell out, and developed their own significantly different ideas. Of these three, Adler is by far the least known, but he was, for my money, the one who talked the most sense. Not surprisingly, Wolfe was heavily influenced by Adler.

How To Be Happy Though Human is designed for the lay reader -- the title alone tells you that -- and it is a model of clarity in its organisation and style. There are twelve chapters, with frequent sub-headings, and each chapter begins with a summary of what has been learnt so far, and a short account of the contents of the coming chapter.

The book runs to some 355 pages, and I am not about to try to summarise it. Any kind of precis would be bound to give a misleading impression. However, I think it is fair to say that Wolfe, like Adler (and, for that matter, the Jesuits), believed that early childhood experiences play a major part in developing a person's character.

All children are, without exception, weak and incapable of looking after themselves, and these early experiences of helplessness, or 'inferiority', are crucial. In particular, they lead to attempts to be strong, to be in control, and to put an end to emotional and physical discomfort.

Wolfe is a great believer in the purposive nature of human behaviour, even if the underlying purpose of the action is not always clearly understood by the person concerned, let alone anyone else. In his book, he argues that any person, other than those with severe mental incapacity, is capable of deciding what to do. There are sensible things to do, and stupid, antisocial, selfish things to do. But you can always choose. The smart thing to do is to think about why you favour action (a) over action (b), and to decide if it is truly sensible or not.

The author comes across as a fairly hard-line man. He is not of the 'pull yourself together' school, but he certainly believes that no one is going to achieve happiness by pursuing exclusively selfish interests. This sometimes makes for uncomfortable reading (at least for me), because you find yourself realising that Wolfe would not be enthusiastic about many of the things that you wish to do, and in some cases have done for years.

There is, quite frankly, nothing on the web about Beran Wolfe that I can recommend to you. There is a 2005 essay by V. Sundaram, but that does not, in my opinion, give a very good impression of Wolfe's book, and in any case it describes him as Australian when he was, of course, Austrian.

I first read this book in about 1960, and it must have made a considerable impression on me, because when I came to read it again, a few weeks ago, I found that certain passages were very familiar; it was as if I had read them yesterday. The book's principal virtue, for the average reader of this blog, is not so much that it is a self-help manual -- though it is certainly a fine example of that -- but that it provides an outstanding guide to human motivation.

I re-read Beran Wolfe mainly because I wanted to remind myself of what he had to say about ambition. And of that, more later, in another post.

Secondhand copies of the book, particularly the 1957 Pelican edition, are fairly easily obtainable. The Pelican is holding up fairly well because it was a stitched edition; but the print is rather small and the paper none too wonderful.


Anonymous said...

Thanks G.O.B - just ordered it through Abebooks. Sounds like just what I need.

Anonymous said...

I just ordered it too. $13.94 through Amazon used books.

I'm sure there is nothing wrong with me, but perhaps it will give me insight into others!

The last book I bought that was recommended by GOB, To War With Whitaker, was fabulous.

Thanks GOB!

Bill Peschel said...

I'm cheap, so interlibrary loan to the rescue! Thank you.

Anonymous said...

GOB - Thanks for this info on Wolfe. I'm trying to track down biographical info on him, and in my first soirée on the net, I ran across your very encouraging article. I teach at the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago and am eager to locate those who explicate Adler. I've a sense that Wolfe did it better than the old man himself. Thanks for reminding me of his classic.

Anonymous said...

Thankyou, thankyou for this. I read it at school in Coventry in 1963 and loved it to bits but have never found a copy. I will now get hold of it again because I always felt it to be deeply truthful about the human condition.

Graham J said...

Yes, a great book. I first read it in 1967 and am still re-reading. It makes a lot more sense than much of modern 'easy pop' self help psychology. I would recommended it to anybody wishing to better understand themselves and their behaviours and motivations and also to better understanding those about us.

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