Many of the college students assigned to read Erik Erikson’s most influential book, ”Childhood and Society,” in the 1960’s probably assumed that they were in the hands of an American-born writer.
To be sure, ”Childhood and Society,” like Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno’s ”Dialectic of Enlightenment” and Herbert Marcuse’s ”One Dimensional Man,” excoriated conformity and alienation. And Erikson’s book is hard on the American nuclear family, with its ineffectual dads and petty, controlling moms. But over all there’s a smiling, upbeat quality, a ready hopefulness, that infuses his work from beginning to end and that sets him apart from most of the other influential European thinkers who had an impact on midcentury American intellectual life. Compared with the implacable Horkheimer and Adorno, Erikson has a nearly boosterish attitude.