Inventing Personality: Gordon Allport and the Science of Selfhood

Inventing Personality examines the early career of Gordon Allport (1897–1967) to reveal the history of the personality category he championed. Drawing on an extensive array of previously unpublished biographical materials, Nicholson masterfully combines biography with intellectual history to reveal the ways in which Allport’s science was embedded in the cultural politics of America in the 1920s and the 1930s. He argues that personality’s emergence as an object of science was linked to the gradual demise of character and the self-sacrificing, morally grounded self that it supported.

Carefully highlighting Allport’s complex commitments to both science and spirituality, Nicholson examines the rich cultural and historical contexts that framed the emergence of personality as a discipline, revealing multiple (even contradictory) meanings of “personality” in the language of American selfhood. He asserts that “personality’s” appeal lay in its ability to integrate and obscure the complex polarities of material and spiritual; old and new; masculine and feminine; and freedom and control—categories rendered unstable in a new and distinctively modern age. This book will be invaluable to scholars and practitioners interested in personality, and it will serve as a model of scientific biography.

Nicholson has written an intriguing, poignant, and well-paced portrayal of Gordon Allport. Part biography and part history of the field of personality psychology, the book provides a fascinating look at Allport’s dominant influence and of this formidable work in the discipline. Summing Up: Highly recommended.

Choice Magazine