The subjectivity of Margaret Mead’s love life surely gave her objectivity when examining the foreign

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

While ending her second marriage and starting an affair with a new man she writes detailed letters to the woman she is in love with explaining her theories of anthropology. Mead was apparently lucky to be in the orbit of Fanz Boas, who put together a scene that sounds like the exemplar of the metaphor “hot house” :

A living room in Grantwood, N.J., has a good claim to being the birthplace, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, of a new science of humankind. Amid the demands of advising and fund-raising, the chair of the Columbia University anthropology department, Franz Boas, had decided to host regular Tuesday evening seminars at his suburban home. His students, passing plates of oatmeal cookies, were elaborating a way of seeing the world. They called it cultural relativity. Their essential finding was that societies did not come rank-ordered as civilized or primitive, moral or deviant. Each culture was only a sampling taken from the vast inventory of possible human beliefs and practices.

Graduate students, established scholars, and visiting academics exchanged reports from the field. Ruth Benedict, a junior professor, had been recasting her earlier work on the American Southwest and editing articles for the Journal of American Folklore. Most of a recent issue had been taken up with a hundred-page study of folk religion on the Gulf Coast, written by the Boas student — and sometime novelist — Zora Neale Hurston. Margaret Mead, another of Boas’s advisees, was going through the field notes on the Omaha nation that she had compiled with her husband, Reo Fortune. Her Coming of Age in Samoa, a publishing phenomenon when it appeared in 1928, was still selling briskly in Manhattan bookshops.

The venerable Bronislaw Malinowski, one of the founders of modern fieldwork methods, would occasionally make an appearance on a visit from London, perhaps angling for a job were Boas ever to vacate his professorship. “He is vain as a peacock and as cheap as a saloon story,” Benedict gossiped to Mead. On one occasion he allegedly slipped money into Hurston’s stocking as an apparent invitation to an affair. For her part, Mead could feel an undercurrent of disregard whenever Malinowski entered the room. He had praised her Samoan work, but she was convinced that another former student of Boas’s, the linguist Edward Sapir, had now turned Malinowski against her.

Sapir knew how to worry an old wound. Mead had broken off an affair with him while she was in the South Pacific; at the time, she was still married to her first husband, an ex-theologian, and secretly in love with Benedict. “She is … a loathsome bitch flattened out to a malodorous allegory,” Sapir wrote to Benedict after reading Coming of Age in Samoa, “a symbol of nearly everything that I detest most in contemporary American culture.” He soon published a thinly veiled attack on “free women” who failed to understand that jealousy was a universal human emotion. Mead responded in kind. Jealousy, she said in her own article on the subject, was in her experience frequently found among old men with small endowments.

The slights and betrayals, the underground flings and seething animosities, the granite friendships as well as the roiling rivalries were as much a part of the seminar evenings in Grantwood as Dakota verbs and New Guinean masks. But whether they were discussing rituals, religion, sexuality, or any other aspect of social life, Boas had taught his students to resist making grand schemas or big conclusions. He had long been clear on what he called “the most difficult problem of anthropology”: Were there universal laws to human societies, and if so, how might one go about discovering them?

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