Culture and Personality

Caroline Humphrey

  • Margaret Mead: A Life of Controversy by Phyllis Grosskurth
    Penguin, 96 pp, £3.99, May 1989, ISBN 0 14 008760 5
  • Ruth Benedict: Stranger in the Land by Margaret Caffrey
    Texas, 432 pp, $24.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 292 74655 5

There is a popular vision of the anthropologist as figure-of-fun which an allegorical ‘Margaret Mead’ is coming to represent: the blunderer into tribal life, dupe of the primitives, the self-dramatiser, spinner of graceless and unlikely theories. Another version of the anthropologist is the philosopher of culture and society in all its variations, one who understands humanity in some broad, if rather intuitive and dreamy way: Ruth Benedict, though her work is deeply unfashionable today, has this kind of position. Though both of these visions of the anthropologist have a certain plausibility, they hardly justify the tendency of recent biographies, particularly of Mead, to create retrospective stereotypes. Such books neglect the historical complexity and the difficulties of coming-into-being of anthropology as a subject. Neither Benedict nor Mead were like these types, but their life-stories do show not only how they were able to generate new ideas but also how easily – and this is really a matter of how anthropology is written – an idea could be taken up and somehow slip over the line into caricature.

Though vastly different from one another, their work and lives were intertwined. They were lovers for a time. Together they came to be pre-eminent in American anthropology, the doyens of ‘Culture and Personality’, the theory that cultures are like personalities writ large. Both felt themselves to be somewhat rejected by their repressive Protestant families, outsiders, who were determined to escape the suffocating suburban roles expected of women of their class. Anthropology for them was not just an occupation, but a vocation. They came to it as the stance from which to unmask the American society of their time, by pointing to its non-inevitability, its non-naturalness. They did this by presenting their readers with the stunningly ‘other’ solutions of diverse cultures, each of which appears equally inevitable and natural to its own members. The tactic was to make them seem so real that it is our habits which come to seem strange. Many of the works of Benedict and Mead were best-sellers, real best-sellers reaching far out of academe to governing circles and the general public. Both women were politically active. They lectured to huge public audiences and addressed government departments on subjects such as race, disarmament and civil liberties. Thinking about their lives now, one is led to marvel at the kind of influence anthropology had in the history of American thought, and then to ponder the fate of ideas in the political arena, where new clashes of interest allow what were progressive arguments to be relabelled and appropriated for conservative purposes.

The two books under review take quite different views of the achievements of their subjects. Phyllis Grosskurth’s Margaret Mead: A Life of Controversy, which appears in Penguin’s ‘Lives of Modern Women’ series, is really just another moan about the awfulness of Margaret Mead. She was impatient, bossy, over-zealous, incapable of realising when her leg was being pulled, narcissistic, bullying to her informants, but repeatedly misled by them in one field situation after another. Obsessively anthropological, she was incapable of attending a tea-party without freezing the children with her steely gaze. Even so, ‘she seemed more bemused by the English than by any exotic tribe in New Guinea,’ and so it goes on. Relatively infrequently in this book of 80 pages does such causerie give way to discussion of Mead’s ideas, and then the text is full of curiously non-sequential statements, so that one wonders whether Grosskurth knows very little about anthropology or fell victim to the scissors of a lackadaisical editor. Either way, it seems a pity that the ‘life of a modern woman’ should be reduced to a put-down.

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