Middle American

Edmund Leach

  • Margaret Mead: A Life by Jane Howard
    Harvill, 527 pp, £12.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 00 272515 0
  • With a Daughter’s Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson by Mary Catherine Bateson
    Morrow, 242 pp, $15.95, July 1984, ISBN 0 688 03962 6

Both these books are, in part, by-products of the furore that was generated in 1983 by the publication of Derek Freeman’s Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth and I had better declare where I stand. I have known Derek Freeman for nearly forty years. I consider that his criticism of the work of the youthful Margaret Mead was Justified but academically unnecessary. I met Margaret Mead on only four occasions and very briefly; I did not find her sympatica. Reo Fortune, Mead’s second husband, was my faculty colleague in Cambridge for many years. Her third husband, Gregory Bateson, for whose intellectual originality I have an enormous respect, was a personal friend.

Jane Howard’s book sets out to be a straight, warts-and-all biography. The author, who is not herself an anthropologist, is by no means starry-eyed about her heroine: nevertheless, as can be seen in the blustering way in which she dismisses Freeman’s criticism, her book ends up as a chronologically-ordered, elaborately-researched hagiography rather than a record of historical facts. In assembling her data she interviewed or corresponded with several hundred individuals all over the world. Their names are given in a four-page section of ‘acknowledgments’. The absentees are as interesting as those present. The list fully confirms Marshall Sahlins’s comment that Mead’s ‘career was uniquely American. To the European intelligentsia. Mead’s social science is faintly ridiculous and the grounds for her fame fairly unintelligible. Among anthropologists likewise, the esteem for her work – never as international or unanimous as her public success – generally decreases in proportion to the square of the distance from middle America.’

To this superfluity of superficial evidence Howard adds a tendency to garrulity. Since Mead was a glutton for personal publicity this is appropriate, but I find Howard’s book quite unnecessarily verbose. Furthermore, for the bits of her story with which I happen to be personally familiar the density of error in the factual detail is extremely high. This makes me doubt the reliability of the rest. These are serious charges and need to be exemplified.

Verbosity. At page 182 Howard needs to inform her readers that in July 1935 Mead’s marriage to Fortune was dissolved in an uncontested divorce suit under Mexican law. Howard takes 35 lines of print to give this information and these include the wording of a related document filed in the New York City Probate Court, the name of Mead’s attorney, and gossip about Fortune’s state of mind.

Errors of detail. Chapter Six opens with a photograph which carries the caption:

From Haddon the Headhunter by A. Hingston Griggin. A.H. Haddon (seated) and W.H.R. Rivers (far left, standing) during their famous 1898 expedition to the Torres Straits, just south of New Guinea. Their work greatly influenced Margaret Mead’s and Reo Fortune’s generation of anthropologists. Haddon would teach both Fortune and Gregory Bateson at Cambridge.

Rivers is described at page 93 as ‘the Cambridge psychology professor’ and at page 94 we are told that ‘a memorial medal dedicated to Rivers was awarded later by Cambridge University to Reo Fortune.’ At page 102 Reo Fortune is said to be ‘reading anthropology at Cambridge under the eminent A.C. Haddon’. Similar statements appear at page 145, where Haddon is described as ‘Reo Fortune’s Cambridge professor’, and at page 155. At pages 155 and 173 there are references to Bateson’s ‘ill-fated master’s thesis’ which ‘nobody seemed to care about’. At pages 171-2, 184, 201-2 it is implied that in 1935 Fortune and Bateson were in competition for a ‘William Wyse Studentship, a Cambridge University research grant’, which was awarded to Bateson. Also at page 172 we learn that ‘in 1947 Fortune returned to Cambridge University as a lecturer at Wolfson College.’

Comment. The original of the photograph is in the archive of the Haddon Library in Cambridge. The author of Haddon the Headhunter was A.H. Quiggin. While Rivers has had an indirect effect on all anthropological work published since 1914, the influence of A.C. Haddon (not A.H. Haddon) has been negligible. When Fortune arrived in Cambridge in 1926 Haddon had already retired from his office of University Reader in Ethnology. Fortune took a one-year diploma in anthropology under the auspices of T.C. Hodson. Rivers resigned from his University post of Lecturer in the Physiology of the Senses in 1915. Neither Haddon nor Rivers ever held the rank of professor. The Rivers Medal awarded to Fortune has nothing to do with Cambridge University: it is an annual award of the Royal Anthropological Institute. The ‘ill-fated master’s thesis’ was in fact Bateson’s successful Fellowship Dissertation for St John’s College. It was published in full in the journal Oceania in 1932. No William Wyse Studentship was offered for competition in 1935; Bateson won this award in 1937 when he was already in Bali. Fortune, remarried, was then on the way to China. Wolfson College did not come into existence until 1973. All these are quite trivial matters, but they add up. Since I am bound to suspect that there are hundreds more errors of the same sort. Howard’s book must be dismissed as quite unreliable. Other reviews of the book, however, have praised it highly.

Another unsatisfactory feature is its reticence. The blurb on the jacket includes a come-on: ‘The story of Mead’s private life, with three marriages, several intense liaisons and scores of close and complicated friendships, reads like a novel.’ It would be a prudish novel. Although Howard mentions a large number of individuals whose friendships with Mead were clearly ‘close and complicated’, the rest has to be inferred. This matters not only because most of Mead’s numerous love affairs were with fellow anthropologists of one kind or another and are thereby reflected in her published work, but because (as is clearly spelled out in her daughter’s book but not by Jane Howard) Mead was bisexual. Her affair with her teacher Ruth Benedict lasted for many years, as did that with Geoffrey Gorer. Without these two ‘intense liaisons’ it is unlikely that the bizarre research project known as the Study of Culture at a Distance and its successors would ever have got off the ground. Howard describes these enterprises with appropriate humour, but without Catherine Bateson’s more direct approach to the romantic angle the reader would need to employ a great deal of guesswork to understand what is being said.

Although the two books are complementary in this way, they are of quite different kinds. Margaret Mead: A Life is a biography: one thing after another, public life and private life all mixed up. Somehow the heroine fails to emerge as a human being: she is simply a public figure with a very inflated ego. By contrast, With a Daughter’s Eye is essentially an intimate autobiography of childhood. Catherine Bateson herself eventually became a professional anthropologist, but there is very little about anthropology in her present book. It is about the problems of being the child of two altogether exceptional but quite impossible parents whose marriage had not worked out but who maintained, as a kind of dogma, that this didn’t matter and that, as far as their daughter was concerned, everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Catherine Bateson is even-handed in her distribution of praise and blame between her two parents but it would have been strange if, at the end of the day, Gregory had not come through as much the more likeable. The contrast between what Margaret Mead preached to her devoted general public and the way she conducted her private life is altogether too bizarre to be acceptable. But does that matter? Human children are tough creatures. Catherine Bateson has clearly survived with flying colours the extraordinary childrearing procedures to which she was subjected. Yet even if a shipwreck may sometimes be salutary for those who survive it, it is not an experience to be indulged in if it can be avoided. Catherine’s upbringing does not provide a model for others.

Bateson’s handling of the Freeman affair is much more stylish than Howard’s, and is a personal reaction based on what she knows as a daughter. She does not pretend that she has read all or even a substantial part of her mother’s work. She does not need to. She has written a very attractive, astonishingly honest book. I only wish it had an index.

Missing from both books is any discussion of Margaret Mead as a social/cultural phenomenon. What was it about this very energetic but intellectually undistinguished individual that turned her into a national heroine? What did she represent in the minds of those who put her on the pedestal she so joyfully adorned? Sahlins’s Europe/Middle America antithesis is much to the point. European social anthropologists see themselves as heirs to the giants of sociological theory, Marx, Durkheim, Weber in particular. Cultural differences are not labels which attach to whole societies but are the markers of social class, or of regional and ethnic differences within nation stfjurstates. When scholars of this sort discuss cultural criteria it is mostly to very fine-grain differences that they draw attention: the difference between BBC English and normal Cambridgeshire rather than the difference between English and Chinese. Individuals are coerced into behaving as they do by the jural constraints which are implicit in their immediate cultural surroundings. Cultural environment does not determine ‘personality’. When Mead came to maturity, however, the ‘melting pot’ theory of American national identity was much to the fore. Culture and personal character were both considered to be infinitely flexible. Given appropriate procedures for child-rearing and education, the children of all kinds of European and non-European immigrants, no matter what might be their linguistic, ethnic and social-class origins, could be forged into true Americans: individuals who reverenced individualism, but who shared a common basic personality, a common ‘national character’. With this background the kind of impressionistic anthropology that was served up by Ruth Benedict in Patterns of Culture (1934), by Mead in Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935), or by Mead in the truly awful Male and Female (1949), gave its audience just what they wanted to hear. Bring up your children in the right way and they will behave in the right way. Mead’s ethnographic descriptions are laid on with a tar brush. In a celebrated instance she flatly declared that ‘warfare is practically unknown among the Arapesh’ and went on to romanticise at length about the educational correlates of their lack of aggression. Derek Freeman was not the first professional anthropologist to find such slapdash generalisation academically intolerable. One of Reo Fortune’s first actions in his status as Mead’s ex-husband was to publish an article on ‘Arapesh Warfare’! While Howard went to the trouble to verify that it was Fortune’s ethnography rather than Mead’s that was the more accurate, she defends Mead’s thesis simply because it was more popular: ‘Fortune would disagree, but Mead would write (for a vastly larger audience than he would ever have) that rarely among the Arapesh was anyone very aggressive.’ Many of Mead’s professional associates both in her own country and elsewhere have taken the view that they have other scholarly duties besides that of playing to the gallery.