Putting things in boxes

Adam Kuper

  • To Cherish the Life of the World: Selected Letters of Margaret Mead edited by Margaret Caffrey and Patricia Francis
    Basic Books, 429 pp, £17.99, September 2006, ISBN 0 465 00815 1

Margaret Mead and her second husband, Reo Fortune, spent nearly two years in the interior of New Guinea between 1931 and 1933. Just 29 years old when they set out, Mead had already published two bestselling books, Coming of Age in Samoa and Growing up in New Guinea. Fortune, a highly competitive, paranoid and occasionally violent New Zealander, had yet to make his name as an anthropologist. Conditions in the field were rough, sometimes dangerous. They both had recurrent bouts of malaria. And they became thoroughly fed up with each other.

They also found themselves at odds with the people they were studying. When Mead and Fortune first penetrated the Sepik region it had only recently come under effective Australian control. Their bearers, coastal men, dumped their baggage as soon as they breasted the Prince Alexander mountains, leaving them stranded among an impoverished and scattered Arapesh-speaking population. They settled down to fieldwork, but while Arapesh of both sexes were gentle and considerate, Fortune found the men unmanly and Mead thought them all rather boring. She became seriously depressed.

In August 1932, they moved on, making what Mead described as a ‘perfectly arbitrary decision’ to follow a tributary of the Sepik and study the first group they came across. They landed up among the Mundugumor, who had been pacified only three years before. The Mundugumor were much better off than the Arapesh, but they were aggressive, indeed ferocious, men and women alike – reputed to practise cannibalism and certainly given to infanticide. The men often left their wives if they got pregnant, accusing them of infidelity. The women were just as bloody-minded. ‘Although women choose men as often as men choose women,’ Mead wrote, ‘the society is constructed so that men fight about women, and women elude, defy and complicate this fighting to the best of their abilities.’ In particular, mothers set their sons against their fathers. They warned that the old men were prepared to sell their own daughters in order to get co-wives for themselves. Deprived of their sisters’ bride-price, the sons would have no chance of marrying. Nobody co-operated with anyone else unless bullied into collective projects by people they themselves described as ‘really bad men’. Fortune thought the Mundugumor behaviour natural if repellent; Mead was appalled by them and believed that they hated themselves, writing of ‘the conviction of every Mundugumor that he is doing wrong and that he is being wronged by others’.

The day before Christmas 1932, they left to take a holiday at the government station at Ambunti and to look for a new research base. On their way up the Sepik they stopped in Kankanamun, where an English anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, was camped. Fortune and Bateson had been fellow students at Cambridge, working under Alfred Haddon, one of the pioneers of British anthropology, but Fortune, who saw himself as a colonial outsider, was wary of Bateson, the son of a famous Cambridge biologist. (Fortune told Mead that Haddon had been friendly enough towards him, but that he had given Bateson his mosquito net.)

‘As anthropologists do, we began talking – and kept it up for 30 hours on end,’ Bateson wrote home. ‘The result has been a very odd party.’ Mead was enchanted. ‘He’s six feet four and yet has all the slender unplaced grace of the most complete fragility,’ she gushed in a letter to the anthropologist Ruth Benedict. ‘You’ve no idea how moving six feet four of vulnerable beauty is. He gets all the points, is extraordinarily sensitive to people.’

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