In the late 19th century, Americans suddenly became increasingly curious about world cultures. In terms of research practices of the time, the trendy interest could have taken two different directions: One was a widely-accepted racist worldview built upon the pseudoscience of eugenics. The other was developed by German-Jewish immigrant scholar Franz Boas, who promoted the idea that all cultures are equal and exist along the same continuum.
The discipline that Boas founded, today called “anthropology,” is studied worldwide. Yet its triumph was far from ordained.
During Boas’s career, eugenics was promoted by such respected institutions as the US Museum of Natural History. Later, across the Atlantic, it was a creed espoused by the Third Reich which reached a monstrous apogee in the Holocaust. It was only at the end of World War II that the world finally accepted the approach founded by Boas, which was then brought into mainstream America.
Interestingly, many of the scholars who were influenced by Boas’s work and made important contributions into the 20th century and beyond, were female. They included such household names as Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Ella Delloria and Zora Neale Hurston.
The story of the new discipline’s rise is told in a new book, “Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century,” by National Jewish Book Award-winning author Charles King.
The book takes its name from a 1942 statement by African-American writer Hurston, whose most famous work is arguably the novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” and whose literary fame obscured her achievements as an anthropologist. King told The Times of Israel that “Gods of the Upper Air” is “a kind of group biography” and “a story not told” about Boas and the female scholars influenced by him.
As King recounted, his interest was aided by dinner-table conversations with his wife, Margaret Paxson, who is both an author and an anthropologist, at their home in Washington, DC, where King is a professor at Georgetown.
King said that as Paxson shared her perspective as an anthropologist, he “began to think about [this] sort of sea change into what we call an open-minded, modern way of seeing the world,” brought about by Boas and his circle in the early 20th century.
“Gods of the Upper Air” traverses the globe as it follows this story from the New York City college classrooms where Boas taught, to the Samoan shores explored by Mead. It marks a geographical shift from King’s previous, National Jewish Book Award-winning “Odessa,” which reflects an interest of the author dating back to his high school days in Arkansas during the Cold War. King recalls growing up on a farm in the Ozarks, going to a Pentecostal church, and developing a lasting fascination with Eastern Europe. The region’s Jewish history “is central to that story,” he said, and Jewish themes are also present in his latest book.
“Boas himself was, of course, of German-Jewish heritage,” King said. “His Jewish identity as such, I don’t think it was ever particularly important to him,” yet “by the 1930s, he experienced the rise of Nazism” and an anti-Semitic backlash in his homeland.
King’s wife, Paxson, also has a new book out about Jewish themes: “The Plateau,” an exploration of altruism in a French village that saved Jews during WWII and continues to do lifesaving work for refugees today.
“They were to be published the exact same day,” King said. “They ended up a week apart.” He calls “The Plateau” “an absolutely beautiful book about a remarkable place in France” that also contains lessons for how people “deal with outsiders today.”
Birth of anthropology
Boas, born in 1858, was also interested in societies outside his own, conducting studies first on Baffin Island and, after immigrating to the US, among Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest. King describes him as an “empiricist par excellence who believed in data,” adding that “as a scientist, he followed data wherever it led.”
It led Boas into a clash with the widespread approach dividing the world into barbaric and civilized cultures based on race. King said that while Boas was within the realm of European progressive thought of the 1910s and ’20s, “many of the people he was battling described themselves as progressive thinkers” as well.
Boas’s rivals held that “you should use science to determine which people are more and less fit, which races are more and less able,” King said. “They crafted government policies to further the most able and hold back the least able.” He calls this worldview “a set of observations [based on] fake theories, not on data at all… Boas realized these were not scientific claims,” but instead “kind of culturally specious.”
In response, Boas promoted the idea of cultural relativism, premised on the idea that “the challenges human beings face are universal,” King said. “Every single society faces them. Boas said that the answers we give to these questions are specific to our own society. There’s no reason to think that what we come up with at this time, at this place, are either universal or universally good.” To Boas, “the idea of so-called primitive society was just us at an earlier stage of our own development,” King said.
Riding a sometimes-bumpy career path while starting a family with his wife Marie, Boas taught anthropology at newly established Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and at the Chicago world’s fair of 1893, where he oversaw the section on anthropology — the first-ever mention of the term in the US, according to the book. He also taught at the American Museum of Natural History, and finally Columbia University, where he made his mark.
At Columbia, Boas found an increasing audience of female students from Barnard College, such as Mead, Benedict, Delloria, and Hurston.
“I think it was a huge moment for the social sciences in general,” King said. “He had this entire cohort of students, many of them women, which was not normal for that moment.”
Mead, Benedict and Hurston would “go on to have a very influential purview in their lifetime,” King said, although “none managed to acquire the high prestige and reputation they deserved at the time.”
It was a huge moment for the social sciences in general
Benedict won renown with “Patterns of Culture” in 1934 — which used the term “cultural relativity” for the first time — but she had only become a full professor at Columbia three years earlier, when she got divorced. King noted that academia viewed it as inappropriate for married women to be professors.
King said that each scholar contributed differently and their lives gave perspective to 20th century women’s roles in philosophical thought and social sciences. Collectively, he said, “they ought to be part of the reading list of great figures of the 20th century, with [John] Rawls, Sigmund Freud and others.”
The rise of women’s voices
Of these female scholars, Mead is arguably the most famous through her works based on travel to Polynesia, where she studied indigenous culture among young girls and used this research to write the 1928 bestseller “Coming of Age in Samoa.”
“She’s the one person who, if you ask somebody to name an anthropologist, they’ll say one of two [people],” King said. “Indiana Jones, which is mistaking an archaeologist for an anthropologist. And secondly, they’ll name Margaret Mead. She had an outsize impact on what it means to be [an anthropologist], what this profession means.”
King explains that Mead brought anthropology into the mainstream: “More than anybody else, she translated some of [anthropology’s] more beneficial insights… for a public audience,” such as through columns in Redbook magazine.
“She had a ready opinion on just about everything,” said King, who called her “a controversial speaker.” The book also addresses her sometimes-controversial personal life, including romances with both men and women, including her three husbands and her lover Benedict.
Others within the Boas circle also made an impact, such as Hurston, who researched African-American communities, including in her native Florida.
“Hurston’s books on Haiti, Jamaica, and the Gulf Coast are wonderful pieces of ethnography,” King said, adding that one example of Hurston’s research in Haiti exemplifies the way Boas and his students viewed the world. Researching voodoo, Hurston became the first person to photograph a zombie, a woman named Felicia Felix-Mentor. She did not state that Felix-Mentor claimed to be a zombie, but that she was one.
“Through that window, she was able to discover what it is like to live in a society with the category of the living dead,” King said.
Boas under the Nazi regime
Although Boas and his circle promoted understanding of different cultures, events within the wider world indicated worsening intercultural relations, from the Jim Crow laws of the American South to the rise of Hitler in Germany. Boas’s homeland turned against him due to the anti-Semitic policies of the Third Reich. The Nazis removed Boas’s books from libraries and rescinded his doctorate from the University of Kiel.
“[Boas] begins to understand the model the Germans are putting in place,” King said. “It’s not something the Nazis invented wholesale. He’s seen a version time and time again,” including, ironically, American hostility to German immigrants like himself during WWI as well as to African-Americans in the Jim Crow South.
King said that Boas — who died in 1942, while at the Columbia University Club — did “not live to see fully” the end result of the Nazis’ model in the Holocaust. But “to him, I think, it’s the kind of outcome that was wholly logical, in a way,” the author added.
The Boas circle continued making contributions after its founder’s death. Benedict aided postwar peace when she researched and wrote “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” a study of Japanese culture that proved valuable to the Allied occupation of Japan.
“If people have read a book or two on anthropology, ‘The Chrysanthemum and the Sword’ would be on the list,” King said. “It had a huge impact on American society. It tried to understand an entire country” and had “a hugely influential voice in social theory.”
And overall, Boas praises the openness of the circle against the closed-mindedness of its era.
“They battled the established orthodoxies of the day,” King said. “They were renegades against a very outdated way [of thinking about] human nature, human history.”