October 2006

Barbara J. King


The Anthropology of Home: Margaret Meadís Letters

In Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, a character says: “Every new book I read comes to be a part of that overall and unitary book that is the sum of my readings. This does not come about without some effort: to compose that general book, each individual book must be transformed, enter into a relationship with the books I have read previously, become their corollary or development or confutation or gloss or reference text.”

This transformation of the individual book happens so often in my reading that I am no longer surprised -- but I am intrigued when the synergy happens between fiction and nonfiction. In the middle of my leisurely reading of To Cherish the Life of the World: The Selected Letters of Margaret Mead, I read, at a much more intense pace, Jennifer Egan’s new novel, The Keep. Egan’s central character Danny is a restless soul, marked by a compelling need to seek out a cell phone or Internet connection wherever he goes. 

Of Danny, Egan writes: “Well, he’d lived a lot of places since moving to New York… but none of them had ever felt like home. For a long time this bothered Danny, until one day two summers ago he was crossing Washington Square, talking on his cell phone to his friend Zach, who was in Machu Picchu in the middle of a snowstorm, and it hit him -- wham -- that he was at home right at that instant. Not in Washington Square… not in Peru, where he’d never been in his life, but both places at once. Being somewhere but not completely: that was home for Danny…”    

Wham. It dawned on me that here is one way of thinking about Margaret Mead, at least the Mead that emerges in To Cherish: a person most at home in two places at once. I don’t mean “place” only in a geographic sense, although the idea does apply to Mead’s famous fieldwork in anthropology. When she lived for long periods in Samoa or Bali, she missed her American home and envisioned it vividly. Mead was also most at home when bringing together pure anthropology and applied social science. Deeply committed to furthering anthropology’s method and theory, she was committed to activism in a troubled world. Mead brought her skills and insight to bear in various war efforts during the '40s, when she testified before Congress and other governmental bodies on social issues, in helping Democrat presidential candidates (Humphrey, Carter) campaign effectively on television, and in inviting the average reader into social science through a column in Redbook magazine. 

Centrally, Mead came most alive when she was involved -- emotionally and sexually -- with more than one partner. Three-times married and bisexual, Mead found exclusive relationships too claustrophobic. Through her life she struggled to keep her loves in balance and to ensure that she caused none of her partners to feel jealousy or misery.  

To Cherish skates on the surface of academic anthropology but goes to the heart of human intimacy. Because readers can learn about other aspects of Mead’s life through Blackberry Winter, her autobiography, or through an earlier collection of correspondence, Letters from the Field: 1925-1975, editors Margaret Caffrey and Patricia Francis sensibly decided to focus this volume on Mead’s relationships. Combing through the Margaret Mead collection at the US library of Congress -- the single largest collection that the Congress holds -- they made fine choices. As anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson (Mead’s daughter) writes in the preface,“The discipline of reading these letters is to avoid worrying too much about the references to events and about the order in which they unfolded, and rather to attend to the way Margaret frames her words to communicate with a particular person.” And so let’s dip into Mead’s own words.

From Samoa in 1926, to her sister Priscilla, age 18, who had written about what was likely her first real romance:

The thrills you get from touching the body of another person are just as good and legitimate thrills as those you get at the opera. Only the ones which [you] get at the opera are all mixed up with your ideas of beauty and music and Life -- and so they seem to you good and holy things... You must realize that your body has been given you as an instrument of joy -- and tho you should choose most rigorously whose touch may make that instrument thrill and sing a thousand beautiful songs -- you must never think it wrong of it to sing... It is the spirit within the body which must be stern and say... "I will not have my body signing a tune which my soul cannot sing also."

Mead’s life turned on those with whom her soul could sing. Her most consistent connection was with Ruth Benedict, an anthropologist about 15 years older than Mead. For me, her letters to Benedict are the most moving in the book.

To Benedict in 1932, after first meeting Gregory Bateson, the anthropologist who would become her third husband: “Nothing that I had heard or read prepared me for him… He’s six feet four and yet has all the slender unplaced grace of the most complete fragility. You’ve no idea how moving six feet four of vulnerable beauty is. He gets all the points, is extraordinarily sensitive to people.”

Even when things became blissful with Bateson, Benedict remained for Mead a kind of love standard. To Benedict in 1928: “You have never asked me to do anything I wouldn’t myself elect, never demanded or even wanted one inch of formal compliance, and you’ve gotten more from me and of me than any other living soul has or is likely to, I’m thinking.” 

And five years later: “The happiness which Gregory and I have is closer to your and my relationship than to any other happiness I’ve ever known. There is the same balance of activity and passivity, the same completeness of understanding and absolute integration of feeling -- and the same timelessness.”

Dark moods beset Mead at times. To Bateson in England, 1933: “The more I think about it the more I think that Reo [Mead’s second husband] is pretty right in his point about one relationship impinging badly upon another. I don’t believe now that I am capable, or ever have been, of handling two love relationships.”

Far more typical is the sentiment in this 1936 letter to Benedict: “…one perfect relationship never threatens another perfect relationship… it is only imperfect, incomplete, or partially realized relationships that interfere one with the other. I feel no pull in myself between you and Gregory -- no sense of counter or opposing systems.”

Anthropophiles will be rewarded for a close reading of these letters by references to “Papa Franz” (Franz Boas), Alfred Kroeber, and Bronislaw Malinowksi and by nuggets like this one: “When the idea of studying what the natives do instead of what they say they do was invented, any sort of peaceful life for field workers was over.” Mead occasionally muses on specific theories in the culture-and-personality school of thought, and on the jealousy felt by others in the face of her rising fame. Too, as Mead begins make a greater impact on American and global intellectual life, she expresses a new sense of responsibility. In the 1960s and 1970s, the letters show her in constant motion around the globe, speaking in high-profile venues and insanely busy. Anthropology matters; Mead knew it, and lived it.

The letters-snippets I have included are too snippety to convey the point I want most to convey: the stunning depth and breadth of Mead’s connecting to others through correspondence. Among the most interesting are letters written in the wake of Mead’s decision to take in two English girls during the war, Philomena (age 13) and Claudia Guillebaud (age 10), daughters of friends.   

To the girls’ parents in England, upon their safe arrival in the US in 1940: “We are a very happy household here with your children fitted snugly into the big corner room... My one apprehension was that they night be very silent and then I wouldn’t be quite sure what to do about them, but they both chatter to us happily and make it possible to establish a quick give and take at once.”

Mead’s relationship with the girls, especially with Philomena, deepened. To their parents in 1941: “It’s a delight to us to get off a train and have two bright streaks of red tear down the long platform with open arms. One of the things I admire most is their easy happy affectionateness.”
To Philomena, back in England in 1946: “We weren’t very excited by your ‘good second,’ which means ofcourse [sic] that you are still vacillating as to whether to be an intellectual or not. The middle course is not satisfactory… If you don’t want to be an intellectual, have the courage of your convictions and don’t be one. We love you very much and we wish you were here to make life seem more complete.” (Eventually, Philomena returned to the US to study at Columbia University.)

Initially, the book’s organizational structure irritated me. The six chapters are organized thematically, around family, friends, husbands, and so on. The chronology starts over and over again with each new chapter, adding up to a bit of a Groundhog Day phenomenon in which the reader constantly re-experiences Mead’s younger years just after immersion in her older ones. Before long, though, I remembered Mary Catherine Bateson’s preface and gave in to the pleasures of discovering Mead through overlapping layers rather than strict time sequence. 

Through this volume of letters, Mead speaks to us as a loving person who cherished many different ways of being in the world, whether across the globe or within her own heart.

-- Barbara J. King enjoyed writing the words, “Anthropology matters.” She believes them.