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An Agreeable Man

In response to:

Under the Mosquito Net from the September 14, 1967 issue

To the Editors:

I enjoyed Clifford Geertz’s review of Malinowski’s Diary and Coral Gardens (NYR, September 14). Geertz very fairly conveys the effect of the Diary: however great an ethnologist Malinowski may have been he “was also apparently a disagreeable man.” Those who knew Malinowski will be grateful for the “apparently.” The Diary does, indeed, leave the impression of a difficult character, and there is no denying the fact that Malinowski could be disagreeable. But this would be to leave the reader with a very onesided view of the man as he really was.

From October 1922 to the end of the academic year 1925 I was a student of Malinowski at the London School of Economics, as were Raymond Firth and Evans-Pritchard. Malinowski was a magnificent teacher, and the influence he had on his students was immense. I learned what a teacher should be like from him, and I am to this day still mining ideas to which he first drew my attention. I continued to take seminars with Malinowski, on and off, till 1929. We corresponded and met intermittently till his untimely death in 1942. As student, friend, and colleague I knew Malinowski for some 20 years. Like most of us he had his faults. They were very human faults. I knew Malinowski as a heroic suffering humane being whose wife, to whom he was completely devoted, was dying of a disabling and incurable illness, while he himself hardly knew a day free from the illness which eventually killed him. I never heard him speak of his own illness, though it was quite evident to me that he suffered much. I never saw him in anything but the most lively spirits, with his ready wit and sense of humor always to the fore, bantering, teasing, joking, even when discussing the most serious matters. He was most generous, kind, and helpful to students, and put himself out to further their careers as I have known few other teachers to do. His prefaces to many of his students’ books will always remain a living testimony to his generous spirit. With a few of his old students he fell out. He accused them to me of being disloyal, disloyal in a way that hurt him. Temperament on both sides, I suspect, was involved.

Malinowski once asked me how long it took me in looking over an ethnological work to determine whether or not it was worth reading. I modestly replied, “About three minutes.” “Too long,” said Malinowski, “All I do is look in the index for my name. If it’s there I know it’s a good book. It it isn’t, then it’s no good.” This was in the early Thirties, and, of course, Malinowski was quite right. It was that sort of remark that earned him the dislike of the humorless. I am afraid theirs was the loss. Malinowski was as lovable as he was brilliant, and that is how I shall always remember him. His early Diary is not at all representative of the man as he really was.

Ashley Montagu

Princeton, New Jersey

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