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The Evolution of Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead: A Life

by Jane Howard
Simon and Schuster, 527 pp., $19.95

With a Daughter’s Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson

by Mary Catherine Bateson
Morrow, 242 pp., $15.95

Is anthropology an art or a science? Eighteenth-century anthropologists studied the physical differences between all the races of man in the spirit of Linnaeus, so linking their subject with biology. A century later, the focus of anthropology shifted to society. It became the avocation of British colonial officers and Indian civil servants, and was valued by the English for explaining why other people acted in such irrationally un-English ways, so making them easier to live with, and rule. Only in the present century has the subject moved nearer to home and given a central place to “culture”: as participant-observers, anthropologists by now study the culture of a high-energy accelerator laboratory or a leather bar as readily as they will that of the Ndembu. As a result, the subject is now more humanistic. Lévi-Strauss, for instance, treats cultural forms as texts for structural analysis, and Clifford Geertz presents ethnographic description as a high form of investigative reporting.

From the 1930s on, nobody in America thought harder about the aims of anthropology than Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. In addition, between 1936 and the late 1940s, Bateson and Mead were married, linked (World War II apart) in what Bateson called “professional endogamy.” Their collaboration is a lesson in how ideas and personalities meet, interact, and diverge; the two biographies under review throw very different kinds of light on their relations.

Jane Howard’s life of Margaret Mead is an outsider’s report. Not professionally trained in any of the fields that Mead worked in so vigorously, she has assembled the facts of Mead’s career, together with stories of the personal quirks that made “M.M.” lovable to some, insufferable to others. But she does not succeed in conveying the ideas and intellectual interests that were the main preoccupation of Mead’s life. She never met Mead, and her picture of her is assembled from the testimony of other people, so she speaks mainly about her public activities—always energetic, sometimes ruthless—while speculating about her emotional life from the sidelines.

Mary Catherine Bateson’s memoir is stronger intellectually, since the author worked as a colleague of both her parents, and more convincing about Mead’s personal qualities. She puts in proportion the issues about Margaret Mead’s private life that Howard’s book leaves hanging for the reader’s imagination, for example her amitié amoureuse with Ruth Benedict. So we come to see the turbulence of Mead’s emotional attachments as one feature of a much larger portrait.

No doubt we should expect Mead’s daughter to have a clearer sense of her mother than Jane Howard could have. But Howard’s emphasis on the aggressive, tyrannical aspects of Mead’s personal and professional life, and on the problems and pains of her three marriages, is reminiscent of People magazine. And too often her prose, with its many barbarisms (“Viceroy Lord George Curzon,” etc.) and its accumulation of irrelevant detail, recalls the reporting in Time. Being told that the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea used to be called the “Kaisereine Auguste Fleuve,” or that Mead’s second husband’s family lived in a New Zealand town whose name meant “scrapings of an oven” does not enrich our picture of Mead’s life and mind; it only distracts.

Jane Howard’s book is based on interviews with some three hundred of Margaret Mead’s friends and colleagues. Their testimony, however, while often revealing, reaches us only in scraps after being taken to bits and reassembled in a way that destroys much of their firsthand character. Since Howard apparently had much rich raw material, one might wish that she had followed the example of Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s Edie, where the letters and reports of those who knew Edie Sedgwick in person “spoke for themselves.” Mary Catherine Bateson’s firsthand memoir of Mead and Bateson successfully provides such an account. Her book is a close-up view by one who observed Mead in many different moods and activities. It gives a picture of a woman whose ideas, ideals, loves, hates, ambitions, and fears were all of a piece. The picture is, of course, a partial one, in both senses of that word; but we can happily overlook the imbalance, since the portrait itself is free of resentment, and carries conviction as no outsider’s account could do.

Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead were striking and dominating people in very different ways. At heart, Bateson was always a theoretical scientist. His strong physical presence—his great height and eagle profile—and the blend of intellectual confidence and personal diffidence that he inherited from the Cambridge tradition of natural science (his father, William Bateson, was a founder of modern genetics) gave him the personal and intellectual power to move in quietly on virtually any debate and reshape it according to his own perspective. With his biological background, he was fully aware of current scientific orthodoxy, but he treated it as a theme on which to compose personal variations, and these, while sometimes eccentric, illuminated whatever they touched.

By contrast, Margaret Mead was both a practitioner and a prophet. She always gave the impression of having immense energy and determination. In later years, her short stature, bustling manner, and organizing temperament made her resemble Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. For her, the study of culture was intellectually self-contained but morally open-ended. She was trained in academic anthropology by Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict, but she soon found a more hortatory public voice than theirs. The intellectual task she absorbed from her teachers was to show how the elements of any contemporary culture form “patterns,” which meant setting aside outside factors arising from biology or history, and concentrating on the internal links within the culture. But as both authors see, the deeper purpose of Mead’s work was moral: her mission was to put her knowledge “at the service of humankind.” 1 From the start, as Howard writes, “she took pains to connect what she had seen abroad with what she found at home in America.”2 By diagnosing, and prescribing for, cultural failings which few of her fellow countrymen yet recognized—still less complained about—she placed herself within a longstanding tradition of American writing, that of self-improvement.

Mead’s eye for cross-cultural connections was a source of her early celebrity. On her first field trip she studied the sex lives of adolescent girls on a Pacific island, and her book, Coming of Age in Samoa, published in 1928, became a classic of twentieth-century American sexual enlightenment, a book that was set alongside the works of Freud and Havelock Ellis. It was well timed. Its descriptions of the sexual development of Samoan girls responded to dreams of Arcadian simplicity and “getting away from it all,” and it helped to give those who were moving away from sexual prudishness and prurience, and toward greater freedom, the courage of their beliefs. Both factors helped to make Margaret Mead popular with the press. She was soon in a position in which her comments on public issues of sexual and family morality were sought after.

She relished this fame, and made the most of it but, her reputation as a champion of sexual liberation and candor was misleading. Despite her outspoken opinions and matrimonial misadventures—she was not yet thirty-five when she married Bateson, her third husband, in March 1936—her concern with social and personal problems went far beyond sexual morals. Her approach was, also, serious and responsible. She never accepted the shallow and complacent relativism that uses cultural diversity as an excuse to “do your own thing.” Instead, she saw it as a challenge, which requires us to ask how other peoples’ ways of life reflect on the worth of our own. Catherine Bateson quotes a characteristic passage from a draft manuscript of 1972, in which she wrote that “enjoined active sexuality may be as stressful as enjoined chastity,” and recommended “a willingness to let children and young people develop as slowly as they wished.”3

The public might see Mead as a preacher of permissiveness, but her colleagues knew her as a critic of thoughtless conformity wherever it existed. After Mary Catherine Bateson was born, Mead, who worked with Benjamin Spock when he was a young pediatrician, convinced him of the virtues of “feeding on demand”; and Catherine grew up not just in the middle of a continuing seminar on social theory, but in a household where practice was experimental, and nothing was ever done just because it was the conventionally done thing.

Mead and Bateson did not confine their work to constructing theories: if they were to be effective they had to work with practical details. Nor were large political and ideological schemes to their taste. Like William Blake, they believed that “He who would do good to another, must do it in Minute Particulars / General Good is the plea of the scoundrel hypocrite & flatterer.”4 True, Bateson was, as his daughter writes, “generally skeptical about doing good at all,” especially by political means. But Mead’s “combination of boundless energy and activist temperament” drove her, as time went on, into one effort at social improvement after another and carried her ever further away from the purely academic side of anthropology. She spoke in May 1941 at the opening meeting of a new Society for Applied Anthropology at Harvard; in fact, she had been treating anthropology as an “applied science” all along.

Given this temperament, Mead came fully into her own only during World War II, when she was invited to run the Committee on Food Habits of the National Research Council in Washington, DC. She leaped at the chance,and used it to pursue a dozen other activities and campaigns. This was the formal start of a second career, in public service, through councils and committees, and it continued with no less vigor after 1945. Subjects as varied as famine, mental health, disarmament, and the reform of the Episcopal liturgy could preoccupy her as much as issues of child rearing and family life. She was prominent in the “parallel government” of experts and intellectuals that did much constructive work in public service, both in the United States and internationally for the first twenty-five years after World War II. She remarked that her collaborators “realized that the older sciences of history, political science and economics needed to be supplemented by the newer disciplines of anthropology, sociology, psychology and psychiatry.”5

These were social scientists who had a constructive vision of the ways in which their studies could help in solving political and social problems. Rather than see social issues reduced to the technical pseudo-clarity of an “exact discipline,” like monetarist economics, or to Machiavellian calculation, they insisted that policy makers should view economic, social, and political issues in the light of their qualitative and comparative implications. It did no good to discuss Central American problems (say) as only a matter of global confrontation: it was essential to take account, also, of the cultural individuality of the Salvadoran Indians, the social traditions of the indigenous Amazonians, or the impact of Western technology on farming practices in the Andean altiplano. Margaret Mead reminds us just how reactionary the contemporary neoconservatives really are. A State Department whose policy-planning staff knows something about the ideas of Leo Strauss but does not understand Russian, let alone appreciate the cultural diversity of the peoples whose lives are affected by its plans, deserves a contemporary Margaret Mead to castigate its parochialism.

  1. 1

    Mary Catherine Bateson, p. 139.

  2. 2

    Jane Howard, p. 179.

  3. 3

    Bateson, p. 90.

  4. 4

    Bateson, p. 95, quoting William Blake, Jerusalem, chapter 3, plate 55, 11. 60–61.

  5. 5

    Quoted in Howard, p. 222.

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