A Classic of Anthropology

Ancient Society

by Lewis Morgan, edited by Leslie A. White
Harvard, 596 pp., $9.95

In this beautifully printed and superbly edited book one of the great classics of anthropological literature is for the first time given the kind of presentation it deserves. Its previous publication history is curious. In 1877 the author thought of it as no more than a “summary and conclusions” to the vast documentation of his Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family, issued in 1870 under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution. Ancient Society received favorable reviews from scholarly critics in America, but comment in England was rather cool, no doubt because the book included an appendix directly attacking the views of the respected English anthropologist, J. F. McLennan. Sales were slow, but among its early readers was Karl Marx, who resided at that time in London. Marx considered that Morgan’s speculations provided independent evidence for his own theories of social evolution and he made copious notes for a digest of Morgan’s work. These notes were posthumously worked up by Engels in The Origin of the Family, first published in German in Zurich (1884).

By this devious route Morgan’s Ancient Society became one of the canonical writings of Marxist orthodoxy. The English-language version was repeatedly re-issued by a socialist publisher in Chicago, each new impression being more illegible than the last. Morgan’s fame increased, but in American anthropological circles professional hostility to evolutionist doctrines became thoroughly confused with political prejudice and suspicion. Morgan’s defenders have always argued that he was treated unfairly by his critics. As early as 1891 Engels made the ludicrous suggestion that the English version had been systematically suppressed because of its dangerous political implications, and even in the present edition Professor Leslie White, who has made the vindication of Morgan his life work and who prints here a most judicious survey of Morgan’s work, still seems to believe that English support for McLennan, as against his hero, could only have arisen through unscholarly national prejudice; he ignores the fact that it was an Englishman, W. H. R. Rivers, who in 1907 first resuscitated Morgan from one period of anthropological, neglect. Indeed Morgan has always been more widely respected by English anthropologists than by their American colleagues. The modern un-prejudiced view is that on most of the issues around which Morgan and McLennan conducted their public debate both parties were equally at fault, but that even if there were some points where McLennan was right and Morgan wrong, Morgan now stands out as by far the more important figure. Yet the major contributions which he made were not those which Marx and Engels applauded, nor even. I think, those to which Professor White draws special attention.

But who was Morgan anyway, and why does he deserve our attention? Lewis Henry Morgan was born at Aurora, New York State, in 1818 and he spent most of his life in and around Rochester. While studying law in his early twenties he became interested in the Iroquois Indians who lived near his home. He came to understand the…

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