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

Margaret Mead
Margaret Mead; drawing by David Levine

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…

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