The Defender of Differences

Franz Boas posing in Inuit garments
American Philosophical Society
Franz Boas posing in Inuit garments, 1885

Franz Boas fought his first duel in 1877, when he was nineteen. He was freshly arrived at the University of Heidelberg, where saber fencing over slights, known as Mensur, was ingrained in undergraduate culture. And the slight in question was, indeed, slight: Boas shared the rental payments on his piano with a classmate, who banged away for hours at a time. The students downstairs protested, Boas took offense. Words were exchanged, satisfaction demanded. Three weeks later, he and another student drew swords. The Mensur had its rules and conventions, which involved a stopwatch, a surgeon, an umpire, and, for the combatants, goggles and padded garments. You saved face by slashing at another’s.

“A piece four cm. long and one and one-half cm. wide was cut out of my scalp but I gave my opponent three cuts from ear to nose that required eight stitches,” Boas wrote to a friend, with a precision that presaged the anthropometric skills he would soon acquire. In the course of his college years, which brought him from Heidelberg to Bonn and then to Kiel, more duels ensued; every time he came home on vacation, his family noticed, he bore new scars. When the sculptor Jacob Epstein, visiting New York in 1927, went to work on a bust of Boas, he found his visage to be “scarred and criss-crossed with mementos of the many duels of his student days…but what was still left whole in his face was as spirited as a fighting cock.”

Boas was, by then, renowned as the father of American cultural anthropology and the scholar who taught generations how to think about human diversity without hierarchy. “Culture” was once regarded as something that one group might have more of than another. Boas and his students demonstrated how to use the word in the plural: different peoples had different cultures, and while the idiosyncrasies of a foreign culture were patent to us, we’d do well to recognize the arbitrary aspects of our own. For Boas, the contingencies of culture were written on his face. When, two decades after his dueling days, he detailed the techniques of face painting among Indian villagers in British Columbia, he must have been conscious that his own features bore the marks of similarly community-bound customs.

Perhaps his keen sense of these contingencies was bolstered, too, by the fact that his family was (in a manner) engaged in the fashion business. He grew up in Minden, Westphalia, where his father, having inherited a country store, came to specialize in lace, finery, and upscale merchandise, importing and exporting them in partnership with a brother-in-law based in Lower Manhattan. Rosemary Lévy Zumwalt’s Franz Boas: The Emergence of the Anthropologist, which follows her subject to 1906 (a sequel is to take him to his…

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