The Lévi-Strauss Boas Death Story

Part of the oral tradition of anthropology is that Boas died in Lévi-Strauss’s arms when Lévi-Strauss was in New York, having fled the Nazi takeover of France. There are several versions of this story: that Boas died giving a speech on racial issues, or (my favorite) that Boas’s last words were “I have a new theory of race!” But where does this story really come from? While preparing a lecture on Boas I came across the answer — the journal Études/Inuit/StudiesThe English translation of the story goes like this:

“The incident I have just related [eating dinner at Boas’s home] took place a few weeks before he died. Since I witnessed this directly, perhaps the time has come for me to describe its circumstances which will remain engraved on my memory forever. Boas was host at a luncheon at the Columbia University Faculty Club in honour of Paul Rivet, then a refugee in Columbia, who was passing through New York on a mission for General de Gaulle. I was invited along with a few other people, including Mrs. Yampolski, Boas’ daughter, Ruth Benedict, Gladys Reichard and Ralph Linton. It was December 21, 1942. The city was in the grip of a bitter cold spell and Boas arrived from Grantwood wearing an astonishing faded fur hat that must have dated back to his travels among the Eskimos. The meal began gaily; you could tell that Boas was happy to see an old friend again and to be surrounded by former students, some of whom had followed in his footsteps. The conversation was going along at a good pace when suddenly, in mid-sentence, Boas jerked violently backwards, as under the effect of an electric shock, and fell over, taking his chair with him. I was sitting next to him and hurried to help him up, but he remained motionless. Rivet, who had been an army medical officer, tried in vain to revive him; he was only able to pronounce him dead. Boas’ son Ernst, a professor at Columbia, arrived a little later. Leaving Mrs. Yampolski and him to their sorrow, we withdrew in silence, grief-stricken at the loss of the greatest ethnologist of all time.”

I think I’ve read this story elsewhere — perhaps in View From Afar? — but since I ran into it here I thought I’d post it just to confirm that the story is in fact well grounded. Lévi-Strauss was never one to turn down the opportunity to seize the mantle of past giants. For instance, he was hardly a confidante of Marcel Mauss, but he did his best to paint himself as the true inheritor of Mauss’s brand of ethnology. This story subtly reinforces the sense that Lévi-Strauss walked among giants, and hence was one himself.


My review of Victoria Stead’s “Becoming Landowners” is on available open access

I’m happy to say that my review of Victoria Stead’s Becoming Landowners is on available, open access, on the Pacific Affairs website. The sum of the article is: Setting aside my personal fondness for Tori — who is one of the most intellectually alive people I know — I think I can say with impartiality that the book is very good. There were some drawbacks for me: I personally would have preferred that it focus just on PNG, just because I’m a PNG chauvinist. I also think some readers might miscrecognize Stead’s distinction between ‘custom’ and ‘modernity’ as romantic or exorcizing. But this is definitely not the case if you read the book carefully. The book has many more strengths than weaknesses, and I especially appreciated her willingness to point out how often Papua New Guineans get the short end of the stick when it comes to resource development and industry. There is a cynical strand in the PNG literature which she is fighting against — which I probably give in to too often! — and I am really glad that she keeps us honest in this account. Overall, it’s a good book and I hope UH publishes it in a less-expensive and more accessible form.

The Golub Horizon

I’m coining a new term: The Golub Horizon. It’s the amount you have to read in order to realize that the ideas in a book aren’t new. It’s not a measure of quality, just a measure of the erudition and historical consciousness, the amount of learning required of the reader to recognize the fact that one piece of writing is, at some level, old wine in new bottles or a reinvention of the wheel. For instance, Anna Tsing’s Friction is a fine book, but it also has a very low GH: Anyone who remembers historical anthropology of the 1980 and 90s will recognize the idea that ideas move unpredictably from context to context, or that working misunderstandings collaborate cross-cultural interaction. Mario Blaser’s 2009 “The Threat of Yrmo” also has a low GH, in that it just reminds us that different people see the world differently because of their culture, and this matters in political contests. It’s also an excellent article, I don’t mean to rubbish it by any means. I just think its message is something people need to hear in every generation… and have!

Gender of the Gift is very high GH. It’s a genre-defying masterpiece. At some level all books are ultimately a meditation on the human condition, since at some level the GH is inescapable. I think of Islands of History has high GH, but of course philosophers and poets have long mused on the fact that everything sort of changes but also sort of stays the same.

As a middle aged professor, I know many people (including myself!) who at time get angry or frustrated when low-GH work becomes popular. Why take Friction seriously when you could read Islands of History? What is the point of using the term ‘ontology’ if it literally just means ‘cosmology’? But we are wrong to experience the popularity of these works as a narcissistic wound. We need to get over ourselves. In fact, people are agreeing with our understanding of the world by embracing these works. If they use slightly different language to do so, then that shouldn’t really bother us. In fact, it means with just a few simple find and replace operations on our work, we can ensure our continuing relevance by submitting our ‘new’ pieces on the political ontology of global friction to journals again… for the very first time!

“The Jews of Hawai‘i” at the East-West Center

I am bad at publicising myself. On 15 July 2018 I gave at talk at the East West Center Art Gallery on the history of the Jewish community of Hawai‘i. There is a recording of it here. I want to correct one error in the talk: The first rabbi born in Hawai‘i, afaik, is Natan Margalit.  Eventually I’m going to turn this talk into a publication of some sort… in my Copious Free Time.

Edit: You can watch the talk on Vimeo (27 Aug 2018)

Some history of anthropology titles I want to read

The summer is winding up and the list of books I’d like to read during my Copious Free Time is growing. I want to highlight them here, just so I don’t forget about them, and to let people know they’ve been published (or soon will be), since they all look to be very good.

  • In The Field: Life and Work in Cultural Anthropology by George and Sharon “Baseball Magic” Gmelch will probably offer insight into the habits and lifetimes of baby boomer anthropologists like the Gmlechs. Given their past work I’m sure this will be readable and richly ethnographic.
  • Pioneers of the Field: South Africa’s Women Anthropologists by Andrew Bank offers us chapters on Monica Wilson, Ellen Hellmann, Audrey Richards, Hilda Kuper, Winifred Hoernlé, and Eileen Krige. I think I’ve read something of Bank’s before. His subjects are certainly worth the candle — remarkable women all, with remarkable stories to boot. I’m particularly interested in Audrey Richards, and enjoyed The Fires Beneath, the recent-ish bio of Monica Wilson
  • My Butch Career: A Memoir by Esther Newton. My god is it ever not a good time to read Esther Newton? Newton’s previous autobiographical writings are fantastic, and I’m sure this will be hilarious and insightful as well.

That’s it for now… not sure I will actually get to too many of these, as I’m struggling to finish up Margaret Bruchac’s excellent Savage Kin but am already running into other obligations, and finding time to squeeze in pleasure reading is always a challenge. But a pleasure is precisely what I expect these readings to be.

(Update: I almost forgot to mention My Life As A Spy by Katherine Verdery! – AG 9 Aug 18)