Sahlin Biography May 2023 Update

As most of my friends and colleagues already know, the project I will take during my sabbatical in the (boreal) fall of 2023 is a biography of Marshall Sahlins. I’ll begin in the summer and since that time is almost upon my, I wanted to write the first of what I hope will be several updates about the project.

I’m excited to be working on a project of this importance and size — whether you liked Sahlins or not, he was a major force in anthropology for a long time and his story is a lens to tell the story of anthropology after World War II more generally.

I’m also horned to have the support of many people and institutions. I undertook this research after Marshall’s son Peter approached me about it at the memorial conference in Sahlins’s honor on 4 April 2022. It’s an honor and also quite intimidating as Peter is himself a very distinguished historian who knows more about Marshall’s life than I do! I am also very lucky to be conducting this research with the support of the Wenner-Gren Foundation as well as a Bordin/Gillette Fellowship from the University of Michigan.

The research for the book will be mostly library based, and I plan on doing work in the libraries and archives of the universities Sahlins was associated with: Michigan, Chicago, and Columbia. In addition to working in Hawai‘i through most of the 1970s, Sahlins was also a visiting professor at Mānoa in the 1980-1981 school year, and I’ve done a bit of work on his time here. Our department secretary still has his syllabi on hand!

I also plan to interview people who knew Sahlins, so if I reach out to you soon, don’t be surprised!

Finally, this research will take me to Fiji, where I hope to do some research in the library and archives to improve my extremely basic understanding of that country. Then I’d like to go to Moala, Sahlins’s fieldwork site, to see what sort of relationship people there have with him, his memory and influence, and his book Moala.

The one place I cannot get to at the moment is Paris. Sahlins’s two years in France were central to his intellectual development, but at the moment I don’t have the funds to visit the city and do the sort of in-situ interviewing and library research work I’d like to do. Perhaps I’ll apply for some funding later. Or… if anyone wants to fly me out for a talk… let me know!

Finally, I want to be clear from the beginning that I do not intend this book to be a hagiography. Sahlins loved competition and found it boring to be worshipped. Also, I live in Hawai‘i, where I’ve listened to a lot of voices that are critical of his work. My goal in writing this book is to reveal the complexity of his life and to see it from a variety of angles. If I present him as only a great sage or only a grumpy, obsolete dinosaur, then I will have failed. How well I succeed in this task is something that will only become clear as I move forward with this project. More soon.