My review of Brown’s new history of SOAS is up

My review of Ian Brown’s “The School of Oriental and Asian Studies” is now open access and available to read at the History of Anthropology Newsletter website. It is a good book, but I didn’t find it very useful for understanding the role that SOAS’s department has played in the history of anthropology… probably because the author did not write the book just for me. So no surprise there. That’s fair. At any rate, I think it is probably the most deeply researched and longest book on the SOAS written to date, or at least that I am aware of, so Brown should be congratulated on this book. If you are interested in a closely written and research administrative history of SOAS this is the book for you.

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.

 

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)