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On “Coming of Age”: Margaret Mead’s Correspondence and the Biographical Problem


By Megan Tusler: With the publication of Coming of Age in Samoa, Margaret Mead delivered to her viewers in 1928 a readable imaginative and prescient of adolescent sexuality derived from 9 months of fieldwork on the island of Ta’u.

The work begins, “The lifetime of the day begins at daybreak, or if the moon has proven till daylight, the shouts of the younger males could also be heard earlier than daybreak from the hillside. Uneasy within the night time, populous with ghosts, they shout lustily to at least one one other as they hasten with their work.” Mead opens her work with a twist: she describes the lads of Ta’u hastening to their work, however what she’s actually describing is a Morning After state of affairs, a Stroll of No Disgrace, as a result of these males are coming back from al fresco sexual adventures of the night time earlier than: “Because the daybreak begins to fall among the many smooth brown roofs and the slender palm timber stand out towards a colorless, gleaming sea, lovers slip residence from trysts beneath the palm timber or within the shadow of beached canoes.” Her titillating look into the night habits of her Indigenous topics offers the fabric for her first ethnography, written for a basic reader, that detailed the sexual habits of adolescent women in Samoa. She hoped, on this work, to show that the inflexible sexual strictures of American society weren’t “pure” or proper — and that they might be overcome to the betterment of society extra usually.

It virtually definitely goes with out saying that Mead’s work has been plagued with criticism since its publication. One spectacular instance is the so-called Mead-Freeman controversy, through which anthropologist Derek Freeman refuted Mead’s findings by retrying them within the courtroom of the tradition wars, arguing that she had been “hoaxed” by her Samoan informants who had been solely too completely happy to play up the life imagined by their customer. These claims have been put to relaxation, a minimum of to a point, by works like Paul Shankman’s The Trashing of Margaret Mead (2009), which argued that the assault on Mead’s work was extremely private and itself indebted to settling an ideological rating, as Freeman insisted on a sociobiological strategy to anthropology to the exclusion of issues of social surroundings. There’s additionally a frothy right-wing dismissal of the “social development” argument that has discovered its option to Mead’s work, as some researchers in fields like evolutionary psychology contest the very concept that developmental levels like adolescence are affected by setting in any respect; this, regardless of the various comparative research which have demonstrated the various vary of adolescent expertise throughout each time and area.

Deborah Beatriz Blum’s new biography, Coming of Age: The Sexual Awakening of Margaret Mead, is primarily involved with offering a story for understanding how Mead’s pursuits, friendships, and mental coaching led to Coming of Age in Samoa. In Blum’s account, Mead’s early 20s as a pioneer, provocateuse, and sexually liberated mental powerhouse formed the well-known anthropologist in ways in which would exert super affect on the social sciences because the century lurched ahead. Coming of Age focuses totally on the interval of Mead’s instructional life within the social and cultural ferment of the 1920s, main as much as her fieldwork in Samoa. The characterization of Mead and her cohort depends virtually solely on Blum’s archival mining: she reads Mead’s letters, in addition to these by fellow anthropologist (and Mead’s lover) Ruth Benedict, anthropologist-linguist (and Mead’s lover) Edward Sapir, and archaeologist (and Mead’s first husband) Luther Cressman in an effort to define the social circle that influenced Mead’s strategies and findings in Samoa.

Blum’s ebook is an train in historic dramatization. The first characters flow into by way of romantic entanglements that come up from the plot of Mead’s early profession, the letters among the many 4 leads serving as gossipy paperwork animating their lives. The tactic makes for accessible studying — with the letters reimagined into novelistic scenes, the ebook retains a brisk tempo. However it additionally makes it troublesome for the writer to critically consider Mead and her colleagues, primarily as a result of the e-book unfurls its narrative virtually solely from inside the minds of its topics. Mead’s interiority dominates right here, even with the inclusion of the three different voices, and the view from inside her thoughts induces a troubling biographical tunnel imaginative and prescient.

This marks an unlucky facet of Blum’s biography as a result of, whereas the less-convincing criticisms of Mead limned above have maybe unfairly pilloried her work, there are reliable critiques that her biographer may need taken up. Amongst these are questions on whether or not “objectivity” is even potential in ethnographic strategies. Regardless of her avowed curiosity in plumbing Mead’s archive, Blum refrains from considering reflexively about methodology, hers or Mead’s. By doing so, she neglects to interact with the essential shifts in ethnographic strategies because the 1990s which have allowed the social sciences to denaturalize the connection between Goal Researcher and Primitive Topic in qualitative analysis, a change that essentially displays critically on Mead’s approaches. Blum’s methodology additionally exhibits its weaknesses in its nonreflexive stance; by taking letters because the gold normal for a person’s historic significance, Blum dangers positioning the topic as an goal professional on herself.

Additional, Blum’s remedy of each Mead and her pal and lover Ruth Benedict remind the reader of the extent to which feminism’s first wave is characterised by a political ideology that elevates liberal, individuated private sovereignty above a standard good (versus the collectivist imaginative and prescient of the early socialist feminisms articulated by Emma Goldman and different leftists). As Louise Michele Newman argues in White Ladies’s Rights (1999), Mead’s work “helped foster a liberal feminist critique of U.S. society, which attacked patriarchy for putting restrictions on ladies’s expression of sexuality and conceptualized a ‘free’ society as one which permitted ladies ‘selection’ in how they lived their sexual lives.” In different phrases, Mead’s achievement may be reframed as permitting white ladies, to the exclusion of their “primitive” counterparts, to think about and entry a sexually liberated future. Blum takes Mead’s sexual exploits — which do look like plenty of enjoyable, but in addition don’t liberate anybody besides Mead herself from Protestant social strictures — as a gesture of prescient radicalism towards a sexual revolution as an alternative of what they’re: a 23-year-old lady banging all her buddies.

A methodological critique of Mead (and of early Western-liberal feminism extra usually) facilities on the diploma to which the ethnographic researcher can contemplate herself “goal” in any sense. It additionally rethinks how analysis on the “primitive” International South may take Indigenous practices and methods of understanding out of context, and describes how these strategies might underappreciate the diploma to any given society is hybridized. Mead is specific that this work is qualitative, based mostly on interviews, and specific to Samoa. However in Blum’s guide, early anthropologists’ obsession with “proudly owning” teams of individuals isn’t given essential reflection, and that is, at the very least partially, an issue of each Blum’s technique — her overreliance on letters as traditionally and personally factual — and the style of biography through which she operates. Describing Mead’s first speak on the British Affiliation for the Development of Science in 1924, Blum recounts the younger researcher’s response to the luminaries within the room:

She was desperate to see, together with her personal eyes, the lads who have been thought-about probably the most famend anthropologists on the earth: A. C. Haddon, an professional on the cultures of Melanesia and the writer of Head-hunters: Black, White and Brown; and Charles Seligman, the Africa scholar, who used his information of physiology to determine the Bushmen, Pygmies, Negroids, and Hamites, the 4 distinct races that inhabited the African continent.


Increasingly more, it was sinking in that every one in every of these anthropologists had a “individuals.” Margaret, too, needed to have a individuals on whom she might base her personal mental life.

The shape that Blum’s e-book takes in such moments demonstrates the potential failure of a incautious archival evaluation, and of a biographer who too simply accepts Mead’s model of herself, maybe the hazard of embedding oneself within the correspondence of such a charismatic historic determine. Drawn from Races of Africa(1930), Seligman’s racial phyla described above are hierarchical and emphasize the “Hamitic speculation,” which asserts that the key African civilizations are based by the “Hamites” as an alternative of arising from “Negroid” peoples. The substitution right here is marked by an imperialist agenda that seems extra coded to us immediately; early 20th-century readers would have understood “Hamite” to imply “extra white” than different African teams. Such racial classes and hierarchies have been crucially essential to early anthropology as each methodology and object of inquiry, and Mead was very a lot indebted to a practice that invented new genres of racialization. Writing uncritically in Mead’s voice, Blum doesn’t mirror on the appalling results of separating, for instance, the “African races” or of concurrently rewriting historical past to low cost the contributions to civilization of teams thought-about “black” by early 20th-century readers.

That omission has significance for the feminist politics of Mead’s work, in addition to Blum’s biography as a result of these genres of racialization, which have demanded continuous renewal at a structural and sociopolitical degree throughout the centuries, emerge within the peculiar sentimentalism of early 20th-century feminist works that typically advance the bigger imperialist trigger. As Laura Wexler recounts in Tender Violence (2000), the work of girls photographers, journalists, and anthropologists helped to erase “the violence of colonial encounters within the very act of portraying them.” These portrayals sentimentalized and romanticized their topics as a way to erase the violence of the imperial undertaking. The dominance of this strategy may be seen in Mead’s romanticization of her topics and in her perception that their instance may liberate constructions of sexuality for white feminists.

It is very important observe that this sentimentalism and the diploma to which it was decided by the ethnographic style by which she selected to work has historic specificity. Because of this, it’s troublesome to learn Mead as a singular historic determine and even because the trailblazer that Blum fashions for the reader. That Mead believed she might consider human topics with out inflicting any results in any respect is a startling declare now rightly seen to be breathtakingly naïve. The apply of area analysis that Mead undertook in Samoa contributed to a self-discipline answerable for recordings of Indigenous languages which were essential to the language revitalization efforts occurring now. The wax cylinder recordings made by anthropologists and housed on the Nationwide Museum of the American Indian contribute to the continued renewal of languages like Menominee and Omaha. However the anthropological subject has needed to mirror on its origins, notably after a collection of controversies over whether or not its strategies had negatively impacted “primitive” teams that it studied.

If Mead thought that she might carry out analysis with out impacting the teams that she studied, Blum’s studying of Mead’s letters signifies that she additionally thought she might make her method by means of any social surroundings with out negatively impacting it. At such moments, Blum’s studying makes Mead appear remarkably callous, insensitive to her pal and lover Ruth Benedict in addition to to her first husband Luther Cressman. Blum unknowingly illustrates this halfway by means of the e-book, when she recreates a scene between Edward Sapir and Benedict. Sapir is the primary speaker.

“Margaret and I are lovers,” he stated. “Little question she is going to inform you. She tells you the whole lot.” […]

When Ruth nonetheless didn’t say something, Edward stated, “I don’t perceive, although. Simply what’s her relationship with Luther [Cressman]?”

“Luther?” Ruth paused. “She loves Luther.”

“With you I might be completely frank,” Edward stated. “I don’t consider within the love of Luther and Margaret, nor do I feel that the majority observers who know them sincerely consider in it.”

However “Margaret” does consider in it, and strings Sapir alongside till his attentions grow to be too intense for her. In Blum’s archival creativeness, Benedict is devastated by Sapir’s revelation:

Edward’s speak of creating like to Margaret was insufferable […] Not that way back she — Ruth — had liked Edward, needed him for herself. Margaret knew that. However that’s not what harm. What harm was that Edward had skilled the erotic aspect of Margaret that she, Ruth, had solely fantasized about, and these days, at night time, these fantasies had come unbidden.

Within the logic of the biography, these are Mead’s lovers’ responses to an adventurous lady, a sexual revolutionary. It’s no marvel that the e-book’s subtitle is “The Sexual Awakening of Margaret Mead,” though this might use the addendum, “on the expense of almost everybody she knew,” or “by way of deciphering Indigenous sexual practices as she favored.” Mead so clearly discovered herself to be dwelling probably the most adventurous life that she may think.

This attachment to Mead as a “radical” topic is part of the cult of character she developed round herself. She additionally strongly advocated a notion of individualist liberal politics that allowed her to be insignificant, and even powerless, when she needed to be. Talking at a particular occasion with James Baldwin in 1970 (the dialog is transcribed in A Rap on Race) the 2 argue over the person’s “duty” within the context of social occasions:

MEAD: Did you bomb these little women in Birmingham?

BALDWIN: I’m answerable for it. I didn’t cease it.

MEAD: Why are you accountable? Didn’t you attempt to cease it? Hadn’t you been working?

BALDWIN: It doesn’t make any distinction what one’s tried.

MEAD: In fact it makes a distinction what one’s tried.

BALDWIN: No, not likely.

MEAD: That is the elemental distinction. You’re speaking like a member of the Russian Orthodox Church … “We’re all responsible. As a result of some man suffers, we’re all murderers.”

BALDWIN: No, no, no. We’re all accountable.

MEAD: Look, you aren’t accountable.

Mead prioritizes making the person insignificant in a scene just like the South Seas, the place she seeks to “reduce” her personal presence. Disputing Baldwin, she lauds the sentiment of particular person exception whereby an individual might be harmless of the actions of her society. A person agent might be distinctive for Mead, however she can be intentionally invisible, as small or as vital as she chooses.

Coming of Age: the Sexual Awakening of Margaret Mead thus leaves us with quite a lot of issues concerning the standing of the person historic determine, the contested historical past of anthropology, and the style of biography. On one hand, consistent with the tendencies of its type, the biographical illustration of Margaret Mead depends, essentially, on the singularity and virtuosity of its topic. Blum underserves Mead in producing a topic that feels individuated, particular, uniquely brave, and genius. Mead’s conduct, analysis, and work all have a historic context — Blum, for instance, makes a lot of Mead’s retaining her household identify upon her marriage to Luther Cressman in 1923. However the Lucy Stone League, which advocated ladies maintaining their final names at marriage, had been based in New York in 1921 and, whereas ladies not often used their household identify after marriage within the 20s, there was a cultural precedent for it. Various different well-known ladies — Anita Loos, Isadora Duncan, Edna St. Vincent Millay — had accomplished it as nicely. Mead, once more, isn’t a singular determine, she’s a historic one — however Coming of Age needs solely historic sprinklings devoid of the richness of full historic context. The person emerges as the first object of a historic inquiry somewhat than as an actor on a a lot bigger stage, a bent solely exacerbated by learning somebody who prioritized the person as the first unit of liberation.


Megan Tusler acquired her PhD in English from the College of Chicago in 2016, the place she labored on American literature, comparative ethnic research, images and literature, and significant concept.


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