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Margaret Mead: a life.

"Fiddlesticks! Rubbish! Nonsense!" the grandmotherly woman in the scarlet cape proclaimed as she banged her forked walking stick, punctuating her presence and her ideas. "I'm so exhausted," she also once said. "If only I could give a lecture." Margaret Mead's public life was, as these quotations attest, colorful, courageous and adventurous; her research was original and controversial. Her private life--three marriages, three divorces, one child and countless friends both eminent and obscure--added to the mystique that surrounded her, as did the fact that by the time she was 40 she was already a legend.

How did a woman in what was then the relatively unknown discipline of anthropology become so famous? What sort of person unabashedly sought the public arena to further her reputation and that of her profession? What inspired this woman, whose bibliography includes thirty-nine books, 1,397 articles and forty-three records, tapes, films and videotapes? Equally intriguing are questions about her private life. Was she, as her biographer says, able to "shift gears as often as she did, personally and professionally, without destroying her transmission"? Could she really have switched husbands with as much grace as she herself described in Blackberry Winter, her autobiography covering the years until just after World War II?

Those are some of the questions Jane Howard poses in Margaret Mead: A Life, as she follows the emergence, development and decline of Mead's professional, public and private worlds. Not satisfied with the wealth of materials available in the public domain (more than a half-million documents were filed with the Library of Congress after Margaret Mead's death; others will become available in the year 1999), Howard interviewed more than 300 people, including Mead's two living ex-husbands, Gregory Bateson and Luther Cressman (her second husband, Reo Fortune, died in 1979), as well as her relatives, friends, associates and students. The result is an intimate rendering of a life surely as idiosyncratic and true to its internal laws as that of any exotic tribe Margaret Mead visited. Although not an anthropologist, Howard ably outlines the development of Mead's ideas and gives credit to the influence of her many mentors and colleagues.

But who was Margaret Mead? Howard makes a valiant attempt at reassembling the person for us, but no one, not even Mead's daughter, Mary Caterine Bateson, claims to have known more than a small part of the woman. A close companion explains: "Hers was the most complex life imaginable. She had so many fingers in so many pies, and was behind the scenes on so many levels." Her professional activities alone were staggering. A condensed list of them, not necessarily concurrent, goes something like this: lecturing at Columbia University (where she was perhaps too liberal in handing out A's); supervising graduate students; giving countless guest lectures throughout the world; being a curator at the American Museum of Natural History; serving as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; attending numerous professional meetings; acting as a consultant for the United Nations, the World Council of Churches, Planned Parenthood, the Menninger Foundation and the Merrill-Palmer Institute. As an authority on rites of passage, she was even a consultant on sections dealing with baptism and confirmation for a revision of the Book of Common Prayer. Between times she managed to make fourteen field trips.

Perhaps it was Mead's fiercely cultivated public presence that set her apart from her more retiring colleagues. Her public debut came with the publication of Coming of Age in Samoa in 1928. The book's succes was as spectacular as it was unexpected. And it was so because there she confronted a subject few could be blase about. That style of confrontation and controversy was to become something of a trademark with her. In Samoan youth she saw a striking contrast to the crisis and turmoil typical of Western adolescence. Characteristically, she was not reluctant to draw a broad inference: she proposed that there was little in our biological nature that culture could not bend to its own image, not even the trauma of adolescence. a similar theme appeared in her Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, where she described sex roles and gender identity as varying so dramatically among three "primitive" cultures that the smugness of our own beliefs about the biological imperatives of maleness and femaleness was completely undermined. And this in 1935!

Dedicated to bringing the cross-cultural perspective to bear on every aspect of American life, Mead hoped to impress policy-makers with the importance of appreciating human diversity and cultural differences. As she became less and less concerned with extending her scientific inquiry, the desire to persuade people outside her field of the importance her views grew apace. To this end, Mead made frequent appearances on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show and wrote a monthly column for Redbook. She used television to bring the idea of cultural relativism out of the classroom and into people's living rooms. With time, her scope of activity and concern widened: she defended young people, marched beside them during the tumultuous 1960s and propounded liberal views on divorce, marriage, population control, racism, marijuana; she also persistently warned people to heed the impact of technology on their lives. She soon became, in Rollo May's words, "a self-appointed queen, at whose feet young people would sit with great admiration." As time went on, she became a messenger, then a prophet. The public soon sought her as much as, if not more than, she sought them.

Surely some of her enthusiasm for public forums was born of her insatiable need to be near other people. "I never had enough companionship," she explained about her youth. She craved contact and loved being involved in people's lives, but she didn't let anyone come too close; she was always eager to move on. When friends asked why she never stopped to relax, she answered, "I can't stop." Yet despite her ever-increasing circle of friends (her Christmas card list included well over 500 names), there was another side. One of her friends described her as being "pervaded by deep loneliness, and although she never admitted it, she was very vulnerable too. She . . . gave generously . . . but she rarely sought sought support." Her unremitting need to work, to produce and to be in the center of things prompted Barbara Walters to describe her as "the most independent woman in the world" (just moments after the two women confided in each other some of the difficulties and lonelinesses of their lives).

Not everyone loved and admired Margaret Mead, and she certainly had her share of disappointments. She did not win a Nobel Peace Prize; she was not elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences until very near the end of her life; she was not offered a full professorship at Columbia until 1958 (she declined it); many of her colleagues thought her fraudulent, criticized her for being a popularizer, for moving too easily from the particular to the universal and for having little or no data on the array of contemporary issues she readily discussed. They criticized her for being outrageous, which she frequently was.

Moreover, she was difficult. People who worked with her were known to break down in tears. A patron to many, she encouraged professionalism and self-esteem, but she could also be overbearing, cantankerous, egotistical, argumentative and explosive. And when she was threatened, according to Asen Balikci, the distinguished filmmaker and ethnographer of the Easkimo, "She could be ruthless [with men] . . . if she disliked them and disagreed with them, she could devour them on sight--she didn't want any other big animals coming close." Howard describes Mead's having been so angry at a graduate student that she "told him that if he did not retract his reply to what she had written, she would 'knock your block off and ruin your career.'"

Even as an anthropologist, she was atypical. Few before or since have encompassed so many cultures in their studies and have been so uninterested in collecting art and artifacts from the field. Few have so staunchly upheld the hierarchical relationship between the native community and the anthropologist. In the field, she once advised a student, "You must . . . keep up white prestinge." Another student reported that she trained the natives "to leave when the tablecloths and dishes came out." She didn't invite the people she studied into her house, nor did they make such gestures to her.

And for the world's most independent woman, Mead had an uneasy time with feminism. On the one hand, connections forged with women--as friends, colleagues, assistants and, occasionally, lovers--characterized her life and ultimately proved more stable than her alliances with men. Some of these women took care of her household, her schedule, her office; others devoted themselves to mothering her daughter while she worked and traveled. On the other hand, she held some very traditional views about women. She denied being a feminist, belittled the implications of the war between the sexes, made fun of attempts to change sexism in language and never fully endorsed the women's movement.

"I don't believe all these women fifty years old who haven't tried anything but marriage and children, who talk about how they've been discriminated against, because on the whole none of them have done anything else," she said. When offered the presidency of a large university, she commented, "Women make poor administrators," and at another time observed that "restlessness and groping" seem "inherent in the nature of women."

She herself experienced discrimination at the American Museum of Natural History, where she was not made a full curator until she was 63, and at Columbia, where the postponed professorship meant she was entitled to only a very small pension. Yet in each case she was accommodating: "I wasn't about to fight about it [her pension] when the men in the department had a wife and child to support." Who did she imagine was supporting her child and "extended family"?

But there was also another side to her views on women. "You do not need a man," she told a newly widowed woman with three small children. "I married a man, and it was disaster, the way we competed." A house thick with people was what she recommended: take boarders. To a graduate student she once said, "I don't care if you have six husbands or not . . . for several years you've spent entirely too much time becoming a woman and not enough becoming a person." Even Betty Friedan, who, with dubious accuracy, criticized Mead for glorifying women's traditional "biological" roles, recognized that Mead had played a part in the movement by getting "us all so preoccupied with 'fulfillment.'" Her editor at Redbook said that Mead's contribution was the example she set: "You can be what you set out to be, but first you must set out." Mead herself kept a quotation from William Blake in her wallet: "No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings."

Jane Howard's approach to these many contradictions is to assemble them as parts of a jigsaw puzzle and hope they cone together into a convincing picture. But all too often the puzzle seems to be made up of pieces that are too small. Irrelevant bits of conversation and numerous repetitions disrupt the whole, as does the attempt to cover so many of the particulars of Mead's life. Ultimately the mystery of Margaret Mead--the private person behind the public one-eludes howard.

It is, of course, in the nature of biography to leave the reader with questons. But Howard's biography leaves too many large ones unanswered: Mead's bisexuality and abiding relationships with male and female lovers are mentioned only obliquely and sometimes in a disconcertingly snide tone. We don not hear about the deaths of Mead's mother and father; the death of her mentor, Ruth Benedict, is mentioned only in passing. Of Mead's discovery of the body of her sister who had committed suicide, we are told that she cleaned up the blood and called the police and that the death "brought her grief, but not guilt. She did what she felt was right and did not brood." We are told that she was less upset by her sister's suicide than she was by her brother's death of pancreatic cancer, the disease that would kill her three years later, but we are told no more. Even of Mead the mother we hear surprisingly little, much of it incidental. The distance Howard maintains is surprising; it is almost as though Mead were still capable of holding people, especially a biographer, at arm's length. Nevertheless, Howard's account is authoritative and comprehensive--all in all, an impressive document.
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Author:Shostak, Marjorie
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 27, 1984
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