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Graduate students, established scholars, and visiting academics exchanged reports from the field. Ruth Benedict, a junior professor, had been recasting her earlier work on the American Southwest and editing articles for the Journal of American Folklore. Most of a recent issue had been taken up with a hundred-page study of folk religion on the Gulf Coast, written by the Boas student — and sometime novelist — Zora Neale Hurston. Margaret Mead, another of Boas’s advisees, was going through the field notes on the Omaha nation that she had compiled with her husband, Reo Fortune. Her Coming of Age in Samoa, a publishing phenomenon when it appeared in 1928, was still selling briskly in Manhattan bookshops.
The venerable Bronislaw Malinowski, one of the founders of modern fieldwork methods, would occasionally make an appearance on a visit from London, perhaps angling for a job were Boas ever to vacate his professorship. “He is vain as a peacock and as cheap as a saloon story,” Benedict gossiped to Mead. On one occasion he allegedly slipped money into Hurston’s stocking as an apparent invitation to an affair. For her part, Mead could feel an undercurrent of disregard whenever Malinowski entered the room. He had praised her Samoan work, but she was convinced that another former student of Boas’s, the linguist Edward Sapir, had now turned Malinowski against her.
Sapir knew how to worry an old wound. Mead had broken off an affair with him while she was in the South Pacific; at the time, she was still married to her first husband, an ex-theologian, and secretly in love with Benedict. “She is … a loathsome bitch flattened out to a malodorous allegory,” Sapir wrote to Benedict after reading Coming of Age in Samoa, “a symbol of nearly everything that I detest most in contemporary American culture.” He soon published a thinly veiled attack on “free women” who failed to understand that jealousy was a universal human emotion. Mead responded in kind. Jealousy, she said in her own article on the subject, was in her experience frequently found among old men with small endowments.
The slights and betrayals, the underground flings and seething animosities, the granite friendships as well as the roiling rivalries were as much a part of the seminar evenings in Grantwood as Dakota verbs and New Guinean masks. But whether they were discussing rituals, religion, sexuality, or any other aspect of social life, Boas had taught his students to resist making grand schemas or big conclusions. He had long been clear on what he called “the most difficult problem of anthropology”: Were there universal laws to human societies, and if so, how might one go about discovering them?
Anthropology should be a conversational science, Boas felt. It ought to be a dialogue between one’s own way of seeing things and someone else’s. Where it led was toward specific histories and unique experiences, toward a particular community — this one here — and its most precious ways of understanding its place in the world. To be an anthropologist was to be committed to the critical refinement of your own experience. That was the whole point of purposefully throwing yourself into the most foreign and remote of places. You had to gather things up before you refined them down. Anthropologists should be innately skeptical about jumping too quickly from their own culture-bound schemas to pontificating about the Nature of Man.
But Mead was feeling the tug toward a more ambitious, all-encompassing science. She could claim no theoretical advance as her own, no broad finding that people would recognize as a signature contribution. “I find I am growing more and more cynical all the time about good work winning through,” she complained to Benedict.
Since finishing her doctorate, she had failed to land a professorial position. Her annual salary as an assistant curator at the American Museum of Natural History was a little under $2,400. Benedict at least had an academic job; she had recently been elevated from a lectureship to an assistant professorship in Boas’s department, earning about $3,600 a year — although this was still far less than the salary of a male visiting scholar. Mead worried that she herself was fated to be little more than a popularizer or, as she had once complained, “that awful animal a ‘lady scientist.’”
By her 30th birthday, Mead had become one of the most recognizable names in anthropology — at least to non-anthropologists. Newspapers and magazines quoted her as an authority on marriage, child-rearing, adolescence, and other subjects. Coming of Age in Samoa was one of the very few books in the field that people outside academia could name. But she wondered what you had to sacrifice to make sure that your work mattered in the world. “I don’t think having the worst paid job in the Museum, and never having been offered another job, and having been panned or damned with faint praise in all the journals of my own science, is wonderful recognition,” she said to Benedict. You needed academic prestige to make your ideas stick, and so far that was very much lacking.
As the Grantwood evenings showed, it was hard to separate your scholarly work from the swirl of relationships — academic, professional, social, romantic — that developed as you tried both to write your books and to live your life. Can what you produce ever really be divorced from your own biography, the ties you forge and then forget, the horrors and mishaps that you sweep neatly behind the footnotes and reference lists? Especially if you’re a social scientist, what happens to the adjective as you shape yourself into the noun?
In late 1932, Mead found herself wrestling with these problems in one of the remotest places in the world. She was in a soggy river port in New Guinea with Reo Fortune. She would soon be in the throes of what she believed would mark her greatest achievement as a thinker and writer, a genuine theoretical breakthrough on par with the most profound insights in the social sciences. It would also usher her toward the brink of madness.
The two anthropologists were in search of a place as remote as possible, without the corrupting influences of missionaries and merchants. They settled in the uplands north of the river, among a group of people they called the Arapesh. Mead would wake into a cool dawn, lying in bed long enough to hear the plaintive bird calls outside the mosquito netting. Breakfast was a cup of tea, and then the workday began: hours of conversation, language lessons, typing up notes, running about to see a ceremony or check on a newborn baby, until she and Fortune closed up shop at sundown.
“I’m more than ever convinced that the only logical place for the anthropologist is in the field — most of the time — for the first ten years, or even fifteen years of his anthropological life,” Mead reported in a letter to Benedict. “Aside from adding to the sum of knowledge and catching it in time, it’s the most perfect way of building up judgment and laying a solid basis for theory.” She missed Benedict dreadfully and had hung a photograph of her in their hut. The local children thought Benedict must be a very important person to have such a large picture on the wall.
The more she got to know the Arapesh, the more Mead was convinced that they had “solved the sex problem.” As far as she could tell, there wasn’t much in the way of a concept of adultery. People seemed puzzled when she asked about sex outside marriage. They couldn’t quite fathom what she was talking about or why she might be interested in such a subject. “Yes, the woman’s husband whom she had deserted for her [own] brother, was angry because he had paid that brother lots of rings and pigs for her,” she told Benedict. “The brother was obligated to protect his rights and in the old days he might have fought with him.” But there was no invoking of religion, deep morality, or some theory of natural rights to explain or condemn the transgression.
Bateson pulled out a copy of one of Mead’s books and challenged her on a specific point about menstruation. She was smitten.
After eight months, Mead and Fortune decided to try out a different field site along the lower Sepik River. They moved from the land of the Arapesh into the domain of a lowland group they knew as the Mundugumor. It was a place and a people Mead loathed, as she later recalled. Even sex seemed always to be accompanied by biting and scratching. People would copulate violently in one another’s yam plots just to spoil the vegetables. The Mundugumor were known to engage in cannibalism and typically preyed on swamp dwellers living in a neighboring region. “Yes, I have eaten human flesh,” a child told her, “just a very little of the Kalengama people.”
Where the Arapesh had seemed bathed in ideas of freedom and openness, the Mundugumor lived life in the imperative, hemmed in by an elaborate system of prohibitions. The first thing a child learned was the local equivalent of “Don’t!” Mead saw little ritual, art, or myth to interest her. And then there were the mosquitoes, hordes of them, descending like vampires on any piece of exposed flesh. Mead walked around with a broom in her hand in a vain effort to fight them off. After three months in these conditions, with meals of corn fritters and crocodile eggs, Mead and Fortune decided they had seen enough.
They had a lifeline of sorts. Gregory Bateson, an old acquaintance of Fortune’s, knew the region well. A fellow anthropologist, a sometime lecturer at the University of Sydney, and a Cambridge don, Bateson was then conducting his own studies along the river, and he offered to help them scout a locale for their new research. They all agreed to spend that Christmas together in Ambunti, a port town deep inland, where the Sepik makes one of its many switchback turns.
On the way to Ambunti, they stopped to pick up Bateson at his field camp. “You’re tired,” he said when he first saw Mead, offering her a chair. Mead would remember that moment as the first inkling of attraction. During the time she and Fortune had been away, they had gone through their ups and downs, but things were now going reasonably well between them. This new feeling seemed to come like a bolt from the blue.
Just after Christmas, Mead sat down to bring Benedict up to speed. “I’ve got a lot to tell you,” she wrote. “It’s Gregory Bateson of course.”
Slightly younger than Mead and Fortune, Bateson was studiously unkempt, with mussed hair and worn clothes, a style he maintained even when not in the field. He was also enormous, lumbering but not ungainly. He talked a mile a minute from their first meeting. Shortly after Mead and Fortune arrived at his field site, he pulled out a copy of one of Mead’s earlier books, Growing Up in New Guinea, and challenged her on a specific point about menstruation. She was smitten.
Bateson had a compelling air of “vulnerable beauty,” Mead told Benedict, which was all the more touching for his size. At some six feet five inches tall, he had to stoop to engage in conversation and seemed to wrap himself around Mead in the process. Fortune felt in no way threatened, Mead reported, and she hoped everything would work out fine, without “any gunpowder in the situation.”
Everyone was an adult, after all, and if she and Fortune needed an example of how all this could be worked out in a straightforward, rational way, they had only to look at the Arapesh. She and Fortune had just spent months living among people who seemed to have built an entire society out of not getting too worked up over the intricacies of love. “I do think I’ve learned once [and] for all that sex need not be permitted to spoil things,” Mead wrote.
The holiday season found the three anthropologists in a swirl of expatriate parties in Ambunti — crowds of remote-post foreigners, by turns giddy and combative, fueled by gin and whiskey, the verbal barbs flying, then fists, then apologies all around and some quiet. The night after Christmas, Fortune got roaring drunk. In all their years of marriage, Mead had never seen him in that state. She, too, downed four cocktails and then fell into bed to sleep it off. Fortune kept at it the next day, with more drink and a steady-state slur. Mead and Bateson decided that a trip upriver might do everyone some good.
They all loaded into a small river craft and chugged upstream to a village that they had wanted to scout as a field site. It took six hours to get there. The heat was nearly unbearable, lessened only by the small breeze kicked up by the slow-moving boat. Fortune slept off the booze while a portable record player he had brought along competed with the rattle of the engine. Whenever Fortune woke up and saw Mead and Bateson talking or sharing a cigarette, he flew into a rage.
No sooner had they arrived than news came that a neighboring community was set to attack the village. They spent the night in constant worry. A loaded Webley revolver was their only line of defense but also, Mead and Bateson feared, an unsettling temptation to an addled Fortune. No attack ever materialized, however, and the trio soon set off on the ride downriver. Mead and Bateson would later mark the journey back to Ambunti as the moment it all started: the unraveling of her marriage to Fortune and the first moments of a new relationship with Bateson.
“I love you terribly,” one of them said on a veranda when they returned. “I know,” said the other. These developments had complicated matters, of course. But one couldn’t know what the future might hold, and until it arrived, there was work to be done. By early January, the two men had patched things up well enough that Bateson could conduct Mead and Fortune to their next field site. It was among people they called the Tchambuli, who lived around a lake that linked up with the Sepik River during flood season. The Tchambuli inhabited low-lying fenland, among floating islands of peat and tall grass that could drift around the lake and alter its contours from one day to the next. The peaty water shone like polished enamel, inlaid with bright water lilies, with an occasional blue heron sunk knee-deep in the murk.
Fieldwork was meant to be the destroyer of worlds. To do anthropology well, you had to alienate yourself from everything familiar.
The Tchambuli, no more than 500 people in all, tended their taro gardens and fished the lake from dugout canoes. They built large ceremonial houses with crescent-shaped rooflines, where they held elaborate rituals in carved masks and headdresses made from cassowary feathers and shells. They seemed to live in a world of ease and plenty, one that Mead saw as a relief after months among the Mundugumor. “I’ve climbed mountains and gone about in the sun and I feel pleased with the country at last,” she told Benedict shortly after arriving.
Once Bateson departed back to his camp, Mead kept up a regular correspondence with him. They wrote notes on typing paper cut into rectangular strips and rowed upriver by messengers. In Mead’s eyes, Bateson had emerged as a kind of fantasy protector, a spirit guide. He had brought her to a place where she could be happier as an anthropologist than she had ever been.
“The truth of the matter is we had learned how to do field work without enjoying it,” Mead wrote to Bateson from Tchambuli, “a bad lesson you have helped us to unlearn.” More and more, Mead was coming to see the lakeshore as a place where she could tackle something big and wonderful: clawing culture away from nature, as she put it. She was starting to see human beings with a clarity she had never imagined.
Now, if only they could solve the personal problems that had started back in Ambunti. Things with Fortune were going from bad to worse. Living inside a small house with a single mosquito net, they had no place to escape. There was no bathroom door to lock until a fight had subsided. Bateson would occasionally visit from his own field site, which stretched the quarters even further — and underscored to Fortune that his relationship with Mead was unquestionably changing.
Mead soon contracted malaria, with fever and stomach pains. Her mental haze was broken only when Fortune, in another drunken stupor, shouted at a child or picked a fight with a local man. “And Reo and I go to bed to argue, wake in the night to argue, get up in the morning to argue,” she wrote to Benedict.
This was not only the end of her marriage, she felt, but also the start of a new way of thinking about herself. The last year in the field had more or less forced her into an exclusive romantic relationship for the first time in her adult life, and she was coming around to the view that she had no talent for it. Part of her soul was going numb in the process. She was best suited to open love, she decided, with different kinds of people in different ways. Fortune would have to adapt himself to it if he wanted to remain with her.
As they talked, late at night under kerosene lanterns, Mead and Bateson came to realize that they were the deviants in their own cultures — a woman, yet assertive and adventurous; a man, yet somewhat retiring and unprepossessing, despite his commanding stature. Fortune, by contrast, was masculinity in a bottle: tough, harsh, vindictive. In his culture, he was the right kind of man. Here on the Sepik, he was literally the odd man out.
Toward the end of March, Mead wrote to Benedict to inform her that she was now overcome with excitement, more positive about life than she had been in many months. The reason was a breakthrough that she regarded as her greatest contribution yet, a “discovery of great magnitude,” she said. In a gin-fueled, malarial fog, Mead and Bateson had scribbled out a schema that they believed would explain how individuals relate to the culture into which they are born. It was a framework for making sense of themselves — and, they thought, the world — that would at last bring some clarity to the swirl of emotion, hurt feelings, and sexual desire they had experienced along the lakeshore. They called it the “squares.”
People naturally came in four basic types, or “temperaments,” they reasoned, giving them labels that tumbled out of their rapid-fire conversation. “Northerners” tended to be rule-oriented and in control of their emotions. “Southerners” were passionate and experimental. “Turks” were mysterious and contemplative. “Feys” were expansive and creative. Surveying their own lives and surroundings, they found that everything seemed to fall into place. The Arapesh, Mundugumor, and Tchambuli; friends, intimates, and old flames; teachers and parents; the famous and obscure — they were all now revealed in their truest essences, rooted and understandable.
Fortune and Mead had not been able to make a go of it in their marriage because they were constitutionally unsuited — a “diagonal” pairing of unlike temperaments. She and Bateson, by contrast, fit together like hand and glove, their dispositions complementing each other. As for Mead’s enduring love for Benedict, her inability to settle down to one kind of relationship, whether with one person or with one gender, these now seemed less like problems inside herself than a simple mismatch between her own temperament and the society into which she had been born.
Like the morning sun rising over an ebony lake, the world seemed to stretch before Mead and Bateson in a new, revealing light. But Fortune soon developed doubts. Mead and Bateson had shared their deepest secrets in front of him. They spent long hours quibbling over their new theory while he was left to get on with the practical fieldwork. It was the worst kind of betrayal, he said to Mead, in friendship or in marriage, to share a partner’s intimacies with someone else.
By the spring of 1933, the situation in the tiny household had gone from tense to unbearable. At some point, in the middle of yet another fight, Fortune knocked Mead to the ground. It turned out that she was pregnant at the time. A doctor had earlier told her it would be nearly impossible for her to conceive a child, and she would later say that the incident caused a miscarriage. Fortune’s response, she recalled, was to blame Bateson. “Gregory ate our baby,” he said dementedly.
Malarial hallucinations, biting mosquitoes, the click-click of a typewriter — the three anthropologists had descended into a mad spiral of shouts and absences, then reunions and a chilling peace. The squares had become a private cult, with Mead inventing entire art forms, rituals, even cuisines that she thought characterized the various temperaments. “There was a large amount of religion in all our hearts,” Mead wrote to Benedict, “and everything seemed clear.”
It could not continue. Later that summer they decided it was time to move out of the field and try to sort through things — the squares, Mead and Fortune’s crumbling marriage, Bateson’s possible future with Mead — in a more sedate and familiar setting. Boarding a schooner for the trip downriver, they traveled slowly under the power of sail. From the coast they caught a steamer to Australia and then home. “They say there are devils in New Guinea,” Bateson would later explain to a friend. “If so they may have helped create the crazy atmosphere.”
The squares would eventually fade away. Mead, Fortune, and Bateson would come to see their unmoored theorizing as an embarrassment. But some of the insights it produced — about the relationship between individuals and social categories, the plasticity of sexuality and gender, and the limitations of cultural reinvention — would wind through their writing for decades to come. Fieldwork was meant to be the destroyer of worlds. Marriages failed. Old relationships withered. To do anthropology well, you had to alienate yourself from everything familiar. You had to throw away your own version of common sense as you strained to take on the local knowledge of another place.
The payoff was a liberating and original way of seeing your own society, denuded of its specialness, as just one of a number of available worlds. The journey back home could be as thrilling as the voyage into the unfamiliar. “Oh, Ruth, it’s so wonderful, it’s so wonderful to be coming back to you,” Mead wrote to Benedict as she sailed from Sydney to New York — alone. “It’s so wonderful to love anyone so surely.”