Dec/Jan 2011

Anthropologists and the Rediscovery of America, 1886–1965

Isaiah Wilner

Between the start of the First World War and the aftermath of the Second, a small group of American intellectuals began to search for new answers to the question of what makes us human. They were no more than a dozen at the start, outsiders in one way or another—secular Jews, immigrants from Europe, young women. Yet they rapidly rose to influence in New York, Berkeley, Cambridge, New Haven, and Chicago, and in a few decades their ideas would reorient American attitudes toward matters as basic to existence as race, sex, and human nature. They were anthropologists, and as John Gilkeson demonstrates in Anthropologists and the Rediscovery of America, they championed a new concept of culture.

Following Matthew Arnold's famed formulation, intellectuals had regarded culture as "the best that has been thought and said"—but in the hands of this new cohort, the term now encompassed the unseen rules of life: codes of understanding that establish the social framework of a group of people. As Gilkeson shows, the premise that all people, not merely the educated, make up a culture upheld the influence of nurture over nature and undercut the fallacious but orthodox view that race determines ability. The concept of a broad and nourishing stream of values flowing beneath the bustle of American life sparked a growing nation's ambition to know itself—"to chart America," as the writer Alfred Kazin put it in 1942, "and to possess it."

As early as 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson prophesied the end of America's "long day of dependence" on European culture, but it would take the better part of the next century for Americans to discover a heritage in what he lovingly praised as "the common . . . the familiar . . . the low." The years between the world wars afforded a vast template of cultural exchange. American elites traveled abroad as soldiers, exchanging domestic ideas for foreign ones. The result was a modern mass culture, piped overseas as blues, jazz, Coca-Cola. High-culture devotees tried not to look askance. "Next to Himmler," Arthur Schlesinger Jr. remarked, "even Babbitt began to look good."

Gilkeson traces the dissemination of the concept of culture from Columbia professor Franz Boas through a network of anthropologists, sociologists, and historians who shaped and popularized it. In the hands of Robert and Helen Lynd, the authors of 1929's Middletown, ethnography grew into a literary form that compelled Americans to discuss national problems like class division. Yet ethnography could overreach. During World War II, when anthropologists studied German and Japanese "national character," critics maligned the discipline as "diaperology" due to its reliance on Freudian stereotypes about foreign parenting practices. As definitions of culture proliferated, consensus on its actual profile proved elusive. Not unlike God, it was a slippery concept people couldn't do without.

Gilkeson's book, deeply researched and full of insights, captures an era when intellectuals, public and otherwise, helped shape the life of the nation. The pioneering spirit of modern anthropological inquiry comes through vividly in the author's account of how the Harvard Department of Social Relations doled out a hundred-thousand-dollar grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Between 1949 and 1953, the university sent thirty-seven fieldworkers from Harvard and nine other institutions to Ramah, New Mexico, to study the value systems of the Navajo, Zuni, Mexican Americans, Mormons, and Texans who lived nearby. How could people who occupied the same environment live according to entirely different rules? By contrasting the value systems of neighboring groups, Harvard's fieldworkers thought they might be able to discover how culture is created—to decode its "grammar." It may be in Ramah somewhere; no one has found it yet.