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Glimpses into My Own Black Box: An Exercise in Self-Deconstruction (Volume 12) (History of Anthropology)
Glimpses into My Own Black Box: An Exercise in Self-Deconstruction (Volume 12) (History of Anthropology)
George W. Stocking Jr.
University of Wisconsin Press, 2010
168 pp., 24.95

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Timothy Larsen

Participant Observer

The foremost historian of anthropology turns his gaze on his own history.

George W. Stocking, Jr., is the greatest historian of anthropology that there has ever been. Moreover, given his unique situation as resident historian in a leading anthropology department, it is hard to imagine his preeminent position ever being surpassed. In a discipline steeped in its own stage-managed mythology, he championed the pioneers and later practitioners whose lives and work had been quietly erased from the then-current, self-serving accounts. With a perfectionist's pursuit of exhaustive and detailed knowledge, he denounced the "presentism" of existing historical narratives and restored to the record all the grubby connections with colonialism, intellectual cul-de-sacs, and slain fathers.

Now an octogenarian in declining health, he has published what will surely be his last book, an autobiography entitled, Glimpses into My Own Black Box: An Exercise in Self-Deconstruction. If the clunky title is not already sufficient proof, it should be said that it is not a literary achievement. The prose is greased with clichés (Stocking's memory, we are repeatedly warned, is "like a sieve"); words are merely there as rigged-up piping so that facts and ideas might spurt out the other end. Indeed, it is in no sense a good book qua book. Nevertheless, Stocking has lived a compelling life and has been on location in time's square for historic events. One of his latter-day hobbies, readers are informed, has been making wall decorations out of found objects, and in the chaotic pile that is Glimpses into My Own Black Box one repeatedly hits upon keepers.

They are, however, tucked amid the clutter. Reading this book was reminiscent of attempting to do an oral history with an uncle who had lived through the D-Day landing, but whose conversation tended to revert to everyday banalities. We learn that Stocking still remembers fondly a cherry strudel that his wife's cousin made in the early 1980s. The last part of this book reads like a blog. We are told on three separate occasions that when he cannot sleep he listens to Through the Night on the radio. There is an unilluminating rant about current American politics. There is a whole series of photos that one would only normally inflict upon relations (being amused by a Christmas gag gift of a halo, enjoying touring the Ben & Jerry's ice cream factory, and so on). Toward the end, Glimpses into My Own Black Box embarrassingly turns into a book about writing this book, complete with a photo of the author looking at the proof sheets.

Stocking has made a conscious decision not to be an imitator of Christ, and one of the more subtle manifestation of this is that he serves the best wine first. The book begins with an intoxicating vintage poured from his FBI files. As a Harvard undergraduate, he became committed to leftist politics, and from 1949 to 1956 he dedicated his life to serving the Communist party. As Stocking quietly observes, the McCarthy era "was not a propitious time to be a Communist."

With an admirable willingness to sacrifice for his convictions, Stocking threw himself into full-time manual labor jobs for seven years as suitable places from which to radicalize the workers and rattle the capitalists. Stocking's most strategic plant, as it were, proved to be in a meat packing company. He was eventually elected chief shop steward and was so successful at his covert aims that one of the owner's conditions for the strike settlement was that Stocking be barred from any union position.

A growing awareness of the dark side of Communism deprived Stocking of his mission in life. As a teenager he had wrestled with Christianity and parted ways (though one can occasionally observe that the encounter left him limping). Reading The God That Failed revealed to him that Communism had been his religion during those seven years. (Evangelicals of his generation might recognize themselves in his dutifully going door-to-door sharing his faith.) His father's triumphant career culminated with his being the head of the Economics Department at Vanderbilt University (his Wikipedia entry is much longer than that of his namesake son—the word "oedipal" recurs at least a half dozen times in this book). Stocking therefore chose to fall back upon his "liberal academic patrimony." His early fondness for the working man makes me postulate that sometime during his youth he must have shaken hands with a chimney sweep.

How else can an envious academic account for the following career? As a high school student, Harvard was the only university to which Stocking bothered to apply. (He was accepted.) As an undergraduate, by his own account, he frittered away his time on pinball, poker, and politics, resulting in his descending into academic probation on an annual basis. He only graduated, he tells us, because he cajoled a professor to inflate a deserved F to a passing grade for no other reason than that it would help a chap out. And later, after his disillusionment with Communism, he was immediately accepted into the graduate program in American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, even though he had been working blue-collar jobs for years.

When Stocking's PhD program was coming to end, he was promptly hired by the History Department at the University of California, Berkley. Soon he was off on a fully-funded year-long sabbatical. When told that he was supposed to submit a retrospective report, he scrawled a reply saying that he did not really get anything done on his sabbatical because of unspecified "personal difficulties." In response, he was informed that this note was in itself a satisfactory report! The envious young academic reader may want to skip the next subsection of Stocking's narrative, entitled "Tenure Without a Book" ("I was able to sustain the impression that in due course I would produce a major work," he comments).

Stocking was then head-hunted (to use an anthropological phrase) by the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, probably the most prestigious program in the country. As well as the standard Chicago deal of "light and flexible teaching loads defined by … research interests," Stocking also negotiated for free tuition at any university for his five children and that he would only teach for one quarter before being allowed to skive off to be a visiting fellow at King's College, Cambridge. Further opportunities (all before he had written a single monograph!) then came apace: visiting professor at Harvard; a year at the Center for Advanced Study, Stanford; a Guggenheim Fellowship. Only after he was promoted to full professor did his first proper book appear, in 1987. Victorian Anthropology was a truly grand, ground-breaking study, rewarding the faith of the committee that granted him tenure on the strength of its imminence a full twenty years earlier.

Thenceforth honors accrued. Stocking was a Getty scholar; he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; he was named a Distinguished Service Professor; he spent a year at the Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton; he was awarded the Royal Anthropological Institute's Huxley Medal (the year after Mary Douglas).

It took Stocking over ten years to write Glimpses into My Own Black Box. Admittedly, he was in a protracted dispute with a deteriorating body. On the other hand, he was a retired academic with no other duties who nevertheless still retained one of the best offices in the department, still had the support of research assistants, was a Mellon Fellow for four of these years on the strength of the autobiography—and for the remaining six or more years somehow managed to make due merely with the support of the Lichstern Fund.

Stocking's memoir is both blessed and blighted by his candor. There are endearing moments in which academics will be able to recognize themselves. To wit: "I spent a month after our arrival in Berkeley writing the first lecture, two weeks writing the second, a week writing the third, and after the term began managed somehow in the intervals between twice weekly lectures." His retirement was partially prompted by wearying of dealing with ahistorical, glibly postmodern undergraduates. On the other hand, although all of us would like to explain to the world why some passing, anonymous remark about our work on amazon.com has not done it justice, most would judge that restraining oneself would be the more excellent way.

Perhaps not unrelated is his inability or unwillingness to separate the wheat from the Ben & Jerry's ice cream that will soon be past its sell-by date. The Stocking papers in the Special Collections at the Regenstein Library, University of Chicago, we are reassured, will eventually also include his album of Granddaddy Stocking's Christmas Stockings. Still, one can always pass quickly by the gag gifts until one hits upon a found treasure such as his insider's account of the Derek Freeman/Margaret Mead controversy.

George W. Stocking, Jr.'s other magnificent monograph is entitled After Tylor (1995). Despite his open anxieties to the contrary, the field of the history of anthropology is not in danger of being fittingly thought of as After Stocking. As this is all the immortality he seeks, he can listen contentedly Through the Night.

Timothy Larsen, McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, is the author of Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England (Oxford Univ. Press). His A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians will be published in January by Oxford University Press.

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