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Selected Letters of Sir J. G. Frazer
Selected Letters of Sir J. G. Frazer
J. G. Frazer
Oxford University Press, 2005
448 pp., $220.00

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Timothy Larsen


Book Notes

Who now reads Frazer?

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If students ever encounter James Frazer and The Golden Bough today, they are most likely to do so through the notes to The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot's self-described little bit of "bogus scholarship." Robert Ackerman, however, has dedicated much of his scholarly life to studying the eminent Edwardian anthropologist and man of letters, and the most recent fruit of this is a carefully edited volume of the Selected Letters of Sir J. G. Frazer. Ackerman's sustained interested should not mislead one into assuming that he is an uncritical disciple. The very first words of the introduction unflinchingly inquire: "Who now reads Frazer?" On a playful level, Ackerman faithfully observes, "Having read many hundreds of his letters, I can safely assert that … Frazer had no sense of humour whatever." Indeed, Ackerman's notes are often trenchant. One of my favorites begins: "Here Frazer scales the Everest of false modesty … ."

More substantively, Ackerman is forthright about Frazer's anti-Christian agenda, even when his subject is officially attempting to minimize or deny it. At one point Frazer asserts—apparently in all deranged seriousness—that "our religious friends" are filled with longings to reinstitute human sacrifice, confiding knowingly: "They are only prevented at present from carrying them into practice by police."  Despite the epistle not being Frazer's best literary genre, this collection does repay readers, thanks not least to Frazer's distinguished correspondents, including (among many others) Edmund Gosse, A. E. Housman, and Bronislaw Malinowski.

The contours of Frazer's life and era are often endearingly revealed in these pages. His entire career was spent as a research fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge. This gave him a salary plus room and board for no obligatory duties whatever. Once he was asked to serve on the library committee but demurred on the touchingly humble grounds that "in practical matters I must confess I distrust my own judgment." No further such impositions were ever attempted. Years later he duly thanked the Master for having such good manners as an employer: "never once having so much as asked a question as to the disposal of my time during the fourteen years that have passed since my Fellowship was first renewed."

Frazer frequently boasts in these letters that he does not engage in controversy, by which he means that although he frequently asserts publicly controversial things he never allows himself to be held accountable for these claims by attempting to answer the objections and arguments of his critics. The most persistent such would-be interlocutor was the anthropologist Andrew Lang. (I was delighted to learn from this volume that "flaming" long predates our internet age: "Lang has flamed out against me in the Fortnightly.") Not that Frazer himself was exceptionally irenic in temperament. One ranting letter includes a string of reports regarding the destructive presence of modern forms of transportation: "Another eminent Cambridge man, though not a personal friend of mine, the late Professor Liveing, bid fair to be a centenarian, but was cut off in the flower of his age by a lady bicyclist." Frazer himself had the greater misfortune of quietly living on after his principal ideas and theories had been thoroughly rejected by new generations of anthropologists.

Timothy Larsen, McManis Professor of Christina Thought at Wheaton College, is the author most recently of A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians, which will be published in March by Oxford University Press.


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