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Timothy Larsen

War Work

Margaret Mead, reassessed.

Just this once, let's not talk about sex when we talk about Margaret Mead. Peter Mandler's tour de force, Return from the Natives: How Margaret Mead Won the Second World War and Lost the Cold War, gives sustained attention to Ruth Benedict, Gregory Bateson, and Geoffrey Gorer, but the president of the Royal Historical Society is interested in this trio as Mead's professional rather than personal partners. Return from the Natives includes an account of Mead's wilderness years during the Cold War, but it is certainly not a book about love in a cold climate. It is also decidedly not about the flapper-era young professional whose Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) was intended to help America shed some of its sexual inhibitions.

Mandler's curiosity is piqued by ideas: he has a prurient interest in what is going on under the covers of books. As a senior at Barnard College, Mead took a course from Franz Boas, the father of the discipline of anthropology in America. She also met his teaching assistant, Ruth Benedict. Mead thereby found both her profession and her intellectual school within it. Boasian anthropology opposed racism and emphasized cultural relativism. Its founder was rewarded with a martyr's death: Boas expired in the Columbia University Faculty Club in the midst of an anti-racist rant. The Boasians were dissatisfied with an ethnography which focused on structure and instead sought to find the "ethos" of a culture.

Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan catalyzed Mead and her colleagues to take the tools of their trade and enlist them to help win the war. They would no longer deploy their "culture and personality" approach just on "primitive" cultures but also on modern industrial societies. They would uncover the "national character" of the warring countries: a kind of collective psychoanalysis of entire populations. These anthropologists worked directly with psychologists, including Erik Erikson (and Mead and Bateson's baby was even in the pediatric care of a young Dr. Benjamin ...

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