MARGARET MEAD: A Life by Jane Howard
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From Howard (Families, A Different Woman, Please Touch), an exhaustively researched, peckish, dotted-line biography of Margaret Mead is a big disappointment. But the sheer bulk of the material, its light on Mead's personality and the intellectual activism of her circle(s) and generation, make it a major event nonetheless. And the conclusion, it must be said, is a chorus of memorial chimes, plus an authorial handclap. We quickly learn that the future anthropologist, born into peripatetic Pennsylvania academe in 1901, was her grandmother's confidant at age five; the object of close scrutiny by her mother (student of Italian immigrants), the recipient of little warmth from her mother or her aloof, disdainful father. ""Margaret, accordingly, grew up with two convictions: that being observed was wonderful, and that observing others. . . was more wonderful still."" ""She also needed, and kept looking for and finding, new fathers and brothers and sisters. . . . A big part of her genius was her way of making people feel connected to her and to one another as well."" Thus, too, her ""elaborate quest for reknown,"" her restlessness and non-stop talking, her enthusiasm for pageantry: what is left, after the first chapter, is chiefly the manner of their unfolding. Mead, already engaged to mild divinity student Luther Cressman (protection against ""hurt feelings,"" uncertainty?), goes to Barnard; becomes the center of a lifelong sororial support-group, the Ash Can Cats; discovers Franz Boas and anthropology, is discovered by Boas and his disciple Ruth Benedict. As a non-anthropologist, Howard quotes professionals, often of diverse views, at every turn: from the exhilarating, take-off state of the field in the early 1920s, and Boas' cultural relativism (foundation of Mead's belief in human malleability), to the soundness of Mead's researches and theories. The indeterminate medley of voices exacts a price: what is left often looks like the residue of a career, as well as the laundry-list detail, and dirty linen, of a life. Cressman, whom Mead left for dashing New Zealander Reo Fortune (met en route back from her first, Samoan field trip), gets to answer Mead's dismissive references to him in her autobiography Blackberry Winter (others get to correct her too, even on minute points); relatives and partisans of Fortune, whom Mead left for their British colleague Gregory Bateson, pronounce her his undoing, personally and professionally. (Some of this criticism is also moderated in conclusion.) Howard herself is unhesitant as regards Mead's expanding involvements. ""Interdisciplinary convocations, from this point on, would be one of the sustaining delights of Mead's life""; ""committee meetings. . . became another of her subcareers""; ""being a prophet, especially about America and Americans, was becoming another of her subcareers."" (For Howard, this is also lockstep writing.) The book picks up, somewhat, with particulars on the Mead-Bateson collaboration in Bali, and shines where Howard herself is most at home; on the extended-family life in which their daughter, Mary Catherine, was raised. With Mead's WW II emergence as a celebrity/sage and the break-up of the Bateson marriage, judgments--not always incongruent, but unreconciled--fly back and forth. (She had ""a weakness for one-line generalizations""; her name became ""a synonym for fresh common sense."") And from a bevy of articulate aides, comes testimony of encouragement and browbeating, lovable and irritating quirks--in Meadian profusion. A certain coalescing calm does descend in what Howard sees (perhaps erroneously) as the full-plate final years (no more hunger for acclaim, etc.). There is also, amid the flurry of quotes at Mead's death, a fierce response to Mead-critic Derek Freeman from elderly Luther Cressman. For all its deficiencies, a book that will be much attended to--in conjunction with Mary Catherine Bateson's delicate, intense memoir, With a Daughter's Eye (above), which interprets her mother's life and personality quite differently.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1984
ISBN: 0449904970
Publisher: Simon & Schuster