FRANZ BOAS by Rosemary Lévy Zumwalt


The Emergence of the Anthropologist
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The first of a two-volume scholarly biography of Franz Boas (1858-1942), the father of American anthropology.

Zumwalt (American Folklore Scholarship: A Dialogue of Dissent, 1995, etc.), dean emerita at Agnes Scott College, ends this work in 1906, when Boas resigned from New York’s American Museum of Natural History to concentrate on teaching at Columbia. Born in Germany, Boas was fiercely ambitious and fascinated by science from childhood. Despite a doctorate in physics, he took up geography and spent a year studying the Inuit in northern Canada. This began a lifelong interest in non-Western cultures, which included trips to study First Nations peoples in the Pacific Northwest. Dissatisfied with limited opportunities in Germany, he settled permanently in America in 1887. Although quickly recognized, he spent years searching for a steady job, serving as an editor of the journal Science, organizer of the massive ethnology exhibit at Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exhibition, and, during an abortive period, head of anthropology at the newly founded Clark College. Financial security came with his appointment as a curator in the American Museum of Natural History in 1896. In 1899, he was named a professor at Columbia, after which his writing and the generation he taught converted anthropology from its clunky, racist origins into a modern scientific discipline. This is a work of academic research, not a popular biography. Readers who doubt that Zumwalt has read every letter, diary, and field note of Boas and his circle will quickly discover their error because her narrative technique is to make a point and then illustrate it with an excerpt from a document. Readers who begin each paragraph and then—upon encountering the first quotation mark—skip to the next will miss little. Nonspecialists will find Charles King’s Gods of the Upper Air far more accessible.

An expert but dense research study of a giant of modern science.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-4962-1554-3
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Univ. of Nebraska
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2019