Nonfiction, November 2019

Gods of the Upper Air by Charles King

Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century by Charles King. August 6, 2019. Doubleday, 431 p. ISBN: 9780385542197.  Int Lvl: AD.

A century ago, everyone knew that people were fated by their race, sex, and nationality to be more or less intelligent, nurturing, or warlike. But Columbia University professor Franz Boas looked at the data and decided everyone was wrong. Racial categories, he insisted, were biological fictions. Cultures did not come in neat packages labeled “primitive” or “advanced.” What counted as a family, a good meal, or even common sense was a product of history and circumstance, not of nature. In Gods of the Upper Air,a masterful narrative history of radical ideas and passionate lives, Charles King shows how these intuitions led to a fundamental reimagining of human diversity.

Boas’s students were some of the century’s most colorful figures and unsung visionaries: Margaret Mead, the outspoken field researcher whose Coming of Age in Samoa is among the most widely read works of social science of all time; Ruth Benedict, the great love of Mead’s life, whose research shaped post-Second World War Japan; Ella Deloria, the Dakota Sioux activist who preserved the traditions of Native Americans on the Great Plains; and Zora Neale Hurston, whose studies under Boas fed directly into her now classic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Together, they mapped civilizations from the American South to the South Pacific and from Caribbean islands to Manhattan’s city streets, and unearthed an essential fact buried by centuries of prejudice: that humanity is an undivided whole. Their revolutionary findings would go on to inspire the fluid conceptions of identity we know today.

Potentially Sensitive Areas: Mild language, Suicide, Frank discussion of racist ideas and history

 

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Reviews

Booklist starred (July 2019 (Vol. 115, No. 21))
King (Midnight at the Pera Palace, 2014) takes a sweeping look at the rise of cultural anthropology under Franz Boas (1858–1942), paying particular attention to the extraordinary women who studied under Boas and made further key advancements in the field. A native of Germany who began his own research on Baffin Island with the Inuit people, Boas came to New York to teach anthropology at Columbia University. Boas made waves by rejecting the idea of any innate superiority or inferiority in terms of intelligence or physical ability between people of different backgrounds. His research went against the notions his contemporaries were preaching in attempts to assert the supposed superiority of Anglo-Europeans. When the president of Columbia made a concerted effort to keep undergraduates from studying under Boas, the anthropologist found a new pool of eager young minds at Columbia’s sister school for women, Barnard. Among his more famous students were Margaret Mead, whose study of young Samoan women, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), became a bestseller; and Zora Neale Hurston, whose research brought her back home to Florida to document the cultural traditions of African Americans living in the region. King’s engrossing look at these extraordinary trailblazers deftly illustrates how crucial their research and work remains today.

Kirkus Reviews starred (July 1, 2019)
The story of cultural anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942) and “a small band of contrarian researchers” who shaped the open-minded way we think now. In this deeply engaging group biography, King (Government and International Affairs; Georgetown Univ.; Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul, 2014, etc.) recounts the lives and work of a handful of American scholars and intellectuals who studied other cultures in the 1920s and ’30s, fighting the “great moral evils: scientific racism, the subjugation of women, genocidal fascism, the treatment of gay people as willfully deranged.” Led by “Papa” Franz, who taught for four decades in Columbia University’s first anthropology department, the group of “misfits and dissenters” (as a university president called them) included Margaret Mead, whose expeditions to Polynesia produced Coming of Age in Samoa (1928); Ruth Benedict, Boas’ assistant, Mead’s lover, and author of Patterns of Culture (1934); Zora Neale Hurston, the Harlem Renaissance writer whose ethnographic studies led to her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937); and Ella Cara Deloria, a Native American scholar and ethnographer. King offers captivating, exquisitely detailed portraits of these remarkable individuals—the first cultural relativists—who helped demonstrate that humanity is “one undivided thing,” that race is “a social reality, not a biological one,” and that things had to be “proven” before they could shape law, government, and public policy. “When there was no evidence for a theory,” Boas argued, “…you had to let it go—especially if that thing just happened to place people like you at the center of the universe.” King’s smoothly readable story of the stubborn, impatient Boas and his acolytes emphasizes how their pioneering exploration of disparate cultures contradicts the notion that “our ways are the only commonsensical, moral ones.” Rich in ideas, the book also abounds in absorbing accounts of friendships, animosities, and rivalries among these early anthropologists. This superb narrative of debunking scientists provides timely reading for our “great-again” era.

About the Author

A native of the Ozark hill country, Charles King studied history and politics at the University of Arkansas and Oxford University. He is the author of The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus, The Black Sea: A History  and The Moldovans: Romania, Russia, and the Politics of Culture, as well as essays in the literary and popular press. He has worked with broadcast media such as CNN, the History Channel, and MTV. He teaches at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in Washington, DC, where he is Professor of International Affairs and Government.

His website is www.charles-king.net/.

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