A Pole apart

The Story of a Marriage - The Story of a Marriage
June 2, 1995

Bronislaw (Bronio) Malinowski is internationally renowned as a founding father of British social anthropology. More importantly, the parentage of its distinctive methodology of fieldwork can be traced to him. The circumstances are well known and have gained mythic proportions: how Malinowski, en route to an anthropological conference in Australia when the first world war was declared, ended up living with the natives of Papua New Guinea rather than face internment. The result of his three periods in the field among the natives of Mailu and, more famously, the Trobriand Islands, produced not only a copious body of raw material that Malinowski later transformed into classics of anthropological literature - Argonauts of the Western Pacific, The Sexual Life of Savages, Crime and Custom in Savage Society, Sex and Repression in Savage Society, Coral Gardens and Their Magic - that are still cornerstones of the discipline, but also led to a fundamental shift in the anthropological paradigm as the locus of research moved from armchair to field.

The posthumous (1967) publication of the diary he kept during his New Guinea fieldwork, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term, provoked a storm of controversy in an early manifestation of "political correctness". We thus probably know more about Malinowski, at least during his formative fieldwork years, than we do about any other anthropologist.

The publication here of the voluminous, if erratic, correspondence between Malinowski and his wife, Elsie Masson, reveals for the first time another facet of this complex man. Yet these letters not only reveal, they also confound. Unlike his memoirs or other autobiographical works, they were not written for public consumption and the perspective they offer has none of the exculpatory tone that might otherwise have been expected. But the image of the young Malinowski they project, particularly as he courts Elsie, may have a bias of an entirely different kind. As Malinowski himself wrote from the Trobriands, albeit on a different subject, "there are degrees of honesty, as there are degrees of truth, and there are just small touches which one can give to the phrasing, to the arrangement of facts etc that will give an additional lustre to things". This is a fitting epitaph for his letters as whole.

Edited by Malinowski's youngest daughter, Helena Wayne, The Story of a Marriage chronicles the lives of her parents from their meeting in 1916 until Elsie's premature death in 1935. The first volume contains the letters written in Australia and New Guinea from first meeting through marriage - against much opposition - to departure for Europe in 1920. As it includes all Malinowski's letters to Elsie written while he was in the Trobriands, it provides an interesting new perspective on a crucial period of his life. The second volume covers 1920-35, as the couple lived peripatetic - and often separated - lives in half a dozen countries.

The letters are highly accessible and often amusing. They shed light on both the daily life of one of the most influential thinkers of our century and his extraordinary interwar milieu. To those who think of Malinowski as the aristocratic Krakow intellectual, from the few photographs showing a severe, balding, wire-spectacled aesthete, the letters will expose an unexpected side.

The early letters are the most illuminating, which perhaps should not surprise us. They were written under most trying circumstances. Malinowski, alienated in both senses of the term, was living in a jungle environment, amid sickness and physical isolation, with his unresolved academic status and uncertain professional future further complicated by the news of the death of his mother half a world away, to say nothing of his complicated romantic entanglements with the daughter of one of his sponsors as he fell ever deeper in love with patient, caring Elsie. Although he was 32 and Elsie 26 when they met, their first letters betray an almost cloying sentimentality (as recognised by Malinowski himself, who noted in one letter, "this sounds as sentimental as a schoolgirl's essay on Schiller").

Yet for every letter that shows a previously unknown human side, there is another that reinforces the image of the arrogant Mittel-European intellectual. Venting his displeasure to Elsie at hearing of his daughter writing letters to the family servants back in the Tirol he wrote: "I warned her not to write to Pepi and Mitzi any more. In a way I appreciate her general democratic kindness, in another I would like her to get to realise social distinctions and distances early."

Some letters show great perspicacity. Although Malinowski was lionised in the United States and generally enjoyed himself there, he condemned (for instance) Los Angeles, railing in 1926 against its pollution and its values: "Several suburbs are devoted to the movie industry, the villas of Charlie the Great, of Marie (sic) Pickford, are shown like national monuments and the absurdest worship of vulgar money-standards is in the air." Exhilarated but ultimately worn down by America he concluded: "I have the feeling that I have seen face to face a dreadful Entity which is gradually going to conquer the world and level it down to a meaningless, jolly, jovial banality."

In other letters, it is no little surprise to learn that this luminary experienced the same years of struggle as any other impoverished postgrad. A constant anxiety about money is betrayed as the 30-something anthropologist, not yet internationally known, lurches from one soft-money grant to the next in the tramatic and difficult years between doctorate and tenure.

It was in order to supplement his income that Malinowski first turned to publishing his Trobriands work. He wrote his books with the express goal of reaching as wide an audience as possible, through clear writing and attractive titles (for example, The Sexual Life of Savages) selected with Saatchi-like precision. The letters show him amused to find his books taken up by disreputable booksellers as well as by the intellectual elite; undoubtedly he would have laughed to hear that they are still reportedly sold in Soho bookshops.

Argonauts of the Western Pacific was an anthropological bestseller, probably second only in sales to Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa. Although first published in 1922, it has never gone out of print. But the letters reveal that the manuscript was by no means immediately taken up by publishers. Malinowski experienced growing despair as Macmillan and other publishers rejected it, until it was finally accepted by George Routledge and Sons. We note, too, that the clarity of exposition which is the hallmark of Malinowski's academic publications may not be wholly indigenous. His letters betray a middle-European syntax and grammar at odds with that of his publications. They underscore the significance of the thanks given to Elsie in the acknowledgments of several books, suggesting that these were more than ritual obeisance to a helpful spouse. Judging by his letters, the success of Malinowski's published works owed more to his remarkable wife than has been recognised.

The letters are not, however, just for Malinowski watchers. As the title of both volumes proclaims, this is the story of two people. Elsie's letters reveal a remarkable, if largely unknown woman of tremendous strength, vitality and character who was dealt a cruel blow - multiple sclerosis - and died in what should have been the prime of her life. Her gentle humour in difficult circumstances shines throughout. Nowhere is this more true than in her coping with their extraordinary peripatetic lifestyle. For years they seem to have lived together only during the breaks in the academic year; they bought their first house in England in 1929 after a decade of Malinowski living in London digs while his wife (and their children) lived in a variety of Mediterranean and Tirolean locations. In a postscript to a letter of 19 Elsie recounted a conversation between their daughters that illustrated the confusions wrought by their dispersed domestic arrangements: "By the way, tell Mackenzie: the two photos of his child aroused much interest with (the girls) who discussed whose child it was. 'It is Mr Firth's child.' 'No, he has not a child.' 'Then it is Mr Schapera's child.' 'No, he has not one either.' 'Oh then, it must be Bronio's.'"

Steven Seidenberg is an anthropologist formerly at the University of Oxford, turned documentary film-maker, who lived in the Trobriand Islands while making a film about Malinowski.

The Story of a Marriage: The Letters of Bronislaw Malinowski and Elsie Masson, Volume One, 1916-1920

Editor - Helena Wayne
ISBN - 0 415 11758-5 and 12076 4
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00 and £13.99 each volume
Pages - 191

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