Coming of age in alpha male-ville

Participant Observer
May 6, 2005

Robin Fox is professor of social theory at Rutgers University but the message of this autobiographical account of the "development of a soul" is that he is much more. From his earliest childhood, dancing for the broken biscuits of the ladies who worked in Woolworths, he has been a desperate performer, as poet, songsmith, lecturer, writer - always eager to please.

But this book is also a very determined claim to his status as an alpha male, for to produce nearly 600 pages about oneself is not to be modest about one's CV. It is a very full CV.

Fox sees himself as a witness to the ends of many things: the old British industrial north, the Thomas Hardy west, the old grammar schools, the original London School of Economics, Irish crofter life in a Gaelic mist, the Wasp gentlemen's clubs that were the Ivy League and, above all, anthropology as a tiny, bizarre rock pool before the demographic wave of the 1970s hit it.

The early chapters capture the confusion and struggle for understanding that make up a disordered yet magical childhood, quite brilliantly written to constitute the first fieldwork experience of which everything else is but a pale reprise. It reads as very Irish, for Fox is not just a naturalised American, he is an honorary Celt. London student days brought intellectual excitement, politics, drink, sex and skiffle. (Rock'n'roll had not been invented.) Marriage occurs to our hero before a scholarship to Harvard University sees him spread his wings, only to land in the oppressive atmosphere of Talcott Parsons's social relations department with its Freudian thought police. Exposure to structural linguistics leads to fieldwork among the Cochiti Indians of New Mexico, and this proves addictive. In all this, Fox sees himself rather like a pinball in a machine, ricocheted from pillar to post, and there is no attempt at firm chronology. History is not what happened, it is what you remember.

Returning to England to poverty and a lectureship at the new Exeter University, he discovers a new fieldwork locale, Tory Island, trapped in a time warp off the west coast of Ireland. Here, a people with their own "king", customs and legends marry without living together and, illiterate even in Gaelic, get themselves certified as entitled to blindness benefit by a helpful doctor because they cannot read English. Called back to the LSE, Fox begins two flirtations that will characterise the rest of his academic life - the first with "the incest problem" and the second with animal behaviour. Amid student sit-ins and political disillusionment, he flees again to the copious breast (as the Freudians would have it) of Mother America and becomes involved in the founding of a new college at Rutgers. Predictably betrayed by the administration, divorced and beguiled by ethology, his next turning point is the writing of that classic of biosociology, The Imperial Animal , which should bring fame and fortune but somehow does not. But salvation lies at hand, and he becomes head of his own foundation supporting research in the young sub-discipline he had helped found. A year at Oxford University leads to the reflections of his 40th year, and here the memoir ends. As Fox is now 77, this probably means another 600 pages are imminent.

This is a book of great verve and energy without too much name-dropping.

Occasionally, when dealing with friends and family, Fox lapses into American sentimentality; but love and loyalty are not the prime qualities required of a biographer. However, it is a little hard to see who the book is intended for. As an outline of anthropology, it is necessarily quirky and superficial. Fox's own brand of biosociology is far from the standard perspective, being viewed by most anthropology departments as a sort of bolt-on extra, at most, and usually dismissed - unfairly - as "Man as an ape with knobs on". Despite the odd good story, anthropologists would like more scandal. After all, the Harvard department in the 1950s was a famed hotbed of sexual irregularity, yet Fox has it run by Freudian virgins.

Similarly, it is hard to recognise the LSE of the period as a lush intellectual meadow. For outsiders, this was the time when Bronislaw Malinowski had left and the dwarves had taken over. As for Oxford and the assertion that Godfrey Lienhardt was a good teacher while Maurice Freedman was great and wise - this is not the place I recall as a student there. The best lines are the throwaway ones - for example, that the end of sexual segregation in Oxford colleges would mean that heterosexuals were finally admitted to All Souls.

The most enjoyable section is definitely part two, where Fox shrugs off the corset of his own eminence and writes the business of anthropology as short stories. These are gems and more truly self-revealing of his art and himself. The jacket blurb shows he has also written a volume of "verse and secular prose". On this evidence, it should be worth a read.

Nigel Barley is a writer and anthropologist, and was formerly a curator at the British Museum.

Participant Observer: A Memoir of a Transatlantic Life

Author - Robin Fox
Publisher - Transaction
Pages - 575
Price - £31.50
ISBN - 0 7658 0238 4

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