If you’ve heard of no other anthropologist, you’ve probably heard of Margaret Mead. Peter Mandler’s superb historical portrait tracks the career of the “mother of America” as she worked her way into the corridors of power during the Second World War and after. Celebrated for her 1928 best-seller Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead’s big idea was to take models from the field and carry them home as lessons in life for her fellow Americans.
But this is no mere biography. Mandler focuses almost as much on Ruth Benedict, Gregory Bateson and Geoffrey Gorer - the heroine’s influential lovers - as on Mead herself. Unlike her lovers, Mead had moral scruples about hitching anthropology to the priorities of the US military. Brilliant at devising compromises, however, she didn’t allow such sensitivities to get in the way. Mandler documents how the US military succeeded in co-opting Mead’s idiosyncratic reinvention of anthropology to provide moral justification for its involvement in the Second World War. The story ends with her becoming increasingly marginalised and vilified from the onset of the Cold War.
Can a country have a mother? Well, yes, if you accept Mead’s central idea. With her colleagues, she developed the bizarre theory that nations are best thought of as people, to be analysed in neo-Freudian terms. In the summer of 1940, Mead’s third husband, Bateson, became full-time secretary to the “Committee for National Morale”. Together, they constructed a new national character for America. The idea was that the US was a melting pot of races, cultures and ethnicities fused through what Bateson termed “zygogenesis”. This obviously entitled the US to present itself as a role model for the planet.
The war left the US as the world’s superpower. As military and economic dominance translated into intellectual dominance, Mead’s peculiar theories floated to the top. As Karl Marx put it: “The dominant ideas are the ideas of the dominant class.” It doesn’t matter how nutty the ideology - once backed by the powers-that-be, this is the nonsense that is destined to prevail.
During the 1950s, Mead’s institutional status began to wane. With Soviet communism now the enemy of civilisation, Mandler explains, attention shifted naturally to the Russian soul. Anxious to remain useful to her military sponsors, Mead searched around for something to say in keeping with the behaviourist, social-engineering fantasies that she had done so much to popularise.
From Mead’s would-be fourth husband, Gorer, came the idea that it all boiled down to swaddling. The Russian infant was swaddled to a board and so to its mother. Periodically, it would be released and fed at the breast. So your average Russian yearned for those blissful remembered moments of being temporarily unswaddled and fed. Hence the well-known Russian habit of seeking “maximum total gratifications” such as “orgiastic feasts, prolonged drinking bouts” and “high frequency of copulation”. Russia’s civil wars and revolutions now seemed easier to explain.
Having won the Second World War, Mead lost the Cold War. I don’t think Mandler satisfactorily explains why this happened. Yes, the swaddling nonsense made a laughing stock of all of them. But this can’t explain the collapse of the entire behaviourist social-engineering paradigm. Why did the US military switch from uncritically funding behaviourism to sponsoring its enemies under the banner of the “cognitive revolution”? Why insist that social engineering is impossible since human nature is fixed by our genes?
But that would be another book. Mandler’s account is massively well-documented and researched, although for me rather too narrowly focused on the rabbit warren of military and corporate funding agencies, committees, thinktanks and bureaucracies that his subject so cleverly managed to infiltrate and seduce. This is a view through a keyhole on a turning point in US intellectual history. For most readers, it will be an eye-opener. But Mandler is not an anthropologist and it shows. Capturing the clash of grand theoretical paradigms of the times is evidently not his strong point. I don’t want this to sound like a criticism: Mandler is an accomplished historian, and he gives us a highly nuanced, balanced, persuasive picture of one of the 20th century’s most important and influential thinkers. It remains for someone else to pull the threads together and present an intellectually convincing overview.
Return from the Natives: How Margaret Mead Won the Second World War and Lost the Cold War
By Peter Mandler
Yale University Press, 352pp, £30.00
Published 28 March 2013