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Sex and Temperaments
By Margaret Black

Intertwined Lives: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Their Circle
By Lois W. Banner
Alfred A. Knopf, 540 pages, $30

After my son read Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture—first published in 1934—he told me he now knew where all my ideas came from. Although a little reductive, he was close to the truth, and would have been even closer if he’d also read Margaret Mead’s Growing Up in Samoa (1928) and Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935). Two highly regarded social scientists, Benedict and Mead substantially influenced the new field of anthropology, and their completely accessible writing reached a broad popular audience, especially college students in the years following World War II. They helped prepare us to live effectively in our suddenly more multicultural world, and they certainly spurred the sexual revolution of the late ’60s.

Benedict was a cultural relativist who quite forcefully exposed the Western bias of social science. She was also highly critical of materialism and violent aggression. Patterns of Culture asserts that cultures choose to value only certain human qualities and behaviors from the vast array possible, and consequently one culture may celebrate precisely what another despises or regards as abnormal. People whose temperaments fit with their culture’s feel right at home; those who don’t suffer as deviants or outsiders. You can imagine how this pleased us
students.

Mead focused on sex. Coming of Age in Samoa explored a society in which adolescence passed without fuss or turmoil, and young people were free to engage in sex before marriage with any number of partners. Now that was wonderful news. Mead’s next major work, Sex and Temperament, demonstrated that one’s biological sex didn’t necessarily correspond in any way to the characteristics traditionally associated in the West with “masculine” and “feminine.”

Shortly after Benedict entered the Ph.D. program in anthropology at Columbia University, she became Mead’s instructor during Mead’s senior year at Barnard College. Mead’s initial dislike of Benedict gave way to such fascination with her ideas that Mead even rode with Benedict on the bus to continue their conversations. Benedict, 15 years Mead’s senior and anxious for sympathetic colleagues, recruited Mead into anthropology, and the two maintained a lifelong
personal and professional relationship.

They were quite different: Benedict was tall, shy, majestic, and calm, while tiny Mead was an outgoing explosion of talk and gestures. Both women married, and both, it turns out, had a number of male and female lovers, including each other. It would be interesting to speculate on what we students would have thought if we had known then what Lois Banner’s new book, Intertwined Lives, says about what Benedict and Mead were doing as well as what they were writing.

Banner joins the ranks of many who have written about Mead or Benedict—including her two protagonists themselves—but she has the distinct advantage of being the first to publish since their private papers were made public. Although both women participated in psychological studies involving highly personal information, Benedict never publicly admitted her lesbian preferences. Mead was politically cagey about hers, and she never revealed her sexual relations with Benedict.

Banner brings much more to her volume than titillating new sexual details. The author of several scholarly works on women in modern America, Banner’s nuanced appreciation of feminism as it evolved in the early 20th century contributes greatly. She also brings a specialist’s understanding to her explication of the passionate same-sex relationships permitted unmarried girls in their teens and at college at the turn of the 20th century. Her rich discussions of anthropology’s early figures, particularly Frank Boas,
re-create the excitement—and the infighting—among an extraordinarily lively and engaging group of individuals. She’s good on the intellectual arguments also, and handsomely summarizes the contents of her protagonists’ major works.

But this maddening book suffers massively from a number of problems, one of which—utter confusion regarding dates and time periods—might have been solved by a simple chronology. Despite a scrupulous index, it’s extraordinarily hard to locate information that you’ve already read, and this is problematic because the author jumps around a lot in what is basically a chronological story. Banner also quotes comments made later in life by Benedict, Mead, or one of their circle about a subject she is discussing as it arises chronologically. This leads to annoying repetition, and it also creates confusion about what Benedict or Mead thought at a particular time, especially about subjects—homosexuality, for example—where their attitudes changed over time.

Banner has to juggle two detailed biographies, as well as several shorter ones regarding “their circle.” Because both Mead and Benedict made much of their family backgrounds (in part they were searching for Freudian trauma in their lives), the author spends more time than any reader can
possibly desire informing us about their forebears. Important information—the educational and professional achievements of their mothers, for example—sinks into the morass of details. The author’s attempt to treat Benedict’s and Mead’s early lives in
parallel doesn’t work. Benedict enters Vassar College in 1905 and experiences the horrors of World War I as a married adult. Mead is only in high school during that war, and she enters college during the jazz/flapper 1920s.

The author clearly absorbed and documents masses of new information, but she sometimes doesn’t support important assertions. She quotes extensively—often unnecessarily, which further clots the narrative—but then will fail to quote verifying text when she makes crucial assertions. For example, she says that Mead “made a commitment to Benedict to reject other female lovers.” Then four pages along she has Benedict giving Mead “freedom to follow the ‘pattern’ of her personality, to do what she wanted in free-love fashion with no jealousy on Ruth’s part.” The actual text might help us decide whether these two statements are contradictory.

Banner runs down every rabbit hole, digressing to explain every person, book, or thought she mentions. It’s possible that readers of Intertwined Lives don’t know that boys played girls in Shakespeare and that there’s gender switching in As You Like It, but not likely. A labored discussion of Mabel Dodge, a fellow student at Benedict’s high school, goes nowhere because Mabel, interesting as she is in her own right, had no significant impact on Benedict.

Although everyone in this book was deadly serious, I have to say there are some excruciatingly comic scenes among these free-love proponents (who nonetheless so carefully screened their public personae). My favorite takes place in hot, humid New Guinea, when Mead is holed up in a “mosquito hut” measuring 8 feet by 8 feet with Reo Fortune, her second husband, and Geoffrey Bateson, her lover (and third husband to be). The three are discussing sex (what else?) in exquisite discomfort. Reo is furious at Margaret’s infidelity (and he doesn’t even know about her affair on the ship to New Zealand to marry him), but she talks him around. Thereupon, in raptures, he composes a letter to Luther, her first husband, expressing his “love for Luther’s relationship with Margaret.”

Intertwined Lives is a dense forest of interesting information and thoughtful discussion. It’s a pity that we have to slash through so much undergrowth to get through it.

 

 


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