The most famous line of the most famous book of one of the great American public intellectuals of the first half of the twentieth-century defines “the problem” of the coming century as “the problem of the color-line.” The Souls of Black Folk (1903) uses the sentence three times, and may not refer exclusively to the chasm that divided black and white. But prescient though W. E. B. Du Bois was, and salient though his legacy has been, he is not conspicuously associated with the defense of other racial minorities and ancestral groups. In the twenty-first century, the line looks more colorful than the one that Du Bois devoted his life to erasing; the primary colors have been extended into numerous variations. Even as he noted that the blood of several peoples flowed through his veins, African ancestry determined his identity. He therefore had very personal reasons for his opposition to racism, which the historian George M. Fredrickson defined as “a rationalized pseudoscientific theory positing the innate and permanent inferiority of nonwhites.”
For members of the race that benefited from inequality, the struggle against white supremacy was presumably less compelling than it was for Du Bois, whose commitment to civil rights could be dismissed as special pleading. His friend Franz Boas was a Jewish immigrant from Germany. Among white public intellectuals he was also unsurpassed in making the crossing of that color-line — for the sake of justice — central to his vocation. Consistent in his defense of the very precarious rights of African-Americans, Boas also promoted understanding of the indigenous peoples of the New World. In the breadth of his critique of race, he can therefore lay claim to have vindicated even more decisively than Du Bois the ideal of the public intellectual in the United States. (And unlike Du Bois, Boas never did anything in politics as silly as becoming a Communist.)
The other apt comparison is to Thomas Jefferson, the most influential intellectual ever to hold the nation’s highest office. The notorious image of blacks presented in Notes on the State of Virginia (1783) helped form the color-line. And yet Jefferson’s record of disparagement has to be weighed against his insistence that “all men are created equal.” That credo led Herman Melville, speaking for the defense, to argue that “the Declaration of Independence makes a difference.” Jefferson was also fascinated with Native Americans, whose vocabularies he collected and wanted to have compiled. He should thus be deemed a precursor to Boas, who really was an egalitarian. His academic legacy, as well as his personal and civic commitments, could be called Jeffersonian, in the sense that they were directed toward realizing the moral promise of the Declaration of Independence.
The Vocation of Public Intellectual
Boas is among the supreme public intellectuals in the span of the republic because the authority of his expertise was entwined with the purposes to which he applied his citizenship. His contributions to his discipline were as formidable as anyone has ever made, but he also drew upon his scholarly credentials to fight for good causes. A public intellectual who strays too far outside his or her own field runs the risk of becoming a “publicity intellectual”; and Boas was careful to hug the shore, never straying too far from his own subject of expertise. By making his academic specialization accessible to others, Boas made ideas into weapons. His ethnic origins and his political ideals predisposed him to fight the power. Rejecting the racialism that dominated late-nineteenth-century thought, he advanced an alternative social science uncontaminated by condescension towards lesser breeds. So persuasive was his research that a paradigm shift occurred; and buttressed with the authority of scholarship, Boas became pivotal in changing public discourse on the often radioactive subject of race. Indeed he has been called “the founder of American antiracism.” This essay is intended to demonstrate how fully Franz Boas exemplified the ideal of the scholar as activist and as the exemplar of a social conscience. Perhaps no one in modern American history came closer to satisfying that standard.
Born in 1858, Boas had the luck not to die young, or even in middle age — but instead to go the distance. He died at the age of 84. Longevity and undiminished intellectual force allowed for prodigious output in writing for the scholarly community as well as for a general audience. A New Yorker cartoon once showed two cavemen looking at a third strutting past them. One of the pair remarks: “Sure he invented the wheel — but what’s he done lately?” Boas’s answer to that question marked him as no slouch. His bibliography lists 625 titles, and runs forty pages. His oeuvre in his specialization — the Kwakiutl and other tribes of the Pacific Northwest — totaled more than 10,000 printed pages.
Boas’s best-known work is nevertheless The Mind of Primitive Man (1911), which the radical critic Randolph Bourne hailed for having brought closer the realization of “the Brotherhood of man.” Social science might therefore accomplish what “religion has failed to achieve,” the reviewer added. No text of its era lent such scholarly authority to the struggle against racism and jingoism. In 1936 Time magazine called the book “the Magna Charta of the ‘lower’ races,” their claim to dignity and legitimization. Another indication of the impact of The Mind of Primitive Man came at the end of that decade, when a series of articles appeared in the New Republic devoted to non-fiction that altered the course of American thought. Only a dozen books were short-listed. Among the European authors were Freud, Spengler and Lenin, with Boas joining three other Americans (Beard, Dewey and Veblen). In the magazine Boas’s student Paul Radin explained why The Mind of Primitive Man made the cut. It “demonstrated conclusively that races and sub-races were mixed and possessed no stability; that no language was, in any meaningful sense, superior to another or better capable of expressing ideas than another, and that no connection existed between the physical type of a given population and the culture it developed.” Virginia Woolf famously dated a transformation in “human character” to December, 1910. However odd her hypothesis, a tiny flip of the calendar page to the following year did change thinking about human character.
Exactly half a century after the publication of The Mind of Primitive Man, one survey of the leading thinkers in the discipline claimed that “the range of Boas’ interests and accomplishments in anthropology has not been approached by any other anthropologist, except, perhaps, by [one of Boas’s own students, Alfred] Kroeber. It included every major area in physical and cultural anthropology.” Boas’s virtuosity was most evident in the year that his most famous book was published. In 1911 he also published the first volume of the Handbook of American Indian Languages, which consisted of the grammars of nineteen different tongues. The Handbook may well be his most enduring professional achievement. And for the Dillingham Commission, which Congress had authorized in 1907 to examine the implications of the “new immigration,” Boas produced Changes in Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants, a controversial anthropometric demonstration of the impact of environment on presumably stable head-form. The deviations in the cephalic index that Boas and his team of thirteen research assistants discovered constituted a riposte to the nativists who feared that newcomers were inassimilable. (For something comparable — and astonishing — in another field of endeavor, consider 1993, when director Steven Spielberg released two significant but radically different films: Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park.)
Another measure of greatness in a public intellectual is foresight. It is one thing to be embedded in one’s own time, revealing or diagnosing its peculiar historical features; it is another to adumbrate the future too. Boas was hardly a prophet without honor. But he still speaks to our concerns. For all of his immunity to the dominant racism in the social sciences and the social order, Boas was no outcast. He was a maverick, but he was not marginalized. In promoting humane inclusiveness, in recording the contingency of identity, Boas was ahead of his time — which makes him so appealing a figure in ours.
It also helped to get off to a fast start. After studying in Heidelberg, Bonn, and Berlin as well as in Kiel, Boas came to the United States at the age of 29. He hated the rise of German nationalism, as he observed the strutting “Deutschtum” of Bismarck trumping the “Menschlichkeit” of Herder; and the antisemitism of the Second Reich, where “Jewish teachers have great difficulty getting an appointment,” spurred Boas’s emigration. A beloved uncle, Abraham Jacobi, had been a Forty-Eighter, and fled political persecution to become the first professor of pediatric medicine in the United States. He was also a close friend of another German-American liberal, Carl Schurz; and Jacobi enjoyed the sort of status that enabled him to smooth Boas’s adaptation to the new nation. Becoming a U. S. citizen in 1891, Boas rose quickly in the habitus he chose. The notoriously severe standards of German higher education did not exactly temper his self-confidence; professional competition in the new nation did not exactly scare him. “It is very easy to be one of the first among anthropologists over here,” Boas assured his mother in 1907. By 1896 he was already a lecturer in physical anthropology at Columbia. Three years later Boas joined its faculty full-time as a professor of anthropology, and by 1901 he had become a curator at the American Museum of Natural History as well.
His intellectual range was enormous. He started in physics, with a doctorate from the University of Kiel, and then switched to geography. At Clark University, a new research-oriented institution that in 1888 gave Boas his first teaching post, his subject was psychology. (Chairing the physics department was Albert A. Michelson, who would become the first American to win a Nobel Prize.) In 1909, when Clark University celebrated the twentieth anniversary of its founding, he received an honorary L. L. D. and delivered the keynote address on “Psychological Problems in Anthropology.” The photo marking the occasion shows Boas in the front row at the far left. Third from the left was William James. Standing tall in the middle was one of James’s former students, the president of Clark, psychologist G. Stanley Hall. Immediately to Hall’s left was Sigmund Freud, and immediately to his left was Carl Gustav Jung. Another mark of an exemplary public intellectual may be self-assurance in facing so intimidating an audience. At Clark Boas supervised the first Ph. D. that any American university awarded in anthropology, in 1892 (his last year of teaching there); and when he switched to Columbia, its Department of Anthropology achieved independence when Boas became a full professor in 1899, when he was forty-one. The first of his graduate students to earn a doctorate was Kroeber (1876-1960).
Soon thereafter Boas was even exerting influence in aesthetics, helping museums to redefine the deathless problem of what constitutes art. In 1953, when Alain Resnais and Chris Marker did a documentary for Présence Africaine entitled “Les Statues meurent aussi,” they wondered: “Pourquoi l’art nègre se trouve-t-il au musée de l’Homme alors que l’art grec or égyptien se trouve au Louvre?” (why are the arts of the Africans in an ethnological museum, whereas the arts of the Egyptians and the Greeks are in the Louvre?). This query has a precedent in what Boas wrote in 1909, in praising the “artistic merit” of African civilization, and in lamenting that “unfortunately our American museums have never paid any adequate attention” to it. As early as 1906, he was calling for an “African Museum” that would display “the best products of African civilization.” Such an institution would deflect assumptions of black inferiority, and would inform Americans that “the African race in its own continent has achieved advancements which have been of importance in the development of civilization.”
Nor did white skin prevent Boas from exerting an impact on the aesthetic claims of the Negro Renaissance of the 1920s. So did his counterparts in French anthropology, like Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, Marcel Mauss and Paul Rivet. They promoted the interwar “African Renaissance” in Paris. The philosopher Alain Locke also subscribed to or was influenced by Boas’s anti-evolutionism and anti-racism. The first black American to be honored with a Rhodes Scholarship, Locke was attracted to Boas’s insistence upon the universality of the creative gift. That claim punctured any justification for dividing on aesthetic grounds European expression from everyone else’s.
Among public intellectuals whose base is in the academy, no one quite matched Boas in the influence that he exerted in the formation of his scholarly field. Here he is comparable to Emile Durkheim, who was born in the same year. By the last decade of the nineteenth century, Durkheim was teaching the first course in the social sciences ever offered in France, at the University of Bordeaux, and was to sociology what Boas was to anthropology — an iconic, ahead-of-the-curve figure. In the late nineteenth century, Boas encountered anthropology when it was commonly a plaything for amateurs, when the field attracted the connoisseurs of exoticism. By the early twentieth century, he had embarked upon an enterprise that converted anthropology into a (social) science. It is not an outrageous exaggeration to assert that Boas created this particular academic discipline ex nihilo. According to the editor of a volume published in his honor, “anthropology in America was . . . largely shaped in the image of Boas.”
He was among the founders of the American Folk-Lore Society in 1888, and served as its president for three terms. Between 1908 and 1923 Boas served as editor of the journal (the JAFL), and he remained its associate editor until 1942. The organization was his lengthened shadow; and his close associates or his former students were key members of the Society, which was committed to highlighting the importance of black folklore in understanding black culture. Boas had no formal training in linguistics. But he just happened to have invented the field of comparative linguistics, which he founded through the study of Indian languages (which Jefferson had advocated earlier). Indeed Boas may have produced more grammars of indigenous languages than any scholar who ever lived. Boas also mastered sub-specialties like archeology, ethnology, physical anthropology and even statistics, and thus shaped the boundaries of his discipline in the United States. He did not invent “the practice of doing field research,” nor did he “initiate its techniques.” But several of his predecessors, who lived among the Native Americans, were not professionals; and those who were tended not to hold their jobs long enough to train the cadre of anthropologists that Boas succeeded in doing. Ahead of anyone else, he demanded intensive and systematic observation of other peoples, exercised with the care that scientists were investigating the natural world.
No wonder then that Abram Kardiner, the psychoanalyst destined to be one of Freud’s last patients, and co-author Edward Preble called Boas “the greatest hero in American anthropology.”(Kardiner had studied under Boas.) Such praise may be attributed to the independence of mind he brought to an emerging discipline. Boas’s fresh insights surely stemmed from his resistance to authority and to the burden of the past, as though he personified the American Adam. Durkheim had been born into a rabbinical family, and sustained an appreciation for the force of religion. By contrast Boas’s upbringing had been entirely secular, and a lapidary philosophical statement that he recorded in 1939 did not even mention his Jewish origins. Grateful for the healthy consequences that he believed “free-thinking” had generated, he wrote that “the implicit belief in the authority of tradition” was utterly “foreign to my mind.” That stance led Boas to the following conclusion: “My whole outlook upon social life is determined by the question: How can we recognize the shackles that tradition has laid upon us? For when we recognize them, we are also able to break them.” His pedagogy was consistent with that iconoclasm. “There is no Boas ‘school,’” Kardiner and Preble asserted, because Boas didn’t want disciples.
He didn’t get them. Instead he produced the most impressive cohort of students in the history of anthropology. Not that he was Mr. Chips. Distant in manner, authoritative in tone, and accustomed to dominating a department in which the rank of full professor was his alone, Boas was so absorbed in his own multiple research projects that he was often inaccessible. How should field work in Samoa be conducted?, Margaret Mead wondered. Boas gave her only half an hour of his time. And yet somehow such gruff and astringent pedagogy clicked. Refusing to build a discipline around acolytes, he demonstrated so considerable a capacity to transmit knowledge, to inspire curiosity, to perpetuate learning and to expand its boundaries, that he became the greatest teacher of anthropologists who ever lived. Indeed, in terms of his innovative impact upon his academic field as well as his flair for attracting younger practitioners, Franz Boas ought to be regarded as one of the most dazzling teachers in American history. Between 1892 and 1926, forty-five doctorates were granted in anthropology throughout the nation. Boas supervised nearly half of them (nineteen).
Typifying his students was Robert H. Lowie (1883-1957), who was born in Vienna and became fascinated with the Far West as a result of reading Indianerbüchel (mass-market paperbacks about the Native Americans). Lowie’s family brought him to the United States at the age of ten. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the City College of New York (CCNY) in 1901, and began graduate work at Columbia under Boas in 1904. Within two years he was already living among the Lemhi Shoshone in Idaho, and got his doctorate in 1908. Having studied North American Indian languages as well as statistics with Boas, Lowie recalled that his mentor “inspired his students with the sense of the dignity of his science as a branch of knowledge that demanded as rigorous standards of research as any of the older disciplines.” Lowie disclaimed membership in any Boas school, but got from his mentor an ardent empiricism and some wariness about grand theory. President of the American Folklore Society, as well as president of the American Ethnological Society, Lowie enjoyed a distinguished academic career, mostly at Berkeley.
Space does not permit a fuller account of the caliber of students who got their graduate training under Boas. Special notice should nevertheless be taken of the female anthropologists whom he attracted. Columbia University’s Harriet Zuckerman and other sociologists have conjectured that, as opposed to the physical and natural sciences, “women have been more welcome in new or marginal fields, where the population density has been low and the subject material has not been ‘hot’ enough to attract pushy and ambitious men.” But the pioneering status of the discipline alone cannot explain the appeal Boas radiated. The historian Carl N. Degler suspects that “probably more women anthropologists were trained at Columbia under Boas during the first twenty years of the new century than at any other university in the country.” To them in particular, he was known as “Papa Franz.” Nevertheless the father of modern anthropology was rarely called that to his face, which was reputedly disfigured by scars incurred in fights with antisemitic German fraternity members. (The effects of a stroke later rendered his visage asymmetrical.)
Even if questions of “patriarchy” and maybe even patronizing attitudes are raised by his nickname, it is striking that his students included such notable American women as Zora Neale Hurston, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. The feisty Hurston once asked him during a party whether he was her “papa.” He told others at that party: “Of course Zora is my daughter. Certainly!” Then he added, with a smile: “Just one of my missteps, that’s all.” But his was a stern and largely uncontested paternalism; father knows best. He expected “facts, not guesses”; and she recalled that Boas would “pin you down till you delivered.” One result was Mules and Men (1935), for which he wrote the foreword. Benedict was Boas’s teaching assistant when she met Mead, a Barnard College undergraduate who was fifteen years her junior and was specializing in psychology. They met in Boas’s introductory course in anthropology, and went on field trips together to the American Museum of Natural History. In an era when women could rarely gain traction in academe, Boas made her in effect his successor as editor of the Journal of American Folk-Lore. He tried in vain to persuade the Rockefeller Foundation to fund positions for female academicians, with Benedict in mind; nor could he initially get the Columbia administration to imagine a regular faculty appointment for her in the Department of Anthropology. He finally succeeded in 1931, when she became an assistant professor. Boas provided the introduction to Benedict’s most famous book, Patterns of Culture (1934). She grew close enough to Boas for Mead to call Benedict his “second self.” She, Mead and eventually Hurston all wrote books that exerted a popular appeal exceeding anything that their teacher ever published.
For his time, Boas was advanced in his thinking about gender. He was not unique, because other male social scientists of the era were also drawn to offering social accounts for the behavioral divergences between men and women. But Boas was nevertheless among the first social scientists to do so. As early as 1894, he was claiming that “the faculty of woman is undoubtedly just as high as that of man.” Opportunities to cultivate that faculty were of course notoriously restricted, which led one of his students, Ruth Bunzel, to tabulate only three choices for her generation of middle-class women: to join expatriates among the lost generation in Paris, to identify with the proletariat by hawking the Daily Worker, or to become anthropologists. Although historian Elazar Barkan wryly doubts that the possibilities for female autonomy were thereby exhausted, only the third option promised fulfillment over the course of a lifetime. And “Papa Franz,” as a liberal and a democrat, happened to project a political profile responsive to the bourgeois alienation that Bunzel’s other two choices reflected.
Progressive politics also suggested the attraction of Jews to the magnetic needle of anthropology, and to Boas in particular. Admittedly his most famous students were all Gentiles: Mead, Benedict, Hurston, Kroeber. But their fame need not blunt consideration of the pronounced Jewish atmosphere surrounding Boas. His activism — the vestiges of the German liberal idealism of 1848 — must have exerted special appeal. At Columbia anthropology constituted an enclave that was spared the smug and philistine Republican ascendancy of the 1920s. Margaret Mead (1901-1978) recalled that, as an undergraduate at Barnard, about half of her friends were Jews. When Mead was off for the summers, she reminisced, “I often got very bored with the slower intellectual pace of the Gentile world.” When she and her friends joined mass meetings to protest the conviction of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1921, or saw her companions championing the Amalgamated Clothing Workers union, they “used to argue vigorously as to whether or not Jews had a ‘chromosome’ for social justice.” (Later, the DNA evidence would be inconclusive.) Mead attended every class that Boas taught. Though “his lectures were polished and clear,” and though he “had a keen eye for the capabilities of his students,” surely his character added decisively to his appeal. “Boas was profoundly human in his concern for students who had no money to live on,” Mead recalled. Fortunately her own financial worries evaporated with the publication of her best-selling Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), for which Boas wrote the foreword.
His knack for attracting talent was hardly restricted to aspiring anthropologists. When the Brazilian social theorist Gilberto Freyre (1900-1987) took his master’s degree at Columbia, he studied with Boas; nor can it be mere coincidence that the author of The Masters and the Slaves (first published as Casa-Grande e Senzala in 1933) would become famous for extolling the black heritage of Brazil. When Columbia created a graduate program in art history, its first student was Meyer Schapiro (1904-1996). He found in Boas a teacher who cherished primitive art, who took the long view of human experience, who conveyed a zest for adventure, and who personified the ideal of a progressive thinker — all without the forfeiture of academic integrity. Schapiro fell under the spell of Boas, whose influence was not even confined to the young people of promise who formally studied with him. While working in behalf of the Loyalist cause during the Spanish Civil War, Boas linked up with a Columbia graduate student (in public law) who then joined him in gathering signatures for a “Scientists’ Manifesto” against “the official racialism of the Nazis.” The student was Moses Israel Finkelstein, who served as the secretary of the American Committee for Democracy and Intellectual Freedom. (Boas founded the organization and served as honorary chairman.) Later, during the McCarthy era, Finkelstein went into exile, after Rutgers University fired him. (He had taken the Fifth Amendment before the Internal Security Committee of the U. S. Senate.) As M. I. Finley, and still later as Sir Moses Finley (1912-1986), a British subject, he reshaped classical studies by applying anthropological insights to the economic conditions of the ancient world.
What Boas achieved at Columbia can be compared to the rise of sociology at the University of Chicago. There the sparkplug credited with the emergence of an academic subject was the founding president, the classicist William Rainey Harper, instead of a single enterprising sociologist. The University of Chicago gave birth to the world’s first department of sociology (called Social Science and including anthropology), created about a decade before Boas came to Columbia. But the first chairman of Chicago’s department, Albion Small, happened to be an excruciatingly dull teacher. He lacked Boas’s capacity to combine academic empire-building with inspirational influence upon the young. Small did however edit the first sociological journal in the United States, the American Journal of Sociology. Columbia sent its anthropologists to the Pacific Northwest or the Southwest or even to the South Seas. Chicago sent its sociologists to the city’s own neighborhoods, to discover how ancestral traditions got attenuated or adapted. Even while extremely few blacks were attending Ivy League institutions, Boas was incorporating black studies into the Columbia curriculum by 1907, and introduced courses on “The Negro Question” and on “The Race Problem in the United States.” The University of Chicago offered its first course on “The Negro” in 1913; the instructor was Robert Ezra Park. He had worked at the Tuskegee Institute for Booker T. Washington and later became president of Chicago’s Urban League. (Contrast Boas’s friendship with the more militant Du Bois.)
An aura of piety hovered over Chicago’s department, a milieu that included clergymen and (like Small himself) their sons. These academicians adhered to the social gospel that served as so famous a response to the upheavals of urbanization and industrialization. At Chicago sociology was closely affiliated with the divinity school, and to a lesser extent with the Chicago Theological Seminary. The atmospherics around Boas could scarcely have been more divergent. His prototypical student was a secular Jew not far removed from Ellis Island, a second- or even first-generation American who subscribed to liberal and perhaps leftist politics. At Columbia Melville J. Herskovits even wore a Wobblies’ button, and before World War One Robert Lowie was already contributing articles against racism to the socialist New Review. At Chicago the counterpart to Columbia’s prototypical leftist student was (pace Dusty Springfield) the son of a preacher man. The aspiring sociologist tended to spring from Northern and Western European stock, and to come from a Protestant family living in a village. In the early decades few Jewish or Roman Catholic students were attracted to Chicago. In 1912, when meeting Robert Park, W. I. Thomas greeted his new colleague — perhaps jokingly — with “My Dear Brother in Christ.” That salutation is unlikely to have echoed in the corridors of Columbia’s Department of Anthropology.
One reason that President Harper had decided against hiring Boas in 1894 was that, however promising, the young anthropologist could not seem to “take direction.” But from a base at Columbia, he enjoyed the freedom to alter the direction of an entire discipline. Here is one sign: in 1925, when anthropology fully split off from sociology at the University of Chicago, it hired his student Edward Sapir. In contributing to the broader campaign against racial prejudice as well, Boas is even credited with dissuading the sociologists at the University of Chicago from proposing racial causes of behavior.
In academic life, brilliance is a quality that is supposed to be prized. In civil society, intellectual powers are of little worth without courage—and Boas managed to exhibit cojones too. Proof came during the Great War, when both academic freedom (which was tenuous at best) and civil liberty (ditto) were severely tested.
As a cosmopolitan liberal, Boas harbored an understandable antipathy to war. As an admirer of the scientific and musical patrimony of the Vaterland, this naturalized citizen also absented himself from the stars-and-stripes-forever patriotism of the era and from the hysteria directed at “the Hun.” Boas had not intended to reject the “chauvinism and servility” of Bismarck’s Germany only to experience the same spirit in Wilson’s America. The academy often succumbed to such pressures, however. At Columbia the administration of President Nicholas Murray Butler invited students to report to a specially created university board if they heard suspiciously disloyal remarks by the faculty. Boas thereupon read to his classes a denunciation of such patriotic vigilance, and offered to make copies of the statement available for any students who wished to forward it to any member of the board of trustees at the university. Again Boas was lucky. He could have been busted; instead he was left alone. But in the early fall of 1917, two professors, J. McKeen Cattell and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana, were accused of disloyalty. Boas wrote a letter on Cattell’s behalf, pleading with Butler against dismissal. Cattell and Dana were fired anyway, which prompted the university’s two most prominent historians, Charles A. Beard and James Harvey Robinson, to resign in protest. The following year Veblen was tempted to subtitle his mordant book on The Higher Learning in America “a study in total depravity.”
The realization that the Great War had compromised the ideal of neutral academic research led Boas to further controversy. In a letter published in The Nation on December 20, 1919, he denounced some of his fellow anthropologists for wartime spying while ostensibly engaged in field work. “Incontrovertible proof has come to my hands,” he wrote, “that at least four men who carry on anthropology work, while employed as government agents, introduced themselves to foreign governments as representatives of scientific researches.” This duplicity violated what Boas considered the essence of science, which is “the service of truth.” (He did not name names.) Boas regretted the “false patriotism” that had plunged nations into the bloodbath, and lamented the tendency of his fellow Americans to hype their own ideals and actions into “absolute standards.” Ten days after publication of his letter, the American Anthropological Association censured Boas for exposing the espionage that its members had conducted in Central America. The Association, which had elected him as its president as early as 1907, also abrogated his role on the governing Council of the organization, and then pressured Boas to resign from the National Research Council as well. It was a striking instance in the history of a discipline seeking to police itself, by humiliating its most influential practitioner. (Over eighty-five years later, the American Anthropological Association made amends by rescinding its censure.)
Because of his opposition to the political contamination of his field, Boas also ran afoul of geologist Charles Doolittle Walcott, who ran the Smithsonian Institution. Walcott, whom Stephen Jay Gould called one of the most “powerful scientists that America has ever produced,” canceled Boas’s honorary status at the Smithsonian, and urged President Butler to bestir himself as well. Also ganging up was the physicist and inventor Michael Pupin, a Columbia colleague who expressed outrage that Boas “is allowed to teach our youth and enjoy the honors of being a member of the National Academy of Sciences.” Back in “the good old days of absolutism,” Pupin wistfully noted, “the means were always at hand” to eliminate “such a nuisance as Franz Boas.” Luckily the anthropologist lived in a republic, however blatantly it ignored the First Amendment during the Great War and then sanctioned the Red Scare that followed. Such was the climate of repression that a former academician, President Woodrow Wilson, asked his Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, to investigate Boas. The Department of Justice concluded that he had not broken any laws, nor did Columbia have any basis for firing him.
Boas had landed on his feet. He retained affection for his homeland, a sentiment that spurred him to envision a more decent society after the military defeat of November, 1918. Boas was therefore willing to join the Society of Friends of the German Republic, which vowed to encourage the green shoots of democratic institutions there. But he also feared that the Society might consider the Weimar Republic as too radical an experiment, and might not want too open and tolerant a society to emerge upon the ruins of war. “There is grave danger that German democracy may appear too free to [the] American conservatism” that was promoting nation-building, he conjectured. Before signing up with the Society, Boas wanted to be reassured that it would not interfere in German internal affairs. The Society could not grant that assurance, and he distanced himself from these particular Friends.
From Race To Culture
Herskovits summarized the legacy of his teacher as consisting of a faith in “the innate worth of the human being, the dignity of all human culture.” Boas denied that a linear development could be found in culture. Peoples differed in what they had achieved in terms of technological complexity, but he could not discern an ascent from the primitive or savage to the civilized. History did not consist of progressive stages, and neither language nor culture could be said to stem from race. The indeterminacy to which he adhered ensures his place even in the post-modernist era. Though a loose, provocative sort of cultural relativism is as old as Montaigne and Montesquieu and Gulliver’s Travels, the anthropologist Herbert S. Lewis has defended Boas against the accusation of anything-goes. He did accord a supreme value to freedom of inquiry and expression. He did believe in the redemptive value of science, and wanted his own discipline to protect the weak and the persecuted. But Boas also taught anthropologists to demonstrate the variability of beliefs and behaviors, and to provide the huge swaths of data that undermined, at least implicitly, the absolute assurances of one’s own culture.
In the Arctic he first gleaned the innate worth of all members of our species. Living among “savages” (the Inuit) during an expedition to Baffinland enabled him to draw this conclusion in a diary entry of 1883: “The more I see of their customs, the more I realize that we have no right to look down on them.” After returning from East Greenland, Boas noted that “the Eskimo is a man as we are. His feelings, his virtues and his shortcomings are based in human nature, like ours.” Familiarity with the Eskimos taught him, he wrote in 1886, that “the mind of the ‘savage’ is sensible to the beauties of poetry and music, and that it is only the superficial observer to whom he appears stupid and unfeeling.” His tendency thereafter was to deny hierarchy, and to minimize the difference between the binaries of barbarism and civilization.
Anthropology was so novel a field when Boas entered it that even the term “culture” — which was understood by its practitioners as learned behavior—had been coined only a decade earlier (by Edward Burnett Tylor). Before the end of the nineteenth century, Boas was using the noun “culture” in the plural (as in the sense that every society has a culture); and he may well have been the first social scientist to do so. He did not want the term to signify only a “high culture” or “civilization,” to imply a designation of superiority. Other peoples, including peoples of color, were not to be demeaned. By the 1920s the anthropological usage of the term had dislodged Matthew Arnold’s preference so effectively that the Lynds could subtitle their famous 1929 study of Middletown “A Study in Modern American Culture.”
Arnold would not have described the social categories in Muncie, Indiana of work, leisure, and family as “culture.” The term was now stapled to social science as well, and Boas had helped to achieve an etymological revolution. He did not sanctify or privilege his own culture. “It is certainly conceivable that there may be other civilizations, based perhaps on different traditions . . . which are of no less value than ours, although it may be impossible for us to appreciate their influence,” he proclaimed. “Anthropological research teaches us a higher tolerance than the one we now profess.” To the illumination of other cultures, Boas brought empathy, a gift for rapport and humility. His work was intended to be a reminder that “growing up in our civilization we know little how we ourselves are conditioned by it.”
Because he decoupled culture from heredity, “Boas’s influence upon American social scientists in matters of race can hardly be exaggerated,” Degler insisted. He added that “Boas was embarking upon a life-long assault on the idea that race was a primary source of the differences to be found in the mental or social capabilities of human groups. He accomplished his mission largely through his ceaseless, almost relentless articulation of the concept of culture.” Had he confined himself to a vindication of the indigenous peoples of the New World, Boas would have wrought a transformation in the thinking about human identity. Had he done nothing more than demonstrate that the children of immigrants from Europe differed in their physical development, due to alterations in diet and in environment, he would have made a dramatic intervention in the debate over the adaptive capacities of newcomers to America. But he did not stop there. Because Boas lived in so virulently racist a society, he opted, as a scholar and as a citizen, to defend both the culture and the rights of black Americans.
Even before the twentieth century, Boas assigned himself the task of countering white assumptions of innate black inferiority. Speaking in 1894 to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he sought to torpedo the claims for the superiority of whites and insisted that their prejudice was what kept blacks down. Such bigotry “is a formidable obstacle” to their “advance and progress.” He averred that “it is hardly possible to say what would become of the negro if he were able to live with the whites on absolutely equal terms.” To speak of “absolutely equal terms” for the races in fin-de-siecle America was a truly astonishing feat of imagination. He amplified this radical vision in 1906, the year that a terrible race riot broke out in Atlanta. That same year that Du Bois invited him to deliver the commencement address at Atlanta University. Boas seized the opportunity to emphasize the grandeur of the African past. He urged the graduates to look to their lineage prior to the Middle Passage, “to recover for the colored people the strength that was their own before they set foot on the shores of this continent.” When he invited the students to build upon that sub-Saharan African past with pride, to repudiate the loss of esteem that white America was instilling in them, the normally fluent Du Bois recalled that he found himself “too astonished to speak.” As late as 1958, in a speech prepared for delivery in Accra, the nonagenarian recalled the impact of Boas’s exhilarating validation of African civilization: “I was utterly amazed and began to study Africa for myself.”
Du Bois would have been a “race man” anyway. But the influence of the anthropologist who promoted the serious and open-minded study of Africa did matter. The following year Isidore Singer, the instigator and managing editor of the Jewish Encyclopedia (1901-1906), invited Boas to become the editor (or at least the co-editor) of an Encyclopedia of the Negro Race. A believer in the effectiveness of factual accuracy about Jews in combating antisemitism, Singer hoped that the new scholarly venture would promote interracial understanding. In 1908 Boas tentatively accepted the offer to direct an Encyclopedia of the Negro Race, but insufficient funding appears to have scuttled Singer’s ambitious enterprise. In an era when scholarly disdain for the cultural achievements of Africa was taken for granted, the refusal of Franz Boas to participate in such belittlement was remarkable. Indeed, so advanced was his thinking that the social historian E. Digby Baltzell incorrectly claimed that the Lowell Lectures that Boas delivered in 1910, and published the following year in The Mind of Primitive Man, were “echoing the findings and conclusions of Du Bois.” In fact it was Boas, who was exactly a decade older, who first expressed the insight that Negro traits were due to historical circumstances rather than hereditary traits.
His name was attached to the founding of the NAACP and reinforced its fight for civil rights. His friendship with Du Bois began in 1905, and was sustained for about three decades. Boas spoke at the first two annual meetings of the NAACP, and contributed to the Crisis, the organization’s magazine that Du Bois edited in his role as the first director of publicity and research. In 1910 the Crisis published Boas’s lecture on “The Real Race Problem,” which he attributed to the effects of slavery and its effects upon identity and cultural continuity. In 1911, in the same year that Boas published The Mind of Primitive Man, London hosted the Universal Races Congress. Du Bois participated in the Congress as “secretary from the United States,” and delivered a paper on ‘The Negro Race in the United States of America.” Boas presented a paper as well, on “The Instability of Human Types.” Alter and improve the environment, he argued, and “changes of the mind may be expected,” given the “decided plasticity of human types.” But the Great War short-circuited such organized efforts to expand knowledge of the operations of the color-line, though he continued to challenge claims of innate black inferiority. He ascribed it to the “antagonism” of whites, whose prejudices (installed in law and policy) constituted “a formidable obstacle to the Negro’s advance and progress.” Without racial equality, any disparagement of black achievement Boas dismissed as unjust.
Differences, he believed, were not due to inborn heredity: “The traits of the American Negro are adequately explained on the basis of his history and social status.” During the era of the Great War, he denounced the inference drawn from the Army’s intelligence tests (given to 1.5 million recruits) that blacks were innately inferior in mental aptitude to whites. The conditions under which American blacks were compelled to live could explain the differences, he argued. But even those who saw in the test results more than he — as an environmentalist — did, Boas noted, would have to explain why Northern blacks performed better on the intelligence tests than Southern whites. To understand the conditions of black life in New York City, he joined the Committee on Social Investigations in 1904; its most dedicated staffer was Mary White Ovington. And three years later, when he submitted an article on “The Anthropological Position of the Negro,” so peculiar was Boas’s opposition to racism that the magazine’s editors felt obliged to provide a balancing viewpoint by publishing “The Race Question,” by the venomous “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, the Democratic Senator from South Carolina.
The novelist Thomas Nelson Page was more genteel, and in The Negro: The Southerner’s Problem (1904) wrote kindly of inferiors like “the old-time darky.” No wonder then that Boas’s anti-racist efforts to reach popular audiences were sometimes rebuffed, at least initially. But he did enrich the emerging fields of African and African American Studies. He became a good friend of Carter G. Woodson, the founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Boas joined its Executive Council and also served on the Editorial Board of its organ, the Journal of Negro Life and History. He and Woodson collaborated in seeking to recruit black students for graduate work in folklore studies and physical anthropology at Columbia, and to secure fellowships as well. Zora Neale Hurston, however, could not abide the historical overcompensation to which she believed Woodson was prone, a sentimentalism that entailed “dragging emperors, queens, [and] statesmen, wholesale into the colored race.” Her own approach to the Negro past, she once told Woodson, was different, because “Dr. Boas was the most scientific Anthro. on earth and I must stick to facts.”
In an era when some progressives and philanthropists were working for black Americans, he was quite unusual (though not unique) in working with black Americans. By the mid-1920s, Boas was actively involved in the Committee on the American Negro of the National Research Council, and through his students was also affecting its stances on questions of race and culture. A debt was at least partially repaid in 1943, when Duke Ellington composed his symphony, “Black, Brown, and Beige”; the opening section of the scenario pays tribute to Boas by citing his praise at Atlanta University of African civilizations.
Unsurprisingly, Boas was anti-colonialist. But though he later joined Ralph Bunche, Paul Robeson, and others on the board of the Council on African Affairs, an organization designed to promote liberation from colonial rule through trusteeships, Boas played a very minor role in the political struggle. Perhaps that modest contribution was because, as Herskovits speculated, his teacher “never conducted research in any area of European dominance.” (In 1947 Herskovits created at Northwestern University the nation’s first Department of African Studies.) Boas accepted in some respects the distinction between primitive and civilized. But by repudiating the evolutionary and hierarchical sequence of societies that characterized anthropology when he entered the field, he hardly gave defenders of imperialism much comfort. By arguing that each culture has to be approached on its own terms, as having a relative value, his intellectual legacy was at least implicitly anti-imperialist.
The Vicissitudes of Racism
Boas died before the momentum against racism in the United States had achieved political effectiveness and judicial sanction. The public culture of the 1920s, for example, still enshrined ideas that Boas had struggled to dismantle. At the Democratic Party’s national convention in 1924, the delegates defeated a resolution that would have condemned the Ku Klux Klan by name. Such was the clout of the organization, which was a force to be reckoned with in the Midwest and Southwest, and not merely (or even primarily) in the Deep South. Or take Buck v. Bell (1927), a decision that was noteworthy for injecting eugenicist reasoning into the Constitution. Speaking for the Court, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. validated the Virginia statute that permitted the involuntary sterilization of the feeble-minded, and opined that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” (The newspaper of the Nazi party, the Völkischer Beobachter, applauded the Supreme Court decision.)
The battle that Boas was waging therefore seemed to be uphill. Working in particular with a first-term Congressman from Brooklyn, Emanuel Celler, a Democrat, Boas also tried to block the xenophobic racial quotas that would be imposed upon southern and eastern European immigrants. Denouncing the “Nordic myth” as “outrageously absurd,” Celler quoted from The Mind of Primitive Man on the floor of the House of Representatives. The U. S. Congress was determined to pass the Johnson-Reed Act anyway. The vote was decisive: 62-6 in the Senate, 326-71 in the House of Representatives. President Calvin Coolidge signed the bill into law, and asserted that immigration policy had to respect “biological” laws. “The Nordics,” he declared, did credit to those laws, whereas “other races” exhibited “deterioration” when mixed with others. Boas refused to take the federal endorsement of white noise in stride, however. In 1925, in the pages of the Forum, he condemned what he called “the Nordic Nonsense.” That pseudo-science (with its weird jumble of “brachycephalics” and “dolicocephalics,” of “Alpines,” “Teutons,” “Semites,” “Mediterraneans” and “Aryans”) was widespread in the 1920s. In that decade in particular, the nativists were restless.
They included the Princeton psychologist Carl Campbell Brigham, who devised the Scholastic Aptitude Test. His 1923 book, A Study of American Intelligence, accepted the hierarchy of three distinct European races—Nordic, Alpine and Mediterranean, in descending order of mental ability. And because Jews, for example, were indubitably of Mediterranean stock, Brigham wrote, his data “would rather tend to disprove the popular belief that the Jew is highly intelligent.” But the most famous of the nativists was not only Brigham’s close friend but also happened to brandish the names of two U. S. Presidents: Madison Grant. As a conservationist, he deserves credit for helping to save the bison and the redwoods, for establishing the Bronx Zoo, and for co-founding the National Parks Association. But Grant was also a eugenicist, and a champion of racial purity. The Passing of the Great Race (1916) was his most famous book, and got a favorable notice in Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The racial stock that he felt was threatened was not the category of whites but of “Nordics.” Grant’s work went through four editions. In 1925 it was translated into German and published in Munich, where Hitler praised it. The second edition, published in 1918, acknowledged that its critics were likely to be Jews: “Those engaged in social uplift and in revolutionary movements are . . . usually very intolerant of the limitations imposed by heredity.” Grant’s foes had “neither country, nor flag . . . nor even surnames of their own.” In 1923 the feisty eugenicist told his eminent editor, Maxwell Perkins, that Franz Boas could be expected to resist the argument in The Passing of the Great Race because it “relegates him and his race to the inferior position that they have occupied throughout recorded history.”
Yet already by 1918, the nativists could sense that the anthropology Boas was promoting was about to clean their clocks. In 1918 Grant received a letter from Prescott F. Hall, the secretary of the Immigration Restriction League, which showed how quickly the believers in racial hierarchy were required to play defense. A desperate Hall asked Grant for “the names of a few anthropologists of note who have declared in favor of the inequality of the races . . . . I am up against the Jews all the time in the equality argument.” Egalitarianism challenged the justification for sealing the borders that the nativists sought. One index of the validation of Boas’s ideas came early in the 1920s, when his protégé Lowie, whom Grant considered “a very dangerous anthropological Bolshevist,” became the editor of the American Anthropologist. Another milestone was achieved in 1931, when Boas was elected president of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science. His presidential address repudiated the belief “that one race is by nature so much more intelligent, endowed with greater will power, or emotionally more stable than another, that the difference would materially influence its culture.” Though the nativist Lothrop Stoddard, author of The Rising Tide of Color (1920), had dismissed Boas’s relentless campaign against racism as “the desperate attempt of a Jew to pass himself off as ‘white,’” to cross that rather blurry color-line, the ideological shift was discernable.
Another indication of what was blowing in the wind came in 1932, when the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences appeared. The article on “Race Mixing” had been assigned to Herskovits, who regarded “Negro” as a “social” category, as meaning “not-all-white.” The author of “Race” was Boas, who knew that culture makes meaning, but that race makes trouble. Yet he did not regard his subject of his encyclopedia article as a fiction or a fantasy, or as merely a superstition. Boas could not jettison the term. Indeed a paper that he presented in Paris in 1937 argued for the reality of race, which “must be conceived as a biological unit, as a population derived from a common ancestry and by virtue of its descent endowed with definite biological characteristics.” (Some groups are prone to diseases that are genetically transmitted.) But Boas asserted that environmental influences can alter the biological inheritance that is bequeathed to us. Two years later the essay appeared in the first issue of Jewish Social Studies. He also persuaded Du Bois to jettison what remained of the racialism that stamped The Souls of Black Folk, and to scrap the notion of innate group characteristics. In 1939 the former director of publicity for the NAACP, journalist Herbert J. Seligmann, was also presumably trying to pass himself off as “white” in publishing Race Against Man. This book consolidated the mounting criticisms of “Aryanism.” Boas provided the introduction, and praised the author for seeking a popular forum “to clear away the cobwebs of prejudice.”
His students were assembled to fight against racist thought, perhaps even more forcefully (as Boas aged) than their team captain did. They contributed eagerly to the publicity campaigns of the NAACP, which could cite as authoritative their own research. Breakthroughs in genetics ensured that the power of the Lamarckians had plateau’d; they no longer enjoyed unassailable academic respectability. Degler credits two of Boas’s former students, both teaching at the University of California at Berkeley, for that new direction. In the 1920s Kroeber and Lowie were decisive in explaining human differences in terms of cultural imperatives and social circumstances, rather than as a function of race. In the historiography of American slavery, for example, the dominant paradigm had been established by Yale’s Ulrich B. Phillips, an excellent scholar who was also a racist. In 1944 the prejudice inherent in his legacy faced its first significant challenge, when Richard Hofstadter recommended that “the study of the Old South be undertaken by other scholars who have absorbed the viewpoint of modern cultural anthropology . . . .” So forcefully was nurture edging out nature that books would be published later in the century with titles like The Culture of Narcissism and The Culture of Complaint, and even of “bruising,” “obesity,” and “sensation.” Boas retired from Columbia in 1936, the year that Yehezkiel Lefkowitz entered Columbia, where he began his studies of anthropology under Ruth Benedict. Two years later he changed his name to Oscar Lewis, and within three decades would achieve fame for diagnosing what he called “the culture of poverty.”
In highlighting culture at the expense of other categories, perhaps no student of Boas was more important than Herskovits (1895-1963), whose parents had immigrated from Germany and Hungary. After studying for a couple of years at the Hebrew Union College, Herskovits discarded the idea of becoming a rabbi. Instead he came to Columbia to study in its Department of Anthropology, which, because of its chairman’s insufficient patriotism during the Great War, was being subjected to some budgetary retaliation. So Herskovits had to scramble to make ends meet, and he accepted an offer to teach at Howard University. By the mid-1920s, he also became involved with the NAACP and the Urban League. Such experiences reinforced his desire to do research in West Africa and to trace in particular African cultural survivals in the Americas. The result was The Myth of the Negro Past (1941), which was produced under the auspices of the Carnegie Corporation, and which was intended to be part of the scholarly foundation for Gunnar Myrdal’s classic, An American Dilemma (1944). Herskovits would have liked to direct the study himself. But he told the Corporation that if a European — an outsider — were to be put in charge, either a Swedish or a Swiss scholar (unburdened by a legacy of colonialism) should be picked. That led the Corporation to Myrdal, whose book repudiates Herskovits’s interpretation of a resilient and vibrant Afro-American culture. But at least his scholarship — and Boas’s — is acknowledged in An American Dilemma.
That is not true of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, which credits Boas with encouraging Du Bois to undertake a serious study of Africa, which he did to distance historiography from white supremacy. But Gilroy omits mention of Herskovits, a pioneering researcher of the circulation of African culture through the Western hemisphere, even though the poet Aimé Césaire, told him in 1962: “You yourself are one of the architects of Négritude!” The Myth of the Negro Past, Césaire added, was a foundational text of the movement to define the cultural import of blackness.
Kroeber, Lowie, and Herskovits were hardly alone. Take Alexander A. Goldenweiser (1880-1940), who got his doctorate at Columbia in 1910 and taught at the New School for Social Research. He was willing to acknowledge the superiority of Western science and religion over their counterparts in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet in 1925, when he posed the rhetorical question of whether “the Negro” would ever be accepted as the equal of whites (the question that Jefferson and Lincoln did not believe would elicit a positive answer on native grounds), Goldenweiser answered with another question: “Who knows?” But he immediately added: “Who can doubt we should?” The son of a Polish-born tailor, Ashley Montagu (1905-1999) was born into the working-class East End of London, with the socially disadvantageous name of Israel Ehrenberg. He came to the United States in 1927, and earned his doctorate under Boas a decade later. Montagu was also a man of the left, who argued that the ruling classes exploited racism — and even the idea of race — to preserve their own privileges. In 1942 (the year the Final Solution was fully implemented), he published Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, and in 1950 headed the first UNESCO committee to produce a statement on race.
Coming from Canada to study psychology at Columbia, Otto Klineberg (1899-1992) took a course in linguistics with Edward Sapir (1884-1939), who had been born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Germany and had also studied with Boas, earning a doctorate in 1909. Sapir’s mother tongue was Yiddish, and he also knew Hebrew. But he became a specialist in the languages of Native Americans instead. Sapir taught at the University of Chicago and then at Yale, and was pivotal in the formation of the “culture-and-personality” school. He was the link that led Klineberg directly to Boas. Klineberg resolved to do for psychology what Boas had already accomplished in anthropology, which was to challenge the fall-back position of race in accounting for social differences. Klineberg became Boas’s student, taught psychology at Columbia, and dedicated Race Differences (1935) to him. It was published exactly two decades after Booker T. Washington identified Boas as “the leading authority on the question of the mental ability of races,” in an effort to refute the claim that year of Mississippi Governor James K. Vardaman that the skull of the African-American “hardens at the age of puberty and from that age on there is no mental development.” Klineberg’s work on intelligence built on Boas, but was pioneering in the emphasis that the author placed on culture. Like Boas, Klineberg made a point of speaking to black audiences for the sake of helping them challenge assumptions of their inferiority. In an era when it was hard to get newspapers to capitalize the word “Negro,” Klineberg also made a point of capitalizing “Black” and “White,” when that practice among mainstream publishers was very rare.
He also attracted a student whose experiments with dolls brought the saga of social science directly to the Constitutional fireworks of Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Kenneth B. Clark claimed that the question of racial differences in aptitude is “maybe at the heart of everything else that I’ve been involved in, professionally and a social activist practitioner. I guess it began to come together when I started reading seriously Klineberg, and seeing what he was saying about racial differences in intelligence.” At Columbia Clark completed his dissertation under Klineberg in 1940, and recalled: “I didn’t really put it in a conceptual framework. Klineberg helped me to do that. And Boas, you know, who influenced him.” Clark added as an inspiration to his career “the work of Boas and the social anthropologists, and their influence on Klineberg, who brought that perspective into psychology . . . . So a lot of things were converging . . . as far as my own thinking was concerned, when I started working with Klineberg . . . I repeat, it was a very crucial idea. I mean, it was a nuclear idea, in terms of everything else I’ve ever done.” He became the most famous authority on the psychological effects upon Negroes of white prejudice. In the early 1950s, when the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund shaped the strategy that would challenge Plessy v. Ferguson, Clark and his wife Mamie, herself a psychologist, and Klineberg were enlisted as expert witnesses, along with Harvard’s Jerome S. Bruner and David Krech (formerly Isadore Krechevsky) of the University of California at Berkeley.
Those who testified as expert witnesses for the NAACP had to be prepared for the sort of cross-examination that Isidor Chein endured in early 1952. Chein had taught psychology at CCNY from 1937 till 1950 before becoming a researcher for the American Jewish Congress. (Its advisory board included the black attorneys Thurgood Marshall and Charles Houston.) Such credentials made Chein vulnerable in the South, a region where “any difference has always stood out with great vividness,” according to Wilbur J. Cash. There a Jew, “the eternal Alien,” was especially marked. In Davis v. County School Board, the attorney for the state of Virginia, Justin Moore, played upon regional xenophobia and nativism to suggest that Chein’s background affected his capacity to achieve scientific objectivity. (That status was presumably synonymous with the views of white Gentile men, rather than, say, wise Latina women.) Here is an excerpt from that testimony:
Moore: Dr. Chein, just how do you spell your last name?
Moore: What kind of name is that? What sort of racial background does that indicate?
Chein: The name is a poor English version of Hebrew which designates “charm.”
Moore: What is your racial background?
Chein: . . . . I think what you want to know is: am I Jewish.
Moore: Are you 100% Jewish?
Chein: How do I answer that?
Moore: I don’t know—you know.
Chein: In all honesty, the framework of the question is not one which can be, as far as I know, intelligently answered. All of my—both of my parents and all of my ancestors, as far back as I know, were Jewish.
Moore: That answers my question . . . . Where were you born?
Chein: In the United States, in New York City.
Moore: Were your parents native born in the United States?
Moore: Where were they born?
Chein: In Poland.
Moore: How long had they lived in this country when you were born?
Chein: I am not sure—for some 20 years, I think. I was the youngest child.
Two years after that cross-examination came the unanimous opinion rendered in Brown v. Board of Education, and Chein was cited in its famous footnote #11. In terms of Constitutional adjudication, that footnote was not essential, and had the political consequence of raising even higher the blood pressure of the South’s white supremacists. But the footnote did consolidate the case that informed opinion made against racial segregation. The first author cited was Kenneth Clark, who had worked on An American Dilemma a decade earlier, along with Klineberg and Montagu. Others who were cited included the sorts of people that the secretary of the Immigration Restriction League lamented that he was up against: Klineberg, Max Deutscher and Ruth Horowitz. “What was the specific role anthropology played in An American Dilemma and subsequently the Brown decision?”, the anthropologist Lee D. Baker wondered. He answered that “Boasian anthropology established the only common denominator in studies of African American race, culture and society during the 1920s and 1930s. It was the anchor for the consensus that there was no proof of any hereditary difference in intelligence or temperament and that historical and environmental factors — cultural factors — caused the differences between racial groups.” In the mid-nineteenth century, a novelist turned politician had proclaimed that “all is race”; it was “the key to history.” A century after Benjamin Disraeli’s generalization, Boas and his followers were able to undermine the scientific — if not the historical — power of race.
Because “he never wavered” in drawing upon social science to dispel “the biological interpretations of history and civilization,” historian Thomas F. Gossett hypothesized that “Boas did more to combat race prejudice than any other person in history.” In the 1860s it was possible — indeed it was likely — for whites who hated slavery to assume their own racial superiority. A century later it was difficult if not impossible for a foe of segregation to make the same assumption of biological hierarchy. No public intellectual was more responsible for that transformation than Boas. He had landed in the United States just as hostility to blacks was reaching a fever-pitch of virulence. He lived to see a shift in white perception that he, more than any other American scholar, managed to forge. Could it therefore be more apt that S. Ann Dunham, the mother of the 44th President of the United States, whose election in 2008 capped the long struggle to discredit racial discrimination, was an anthropologist?
The rise of Nazism paralyzed some American Jews whose antecedents were in Germany, where many of the most glorious ingredients (artistic, intellectual, and scientific) of Western culture had flourished. The case of Walter Lippmann is well-known. In the late spring of 1933, he had praised Hitler as “the authentic voice of a genuinely civilized people,” and bent over backwards to ensure that ethnicity did not require partiality: “To deny today that Germany can speak as a civilized power because uncivilized things are being done in Germany is in itself a deep form of intolerance.” Or consider the case of the publisher of the New York Times. The Nazi seizure of power shocked Adolf Ochs so severely that he fell into a kind of passivity from which he did not recover. Nazism broke him; he died in 1935. Ochs refused to allow letters to the editor to be printed against the Third Reich, because such criticisms would then presumably require the newspaper in fairness to become a forum for opinions that were favorable to the new regime. One result of this policy was that frustrated readers could not express their hatred of Nazism in the New York Times.
Boas was not constrained in his indignation, or by adherence to an ideal of disinterestedness. He might have been excused from the demands of political activity. His wife had been killed in an automobile accident in 1929. He had also lost two of his six children. Boas suffered a heart attack in 1931, and experienced declining health. Nor had the Jewish question ever preoccupied him. In a gingerly way he belonged to the Society for Ethical Culture, which his Columbia University colleague, the philosopher Felix Adler, had founded. The Society consisted overwhelmingly of German-American Jews who championed universalist ideals and who decisively repudiated the pull of ancestral and communal loyalties. Boas favored assimilation. A sign of that stance was his reluctance to write, except as a physical anthropologist, on the fate of a group that he expected would through intermarriage disappear. (His own wife was a Catholic.) In emphasizing how mixed was the genetic makeup of the Jews, in insisting upon the impurity of their blood, and in denying that a firm link could be established between heredity and “definite mental characteristics,” Boas was challenging the belief in immutable racial traits that might disqualify such minorities from full citizenship.
But he could not imagine or favor a situation in which the collective will of the Jewish people to perpetuate itself might flourish within a society in which the historic forms of bigotry might vanish. He had fled from the antisemitism of the Second Reich only to confront the erection of barriers to Jewish advancement in interwar America. Only full absorption into the general population, he therefore concluded, would accelerate the end of antisemitism. In 1934 he agreed to become an honorary fellow of the Jewish Academy of Arts and Sciences, but added that, “as a scientist [,] I do not feel any attachment to any particular group.” Boas was unaffiliated with the one minority group in the United States that was alert to the threat of National Socialism; he had not needed the financial support of American Jewry for his academic work. In 1938, when Kristallnacht erupted, Boas was already an octogenarian; and nothing obliged him to engage the rising menace of the Third Reich.
But as though a lifetime of resistance to racism had prepared him to undertake a crusade against Nazism, Boas was determined to fight a last — if ultimately futile — battle in behalf of liberal and democratic values. He came out swinging. Early in 1933 he wrote Hindenburg a public letter that proclaimed: “Ich bin jüdischer Abstammung, aber im Fühlen und Denken bin ich Deutscher” (I am of Jewish origins, but in feeling and thinking I am German). But he had to admit that “ich schäme mich, ein Deutscher zu sein” (I am ashamed to be a German). This public declaration that made such a stir that it was translated and disseminated in English and in Spanish. One historian has claimed that “Boas either joined or contributed to virtually every organization dedicated to anti-Nazi activity in the United States.”
He seemed indefatigable. Boas tried to get German scholars asylum and employment in the United States, and in the case of the anthropologist Julius Lips succeeded. In the fall of 1934, Boas introduced into the Columbia curriculum a course on “Race and Culture.” Two years later, when Butler accepted an invitation from the University of Heidelberg to join in celebrating its founding, Boas was among those who signed a letter of protest. (The president refused to keep a Columbia representative from participating in the event, at which Josef Goebbels spoke.) In 1936 Boas urged Du Bois to help him “wage a campaign of education and enlightenment against the Nazis.” “The very least we can do in defense of our common humanity,” Boas insisted, “is to reaffirm our faith in free intelligence against brute force.” That year, when Time put Boas on its cover, the article exposed the roots of his anti-Nazism in the credentials of a lifetime as a critic of notions of a master race. “Antipathies are social phenomena,” Boas declared in 1931. They are not embedded in our genes, and are therefore amenable to correction. The obituary in the Times put into its second and third paragraphs the campaign that Boas had mounted against the racism of the Third Reich.
His most important scholarly ally across the Atlantic was undoubtedly Charles Gabriel Seligman, who served as the head of the Department of Anthropology at the London School of Economics. There his students included Bronislaw Malinowski and E. E. Evans-Pritchard. Seligman’s most important book was Races of Africa (1930), and he specialized in applying psychoanalysis to his discipline. Though Seligman’s father was a wine merchant, maternal descent could be traced directly to the second Jew to belong to the Royal Society, Emanuel Mendez da Costa. In the 1930s few social scientists were more active in their enmity to Nazism than Seligman and Boas. Other social scientists were less engaged. The Harvard anthropologist Earnest Hooten, for example, urged Jews to “eradicate certain aggressive and other social characteristics which seem to me to account for some of their trouble.” Extrapolating from the situation of Germany Jewry, the Stanford anatomist C. H. Danforth partly blamed clannishness for what he called “the Jewish Problem in this country.”
But by 1938, Boas persuaded the American Anthropological Association to pass a resolution that denied any “racial significance whatsoever” to terms like “Aryan” and “Semite.” There was, the society declared, no scientific warrant for discrimination against “any people on the ground of racial inferiority, religious affiliation, or linguistic heritage.” Radin had gotten his doctorate under Boas in 1911, and made Native Americans his ethnological specialty. But Radin had also taught at Fisk University (the alma mater of Du Bois), and praised Boas for “his magnificent stand against fascism.” In 1938, when he revised and republished his most famous book, The Mind of Primitive Man, a chapter on “The Race Problem in Modern Society” was added. Herskovits added that his teacher was stirred “to bring to bear all the prestige and intellectual power his preeminence in the scientific study of race could mobilize, to aid in staying the spread of this recrudescence of racial bigotry.” Note the contrast with Paul H. Buck’s The Road to Reunion, which covered the last third of the nineteenth century and which won the Pulitzer Prize in History that very year. The Harvard historian justified the systematic imposition of Jim Crow in the South because he believed that the race problem “is basically insoluble.”
On Lincoln’s Birthday, 1939, Boas took the initiative in founding the American Committee for Democracy and Intellectual Freedom. It was intended “to combat propaganda for racial and religious discrimination,” and was forthright in announcing that “science and culture must remain free from nationalist prejudices and hatreds.” In a “personal statement” he issued that fall, Boas declared: “I value nothing more highly than intellectual freedom . . . in public life and particularly in education.” The contrast with Nazism was deliberate. But the Committee was also designed to protect American teachers from “the present hysterical search for Communist activities” and to uphold the intellectual independence of the classroom and the research lab. Pressures from legislative investigating committees, he noted, “are almost always directed against radicals, hardly ever against un-American reactionary minorities.” The principle of academic freedom was still fragile; it would not become installed in Constitutional law until nearly two decades later (in Sweezy v. New Hampshire, in 1957). But in this struggle Boas managed to enlist a lustrous group of academicians, including Ruth Benedict, Robert Lynd and Allan Nevins at Columbia, Paul H. Douglas at the University of Chicago and J. Robert Oppenheimer at Berkeley. Funding was limited, however, with largest donations coming from the American Jewish Committee and the family of the late Julius Rosenwald of the Sears, Roebuck mail-order retailing firm. After Pearl Harbor the struggle against the Axis sucked the oxygen out of the viability of the American Committee for Democracy and Intellectual Freedom.
The Holocaust constituted the most devastating failure of Western civilization to crush the fanaticism that was brewing within the irrationalities of race. Boas had devoted his professional career to blurring the theoretical lines that separated “civilization” from “barbarism”; and in its distinctively nihilistic and lethal way, Nazism perpetrated the atrocities that confirmed the scholarly project he had conceived over half a century earlier.
The Enemies He Made
One measure of the influence that Boas achieved, in his role of the anthropologist as public intellectual, is the hostility that his work aroused. (Madison Grant has already been mentioned.) Boas’s environmentalism posed a threat to the racist conclusions of physical anthropologists like Hans F. K. Günther, the author of Rassenkunde des deutschen Volkes (Racial Characteristics of the German People), published in 1922. A decade later Günther, a professor at the University of Jena, joined the Nazi Party. He criticized Boas’s work on the effects of the American environment on Jewish newcomers, whose “Orientalism” had presumably eluded the Columbia University researcher. In 1931 Boas received an honorary degree from the University of Kiel, where he spoke on the topic of “Rasse und Kultur.” Two years later the Nazis seized power—and burned his books in the public square located in front of the University. Among the works consigned to the flames was Kultur und Rasse (1914), which was the German title of the book that made his reputation, The Mind of Primitive Man. Other culprits whom the Nazis in Kiel thus honored with bonfires included Marx, Freud, Trotsky and Einstein. The New York Times account of the conflagration mentioned that Boas was a member of both the Prussian and Bavarian academies.
In the postwar era, Hitler’s most freakish American disciple was an ex-Ivy Leaguer, a dropout from Brown University named George Lincoln Rockwell, who considered Boas a dangerous race defiler. In 1966, interviewer Alex Haley informed Commander Rockwell of the American Nazi Party that “every authority in the field has attested that the world’s racial groups are genetically indistinguishable from one another.” When Haley added that “all men, in other words” (actually Jefferson’s words) “are created equal,” the reply of the interviewee deserves to be recorded: “You’re bringing tears to my eyes. Don’t you know that all this equality garbage was started by a Jew anthropologist named Franz Boas from Columbia University? Boas was followed by another Jew from Columbia named Gene Weltfish.”
Rockwell was referring to yet another of the ubiquitous Boas’s students. Regina Weltfish (1902-1980) had enrolled as a Barnard College undergraduate in his course in General Anthropology in 1924, and continued to study with him in graduate school at Columbia. “For all of us,” she recalled, “Boas was a teacher who shared generously with us his own intellectual quest.” She became an expert on the Pawnee. The Races of Mankind(1943), a 32-page pamphlet that Weltfish co-authored with Ruth Benedict, was incorporated into the de-Nazification program of the U. S. military in postwar Germany. A table in the pamphlet showed how much better blacks in Ohio, Illinois, and New York did on the intelligence tests that Otto Klineberg devised than did whites from Mississippi, Arkansas, and Kentucky. The Races of Mankind was translated into seven languages.
It was too provocative, however, to remain on the shelves of many military and USO libraries. Kentucky’s Andrew J. May, who chaired the House Military Affairs Committee, charged that the booklet betrayed “communistic” influence if blacks were shown as more intelligent than whites. Columbia later fired Weltfish after she took the Fifth Amendment rather than try to satisfy Congressional curiosity about her possible Communist Party membership. She had testified before both Senator Pat McCarran’s Judiciary Subcommittee and Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Among the last of Boas’s students, she was interviewed on camera for a PBS documentary about him, in the Odyssey series, first shown in 1980. But let Commander Rockwell continue his 1966 peroration: “Our present Jew expert preaching equality is another Jew named Ashley Montagu.” As though Rockwell were defending academic integrity, he added that “the Jews have consciously perverted the study of anthropology . . . in order to reach this phony conclusion—and thus destroy the great white race.” The assessment of public intellectuals need not be affected by the caliber of their detractors, but here an exception might be allowed.
The leading popularizer of scientific racism, after it had ceased to be de rigueur, was Carleton Putnam. A Princeton graduate and a Columbia-educated attorney, Putnam published Race and Reason in 1961. That year Governor Ross Barnett proclaimed October 21 to be “Race and Reason Day,” when the author was feted in Jackson, Mississippi, a state he designated as “the heartland of the struggle for racial integrity.” In that campaign, the writings of Boas were especially pertinent: “Here was clever and insidious propaganda posing in the name of science.” His anthropology was “pathetic.” It consisted of “fruitless efforts at proof of unprovable theories,” “sound without . . . substance,” Putnam insisted. The egalitarian claims were so preposterous that he found himself “laughing out loud.” (Quite a card, that Professor Boas.) Putnam lacked any credentials whatsoever in social science; he was after all a Delta Airlines executive (and eventually chairman of its board). But if even he could easily detect the “slippery techniques” in Boas’s work, Putnam argued, surely learned academicians could. Indeed he professed to have found plenty of scholars who privately agreed with him, but refused to take any public stand against Boas and his students. Their very names— Herskovits, Klineberg, Weltfish — struck Putnam as vaguely sinister. On the vexed subject of equality, scholars who bore such exotic surnames evidently had a dog in that fight. He also suspected that any divergence from anthropological orthodoxy exacted too high a personal price for academicians. One professor supposedly told Putnam of a willingness to be more open in the classroom in denouncing the dominant approach to race—but that he “was being checked by mulattoes at his lectures,” and therefore had to be circumspect. In voiding racial segregation in public schools, nine men managed to achieve unanimity in Brown v. Board of Education. But they were joined, Putnam asserted, by “the ghost of Boas.”
During the postwar crisis of civil rights, the journalist who became the leading advocate of Jim Crow was James J. Kilpatrick. The editor of the Richmond News-Leader from 1949 until 1967, “Jack” Kilpatrick was the author of The Southern Case for School Segregation (1962). He loved camellias, and came across as more learned than the typical editor of a Southern newspaper. In opposing Brown v. Board of Education, Kilpatrick asserted his belief in the genetic and cultural inferiority of black Americans, and wanted to continue to draw the color line. He admired Mankind Quarterly, the Edinburgh-based journal that was promoting scientific racism as late as the 1950s. A leading historian of the racist thought of that decade claims that the target who was subjected to special scorn in the journal was—no extra credit for guessing the correct answer—Boas. Kilpatrick praised Carleton Putnam, and denounced “the obstinate attitude of the Benedict-Montagu school” (both students of Boas, of course). Kilpatrick also explicitly condemned the social scientists Myrdal, Klineberg, and Clark, and indeed the whole cohort of “Liberal social anthropologists” and, as though ignoring the peril of redundancy, “the entire school of Franz Boas.” Kilpatrick did not err. The author of An American Dilemma had after all claimed to learn from his conversations in the United States with Benedict, Boas, Herskovits, and Klineberg; and the last two, plus Montagu, had helped Myrdal with the research on his monumental project.
Boas’s posthumous influence also attracted the attention of a United States Senator from Mississippi, Theodore Bilbo, a vehement proponent of racial purity. Perhaps no member of the upper house of the national legislature ever authored a shabbier volume than Take Your Choice: Separation or Amalgamation (1947), in which Bilbo vilified all integrationists as “disciples of Professor Franz Boas.” This “Jew brought considerable notoriety to himself during the early years of this century by his efforts to destroy all concepts of race and encourage and promote miscegenation,” Bilbo accurately charged. He recoiled in horror from the program that “this German Jew” championed, which was to make his adopted country “a land of mulattoes.” Take Your Choice can be read as a rebuttal to President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights, which produced that same year an extensive report on the dangers to democracy that the pervasiveness of discrimination posed. Its source, the Committee concluded, was racial and religious prejudice, despite “the scientific findings which establish the equality of groups, and disprove racist nonsense.” Here, finally, was an official repudiation of what Senator Bilbo incarnated.
Historians of the conformism of the postwar organization man often cite Sloan Wilson’s novel, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1955). Chroniclers of massive resistance in that same decade know that many Southern businessmen wanted to distance themselves from the old ultra-violence of cruder white supremacists; hence the reputation of the Citizens Councils as “the Klan in the grey flannel suit.” They too noticed what the late Columbia University anthropologist had wrought. The editor of the newsletter of the Councils, The Citizen, W. J. Simmons, scorned “the equalitarian dogma” that had “originated with the Boas school of social anthropologists.” Their views, Simmons fumed, defied “the experience of 34 million white people in the South, who have lived with the [race] problem all their lives,” without — the Boas “school” might have rebutted —ever quite understanding it.
To be fair a defense of segregation did not require a commitment to scientific racism. Even one of Boas’s most famous former students denounced Brown v. Board of Education as “Govt [sic] by fiat”; Hurston found “insulting” the obligation of the races to mix in public schools. Nor was opposition to egalitarianism entirely disreputable. Consider the case of Boas’s own colleague at Columbia, the Virginia-born Henry E. Garrett, a nationally recognized authority on psychometrics and psychological testing. The historian I. A. Newby ranked Garrett as the most significant social scientist left standing in the racist camp in the era of Brown v. Board of Education. An unashamed segregationist, Garrett had not only chaired the Department of Psychology at Columbia (where he taught until his retirement in 1956); he had also served as president of the American Psychological Association. His students included the Clarks as well as Chein, from which Garrett may have inferred the limits of pedagogical effectiveness. But from a perch on Morningside Heights, he claimed to have discerned how egalitarianism had swept the field with little scientific justification. He “was able to observe the influence of Boas as founder of the so-called subject of cultural anthropology in America, and to witness the extent to which Boas’s socialistic ideology dominated his thinking and permeated the teaching of his disciples, first at Columbia and later at other universities fed from the Boas cult.” The result was that a whole generation came to “parrot the equalitarian arguments without competent familiarity with the evidence.” The position of Boas and his acolytes, Garrett charged, was “moral” rather than “scientific.” Nor could he help noticing how frequently members of one minority group were associated with egalitarianism, and slyly noted that, because their religion had historically prohibited exogamy, “the Jews who usually draw the racial line at the marriage altar stand to lose very little by so-called integration.”
But Garrett’s side was rapidly losing altitude, and faced defeat both in public opinion and in scholarship. As early as 1936, in an editorial entitled “Papa Franz Boas: He’s a Testy and Aged Teuton,” Wilbur J. Cash of the Charlotte News hailed the demolition of the idea of racial purity; instead humanity constitutes a “mongrel crew,” without Aryans at the top. In 1947, when Simone de Beauvoir visited the United States, its race relations understandably intrigued—and appalled—her. Beauvoir admitted in the journal she published that her English was not quite strong enough to grasp everything that Americans were telling her. But “in the last twenty years,” she realized, “there hasn’t been a single serious work that dared to defend the prejudice, however convenient, of [the] biological inferiority” that white Americans so commonly ascribed to blacks.
Three years later, in Sweatt v. Painter, the attorney general for the state of Texas confronted the dean of social sciences at the University of Chicago and the chair of its Department of Anthropology. Professor Robert Redfield was asked on the stand whether he accepted, on the subject of race, the presumably authoritative Encyclopedia Britannica. Could the state’s attorney general have been thinking of the eleventh edition, which attributed migration to the United States not merely in terms of the radiance of its political ideals but also because of the eagerness of other societies “to get rid of undesirable members of the community”? The “expulsion of the Jews,” for instance, represented an instance of “the effort of a community to get rid of an element which has made itself obnoxious to the local sentiment.” But whatever the attorney may have been referring to, Redfield’s answer to the question posed about scholarly authority was firm: “No, I do not.” Well then, who are the experts on the subject? Redfield’s answer constituted a kind of epitaph for racialism, whether romantic or scientific: “Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, Ashley Montagu, Otto Klineberg.” And in 1965, when the Congress instituted systematic immigration reform, the quota system that had been adopted a little over four decades earlier was decisively repudiated. In the House of Representatives, the chief sponsor of the bill was Emanuel Celler, for whom (along with Senator Philip Hart) the law is named.
Even though bigotry has hardly vanished, it has increasingly become so shameful that concealment (or at least disingenuousness) was necessary. In 1986, when Ronald Reagan nominated Jefferson B. Sessions to the federal judiciary, the President was asked about the hostile comments that the nominee had earlier made about the leading civil rights organization. He deferred to Sessions, who explained: “I may have said something about the NAACP being un-American or Communist, but I meant no harm by it.” No hard feelings. Eventually the Declaration of Independence does indeed make a difference. Fast-forward to 2003, when the prime minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, told delegates to the Tenth Islamic Summit Conference of the nefarious influence of a very tiny but influential group. The Jews, he announced, “invented and successfully promoted Socialism, Communism, human rights, and democracy so that persecuting them would appear to be wrong, so they may enjoy equal rights with others.” Perhaps cultural anthropology should therefore be added to the list of ideological schemes to delegitimize the interests of the strong and to apply moral pressure to pre-modern modes of domination. If so, credit Boas for accelerating that leveling process as well. In a famous speech at American University in 1963, John F. Kennedy seemed to repudiate the Wilsonian desire to make the world safe for democracy. Instead, by preferring to try to “help make the world safe for diversity,” the President was echoing the credo of Franz Boas.
Boas died with his boots on, so to speak, while having lunch on Morningside Heights. Even at the end, his luck held out. We usually don’t get to choose our very last words, but very occasionally they are fitting—the capstone to a career. When George Gershwin collapsed into his brother’s arms, for example, and could only utter one last word, it was “Astaire” — the surname of the dancer who worshiped the composer who, he said, “wrote for feet.”
Boas succumbed in 1942, a distinctively bad year in the calendar of American racism. On the West Coast the systematic violation of civil liberties got combined with outright prejudice when Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, an essentialist in charge of the Western Defense Command, defined all Americans of Japanese descent as “an enemy race,” and explained: “A Jap’s a Jap, and that’s all there is to it.” By November over a hundred thousand Japanese-Americans were trapped behind barbed wire. The Nisei had been found guilty of possessing what the political scientist John P. Roche, in a sly dig at hereditarianism, labeled “enemy chromosomes.” A month later, at the Columbia Men’s Faculty Club, Boas showed up wearing a fur cap that may have dated back to his first expedition among the Eskimos. He was mentioning his own effort to combat the superstition of “race,” before suddenly suffering a fatal heart attack. The scholar who, as early as 1894 (in “Human Faculty as Determined by Race”), had articulated an egalitarian vision of our species, stayed on-message to the end. The public intellectual who had dedicated himself to composing a requiem for a noun like “race” uttered it for the last time just before falling over in his chair. Put that episode in a novel — and readers might grow a little sceptical.
Especially since the plot thickens. The monograph that Herskovits published on his mentor in 1953 fails to mention the name of Boas’s luncheon companion, a French ethnologist who grasped the retired professor as he fell. Who the foreigner was did not seem to matter at the time, or even eleven years later. But his name was Claude Lévi-Strauss. He had switched from philosophical interests and, partly inspired by Lowie, decided to engage instead in field work, which was undertaken in Brazil. The German occupation and the racial laws of the Vichy regime had forced Lévi-Strauss to find refuge in New York, where he met Boas for lunch. Tristes Tropiques would not be published until 1955, and La Pensée Sauvage (with its title so faithfully echoing The Mind of Primitive Man) would not appear until two decades after Boas’s death. In retrospect such works made the transmission in 1942 from the dying to the living, in the discipline they shared, seem so downright just as to be overdetermined. That Lévi-Strauss would also publish a book on Race et Histoire (under the auspices of UNESCO, in 1952), and would call colonialism “the major sin of the West,” can only deepen the supreme symbolism of this hand-off. The record that Boas made of Kwakiutl recipes even gave Lévi-Strauss “the key to certain mythological problems by revealing relationships of compatibility and incompatibility among foods,” which for him marked the transition from nature to culture.
Boas could not have foreseen the influence of the young anthropologist in whose arms he died; but in 1965, when the erudite Daniel Bell was asked which book published within the previous decade did he return to most often, he cheated a bit. Bell named half a dozen books, some not yet translated, by Claude Lévi-Strauss, who was hailed for generating “a revolution in social thought.” By 1980 an editor of Partisan Review would devote an entire book to what its title announces as The Age of Structuralism. The following year a poll of six hundred French scholars and intellectuals decisively ranked Lévi-Strauss ahead of all other influences on their thought. His death inspired a leading French journal to mourn him as the “last great thinker” of the twentieth century. In 1980, when PBS interviewed Lévi-Strauss, he was given a chance to pay homage to Boas as “the last of the intellectual giants” who had emerged in the previous century. Boas’s prodigious and diverse output had lifted him into the company of “the nineteenth-century titans,” Lévi-Strauss asserted, “the likes of which are no more to be found.” A circle was thus closed.
1 W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, eds. David W. Blight and Robert Gooding-Williams (Boston: Bedford, 1997), 34; George M. Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914 (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), xi.
2 Merrill R. Davis and William H. Gilman, eds., The Letters of Herman Melville (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), 80; Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968), 480.
3 Elazar Barkan, The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the United States Between the World Wars (Cambridge, U. K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 77-78.
4 Ron Robin, Scandals and Scoundrels: Seven Cases That Shook the Academy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 107; Richard Handler, “Boasian Anthropology and the Critique of American Culture,” American Quarterly, 42 (June 1990), 253; Lee D. Baker, Anthropology and the Racial Politics of Culture (Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 2010), 166.
5 Dinesh D’Souza The End of Racism: Principles for a Multiracial Society (New York: Free Press, 1995), 417.
6 Melville J. Herskovits, Franz Boas (New York: Scribner’s, 1953), 121, 123; Helen Codere, “The Understanding of the Kwakiutl,” in The Anthropology of Franz Boas: Essays on the Centennial of His Birth, ed. Walter Goldschmidt, in American Anthropological Association Memoir #89, 61 (October 1959), 61.
7 Quoted in Louis Filler, Randolph Bourne (New York: American Council on Public Affairs, 1943), 35, 141 n. 26; “Environmentalist,” Time, 27 (May 11, 1936), 40; Marshall Hyatt, Franz Boas, Social Activist: The Dynamics of Ethnicity (Westport, Ct.: Greenwood Press, 1990), 113-14; Franz Boas, The Mind of Primitive Man, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1938) 254-72; Paul Radin, “Boas and The Mind of Primitive Man,” in Books That Changed Our Minds, eds. Malcolm Cowley and Bernard Smith (New York: Kelmscott, 1939), 131.
8 Abram Kardiner and Edward Preble, They Studied Man (Cleveland: World, 1961), 153-54.
9 Quoted in Carl N. Degler, In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 73-74, and in Douglas Cole, Franz Boas: The Early Years, 1858-1906 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999), 84, 87; George W. Stocking, Jr., Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology (New York: Free Press, 1968), 137.
10 Quoted in Cole, Franz Boas, 284.
11 Norman Francis Boas, Franz Boas, 1858-1942: An Illustrated Biography (Mystic, Ct.: Seaport Autographs Press, 2004), 184, 187, 251.
12 Hyatt, Franz Boas, Social Activist, 4, 27, 49; Regna Darnell, And Along Came Boas: Continuity and Revolution in Americanist Anthropology (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1998), 158, 171.
13 Quoted in “Production du documentaire Les Statues Meurent Aussi,” « Regards d’Afrique, » La Tribune du Week-End du Musée du Quai Branly, November 9, 2009, 3, and in Herskovits, Franz Boas, 111; Boas, The Mind of Primitive Man, 268-69.
14 Quoted in Vernon J. Williams, Jr., Rethinking Race: Franz Boas and His Contemporaries (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996), 27, and in Edward H. Beardsley, “The American Scientist as Social Activist: Franz Boas, Burt G. Wilder, and the Cause of Racial Justice,” Isis, 64 (March 1973), 60.
15 Iris Schmeisser, “Transatlantic Crossings between Paris and New York: Pan-Africanism, Cultural Difference and the Arts,” doctoral dissertation, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, 111-12, 182; Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001), 396-97; David Weinfeld, “What Difference Does Difference Make?: Horace Kallen, Alain Locke, and the Birth of Cultural Pluralism,” in Philosophic Values and World Citizenship: Locke to Obama and Beyond, eds. Jacoby Adeshei Carter and Leonard Harris (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), 167-68.
16 Donald Worster, A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 399-400; Darnell, Along Came Boas, 174-75.
17 Walter Goldschmidt, ed., “Introduction” to Anthropology of Franz Boas, 3.
18 Hyatt, Franz Boas, Social Activist 56, 69, 153; Lee D. Baker, From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 145, 146-48; Stocking, Race, Culture, 225; Herskovits, Franz Boas, 7, 79-80.
19 Barkan, Retreat, 76-77; Herskovits, Franz Boas, 65, 120-21; Didier Eribon, Conversations with Claude Lévi-Strauss, tr. Paula Wissing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 36, 38; Marvin Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture (New York: Thomas W. Crowell, 1968), 250-52.
20 Thomas F. Gossett, Race: The History of an Idea in America (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1963), 421-22.
21 Kardiner and Preble, They Studied Man, 139; Dell Hymes, ed., “The Use of Anthropology: Critical, Political, Personal,” in Reinventing Anthropology (New York: Random House, 1972), 10.
22 Franz Boas, in I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Certain Eminent Men and Women of Our Time, ed. Clifton Fadiman (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1939), 19, 21; Jerold S. Auerbach, Explorers in Eden: Pueblo Indians and the Promised Land (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006), 122; “Stocking, Race, Culture, 149; Kardiner and Preble, They Studied Man, 139; Margaret Mead, “Apprenticeship Under Boas,” in Anthropology of Franz Boas, ed. Goldschmidt, 31.
23 Lois W. Banner, Intertwined Lives: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Their Circle (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 192-93.
24 Banner, Intertwined Lives, 191.
25 Robert H. Lowie, Ethnologist: A Personal Record (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1959), 1, 3; Robert F. Murphy, Robert H. Lowie (New York: Columbia University Press, 1972), 13; Pierre Birnbaum, Geography of Hope: Exile, the Enlightenment, Disassimilation, tr. Charlotte Mandell (Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press, 2008), 12.
26 Walter Sullivan, “Only 7 Women Have Won Nobels in Science,” New York Times, October 11, 1983, III, 6; Degler, Search, 113; Auerbach, Explorers in Eden, 123-24, 127, 135, 137-38; Margaret Mead, Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years (New York: William Morrow, 1972), 112, 113.
27 Quoted in Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995), 283-84; Robert E. Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977), 81, 88-89, 101, 212-13, 214-15; Deborah G. Plant, Zora Neale Hurston: A Biography of the Spirit (Westport, Ct.: Praeger, 2007), 36, 47, 64, 65.
28 Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), 2-3, 20, 25, 55; Margaret M. Caffrey, Ruth Benedict: Stranger in This Land (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989), 112-15; Banner, Intertwined Lives, 152, 179, 188.
29 Quoted in Banner, Intertwined Lives, 290.
30 Quoted in Degler, Search, 120; Barkan, Retreat, 128; Mead, Blackberry Winter, 129, and Ruth Benedict, 29.
31 Lewis S. Feuer, “The Stages in the Social History of Jewish Professors in American Colleges and Universities,” American Jewish History, 71 (June 1982), 443; Gelya Frank, “Jews, Multiculturalism, and Boasian Anthropology,” American Anthropologist, 99 (December 1997), 732.
32 Mead, Blackberry Winter, 105, 107, 112, 113, 127, 128; Helen Carr, “Coming of Age in America: Margaret Mead and Karen Horney,” in American Cultural Critics, ed. David Murray (Exeter, U. K.: University of Exeter Press, 1995), 144-56; Hyatt, Franz Boas, Social Activist, 83, 85, 89-90, 97.
33 Andrew Butterfield, “A Responding Sensibility,” New Republic, 241 (March 25, 2010), 32-33; Barkan, Retreat, 336; Ellen W. Schrecker, No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 172.
34 Steven J. Diner, “Department and Discipline: The Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago, 1892-1920,” Minerva, 13 (Winter 1975), 514-16, 519, 523, 528, 532, 533, 538, 539, 540, 541-42, 547, 550, 551-52; Walter Jackson, “Melville Herskovits and the Search for Afro-American Culture,” in Malinowski, Rivers, Benedict and Others: Essays on Culture and Personality, ed. George W. Stocking, Jr. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), 100; Feuer, “Stages in the Social History,” American Jewish History, 444, 461; Degler, Search, 75-76; Hyatt, Franz Boas, Social Activist, 95-96; Dorothy Ross, The Origins of American Social Science (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 307, 351
35 Quoted in George W. Stocking, Jr., ed., The Shaping of American Anthropology, 1883-1911: A Franz Boas Reader (New York: Basic Books, 1974), 219.
36 Degler, Search, 84-86; Darnell, Along Came Boas, 166; Herbert S. Lewis, “The Passion of Franz Boas,” American Anthropologist, 103 (June 2001), 454.
37 Quoted in Cole, Franz Boas, 103; Kardiner and Preble, They Studied Man, 140; Ezra Mendelsohn, “Should We Take Notice of Berthe Weill?”, Jewish Social Studies, 1, New Series (Fall 1994), 28-30; Carol S. Gruber, Mars and Minerva: World War I and the Uses of the Higher Learning in America (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1975), 204-5.
38 John P. Diggins, The Bard of Savagery: Thorstein Veblen and Modern Social Theory (New York: Seabury, 1978), 172.
39 Franz Boas, “Scientists as Spies” (1919), in Stocking, ed., Shaping of American Anthropology, 336-37; Baker, From Savage to Negro, 150; Gruber, Mars and Minerva, 50; Barkan, Retreat, 89-90; Hyatt, Franz Boas, Social Activist, 131-32, 133; David Glenn, “Anthropologists Act to Revoke 1919 Censure of Franz Boas, A Key Figure in the Field,” Chronicle of Higher Education, December 17, 2004.
40 Jonathan Peter Spiro, Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant (Hanover, N. H.: University Press of New England, 2009), 316-17; Stocking, Race, Culture, 273-77; Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989), 240, 254-56.
41 Quoted in Gould, Wonderful Life, 256.
42 Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 318.
43 Quoted in Gruber, Mars and Minerva, 51.
44 Herskovits, Franz Boas, 7, 56-57, 98; Cole, Franz Boas, 275; Virginia Heyer Young, Ruth Benedict: Beyond Relativity, Beyond Pattern (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005), 9; Clifford Geertz, Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 2000), 44-46; Lewis, “Passion,” American Anthropologist, 450-51, 461; Frank, “Jews, Multiculturalism,” American Anthropologist, 732, 741; Mendelsohn, “Should We Take Notice of Berthe Weill?”, 26-28.
45 Quoted in Stocking, Race, Culture, 148, and in Cole, Franz Boas, 79.
46 Franz Boas, “A Year Among the Eskimo” (1887), in Stocking, ed., Shaping of American Anthropology, 55; Herskovits, Franz Boas, 1; Julia E. Liss, “Patterns of Strangeness: Franz Boas, Modernism, and the Origins of Anthropology,” in Prehistories of the Future: The Primitivist Project and the Culture of Modernism, eds. Elazar Barkan and Ronald Bush (Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press, 1995), 116, 120, 127-28.
47 Barkan, Retreat, 26; Cole, Franz Boas, 274; Stocking, Race, Culture, 203, 231, 233; Degler, Search, 71; Philip Gleason, Speaking of Diversity: Language and Ethnicity in Twentieth-Century America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 156-57; Jonathan M. Hansen, The Lost Promise of Patriotism: Debating American Identity, 1890-1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 94-95.
48 Quoted in Herskovits, Franz Boas, 101; Franz Boas, Race, Language and Culture (New York: Macmillan, 1940), v; Worster, River Running West, 457-58; Feuer, “Stages of Social History,” American Jewish History, 445-46; Banner, Intertwined Lives, 195.
49 Degler, Search, 61, 215-16; Stocking, Race, Culture, 306; Thomas McCarthy, Race, Empire, and the Idea of Human Development (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 82-84.
50 Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason, rev. ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 2009), 77-78.
51 Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 232-33.
52 Franz Boas, “Human Faculty as Determined by Race” (1894), in Shaping of American Anthropology, ed. Stocking, Jr., 226.
53 Franz Boas, “The Outlook for the American Negro,” in Stocking, ed., Shaping of American Anthropology, 313; Baker, From Savage to Negro, 121, 122; W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, Black Folk Then and Now: An Essay in the History and Sociology of the Negro Race (New York: Henry Holt, 1939), vii; David Levering Lewis, W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919 ( New York: Henry Holt, 1993), 351-52; Julia E. Liss, “Diasporic Identities: The Science and Politics of Race in the Work of Franz Boas and W. E. B. Du Bois,” Cultural Anthropology, 13 (May 1998), 136-38.
54 W. E. B. Du Bois, “Address to the All-African People’s Congress” (1958), in The Seventh Son: The Thought and Writings of W. E. B. Du Bois, ed. Julius Lester (New York: Random House, 1971), II, 657.
55 Shuly Rubin Schwartz, The Emergence of Jewish Scholarship in America: The Publication of the Jewish Encyclopedia (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1991), 19, 20; Vernon J. Williams, Jr., “What Is Race?: Franz Boas Reconsidered,” in Race, Nation, and Empire in American History, eds. James T. Campbell, Matthew Pratt Guterl, and Robert G. Lee (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007). 41, 48, 50, 51.
56 E. Digby Baltzell, Introduction to W. E. B. Du Bois, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (New York: Schocken Books, 1967 ), xxv-xxv; Melville J. Herskovits, Foreword to Franz Boas, The Mind of Primitive Man, rev. ed. (New York: Free Press, 1963 ), 8.
57 Richard Kluger, Simple Justice (New York: Random House, 1975), 98, 308; Williams, “What Is Race?”, in Race, Nation, and Empire, 47, and Rethinking Race, 41; Patricia Sullivan, Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: New Press, 2009), 3, 8, 21; Lewis, W. E. B. Du Bois, 413-14; Hyatt, Franz Boas, Social Activist, 96; Baker, From Savage to Negro, 119, 125.
58 Gene Weltfish, “Franz Boas: The Academic Response,” in Anthropology: Ancestors and Heirs, ed. Stanley Diamond (The Hague: Mouton, 1980), 145.
59 Schmeisser, “Transatlantic Crossings,” 183-84; Liss, “Diasporic Identities,” Cultural Anthropology, 138-40; Boas, Mind of Primitive Man, 15, and “The Instability of Human Types,” in Stocking, ed., Shaping of American Anthropology, 217; Jackson, “Melville Herskovits,” in Malinowski, Rivers, Benedict and Others, 95, 97-98.
60 Boas, Mind of Primitive Man, 270
61 Degler, Search, 175.
62 Carolyn Wedin, Inheritors of the Spirit: Mary White Ovington and the Founding of the NAACP (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998), 57; Herbert Aptheker, ed., The Correspondence of W. E. B. Du Bois: Selections, 1877-1934 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1973), 77, 132n.
63 Quoted in David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2001), 252.
64 Baker, From Savage to Negro, 125, 152; Williams, Rethinking Race, 30, and The Social Sciences and Theories of Race (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006), 46-47; Zora Neale Hurston to Ruth Benedict, Spring 1929[ ?], in Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, ed. Carla Kaplan (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 41.
65 Beardsley, “American Scientist as Social Activist,” Isis, 62; Stocking, Race, Culture, 299-300; Claudia Roth Pierpont, “Black, Brown, and Beige,” New Yorker, 86 (May 17, 2010), 100-1.
66 Norman Boas, Franz Boas, 240; Herskovits, Franz Boas, 112; Lewis, “Passion,” American Anthropologist, 459; Stocking, Race, Culture, 228; Schmeisser, “Transatlantic Crossings,” 184-85.
67 274 U. S. 200 (1927), in The Mind and Faith of Justice Holmes, ed. Max Lerner (New York: Modern Library, 1943), 358; Johnpeter Horst Grill and Robert L. Jenkins, “The Nazis and the American South in the 1930s: A Mirror Image?”, Journal of Southern History, 58 (November 1992), 673.
68 Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 225-26.
69 David R. Roediger, Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 139.
70 Quoted in Nicholas Lemann, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999), 29-30.
71 Spiro, Defending the Master Race, xi; Jerome Karabel, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale and Princeton (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), 82.
72 Quoted in Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 163, 164, 298; Gossett, Race, 429-30.
73 Quoted in Kevin B. MacDonald, The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth-Century Intellectual and Political Movements (Westport, Ct.: Praeger, 1998), 253, and in Mitchell B. Hart, “Franz Boas as German, American, and Jew,” in German-Jewish Identities in America, eds. Christof Mauch and Joseph Salmon (Madison: Max Kade Institute of the University of Wisconsin, 2003), 103.
74 Quoted in Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 322; Boas, Race, Language and Culture, 13-14.
75 Quoted in Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 324, and in Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1998), 184.
76 Hyatt, Franz Boas, Social Activist, 136; Jerry Gershenhorn, Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), 48, 50; Degler, Search, 205.
77 Banner, Intertwined Lives, 388; Hart, “Franz Boas,” 99-100, 104n; Harold Brackman, “’A Calamity Almost Beyond Comprehension’: Nazi Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in the Thought of W. E. B. Du Bois,” American Jewish History, 88 (March 2000), 76-77; Franz Boas, Introduction to Herbert J. Seligmann, Race Against Man (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1939), vi.
78 Fredrickson, Black Image, 315. 330; Jacques Barzun, Race: A Study in Superstition (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1965), 34, 216, 217; Hasia R. Diner, In the Almost Promised Land: American Jews and Blacks, 1915-1935 (Westport, Ct.: Greenwood, 1977), 142-49.
79 Degler, Search, 101.
80 Richard Hofstadter, “U. B. Phillips and the Plantation Legend,” Journal of Negro History, 29 (April 1944), 124; Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1963), 18.
81 David H. Price, Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists (Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 2004), 238-39, 245-46.
82 Eric Herschthal, “Jewish Professor, Black Culture,” Jewish Week, January 29, 2010, 40-41; Barkan, Retreat, 115; Gershenhorn, Melville J. Herskovits, 32; Walter A. Jackson, Gunnar Myrdal and America’s Conscience: Social Engineering and Racial Liberalism, 1938-1987 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 29, 100-1, 189, 194, 199, 201, 263, 266-67.
83 Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1993), 113.
84 Quoted in Gershenhorn, Melville J. Herskovits, 208.
85 Quoted in Degler, Search, 189; “Ashley Montagu, 94, Author and Popular Anthropologist,” New York Times, November 28, 1999, 39.
86 Ashley Montagu, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), 5th ed. rev. and enlarged, 39; Barkan, Retreat, 16, n. 4; Degler, Search, 204.
87 Quoted in Williams, Rethinking Race, 43; Birnbaum, Geography of Hope, 25-26; Degler, Search, 179, 183, 190; Joanne Meyerowitz, “‘How Common Culture Shapes the Separate Lives’: Sexuality, Race, and Mid-Twentieth-Century Social Constructionist Thought,” Journal of American History, 96 (March 2010), 1061, 1070.
88 Reminiscences of Kenneth B. Clark (1976), 106-7, in the Oral History Research Office Collection of the Columbia University Libraries (OHRO/CUL).
89 I. A. Newby, Challenge to the Court: Social Scientists and the Defense of Segregation, 1954-1966 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967), 27; Kluger, Simple Justice, 492; Naomi Levine, Letter to the Editor, Forward, August 20, 2010, 12; Baker, From Savage to Negro, 199; W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1941), 342.
90 Quoted in Kluger, Simple Justice, 493.
91 Jackson, Gunnar Myrdal, 110, 121; Newby, Challenge to the Court, 21; Baker, From Savage to Negro, 181; Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color, 99, 100-1.
92 Quoted in Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Cleveland: World, 1958), 73.
93 Gossett, Race, 418.
94 Quoted in Ronald Steel, Walter Lippmann and the American Century (New York: Random House, 1980), 331; Laurel Leff, Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 29; Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones, The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times (Boston: Little, Brown, 1999), 155-56.
95 Leonard B. Glick, “Types Distinct from Our Own: Franz Boas on Jewish Identity and Assimilation,” American Anthropologist, 84 (September 1982), 1, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14; Kardiner and Preble, They Studied Man, 139; Mendelsohn, “Should We Take Notice of Berthe Weill?”, Jewish Social Studies, 32; Amos Morris-Reich, The Quest for Jewish Assimilation in Modern Social Science (New York: Routledge, 2008), 3, 34-35, 54; Franz Boas, “Are the Jews a Race?”, World Tomorrow, 5 (January 1923), 5-6.
96 Quoted in Liss, “Diasporic Identities,” Cultural Anthropology, 160, and in idem., “Patterns of Strangeness: Franz Boas, Modernism, and the Origins of Anthropology,” in Prehistories of the Future: The Primitivist Project and the Culture of Modernism, eds. Elazar Barkan and Ronald Bush (Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press, 1995), 125; Eric F. Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 2006), 110, 147.
97 Quoted in Hart, “Franz Boas,” in German-Jewish Identities in America, 2003), 94, and in Norman Boas, Franz Boas, 234; Herskovits, Franz Boas, 117; Hyatt, Franz Boas, Social Activist, 146; Frank, “Jews, Multiculturalism,” American Anthropologist, 734.
98 Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb, From Swastika to Jim Crow: Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges (Malabar, Fl.: Krieger, 1993), 109-10, 113; Mead, Ruth Benedict, 52-53; Caffrey, Ruth Benedict, 282-89; Michael Rosenthal, Nicholas Miraculous: The Amazing Career of the Redoubtable Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2006), 392-93.
99 Franz Boas to W. E. B. Du Bois, April 22, 1936, in Correspondence of W. E. B. Du Bois, ed. Aptheker, 135; Lewis, “Passion,” American Anthropologist, 459; Boas, Race, Language and Culture, 16; “Prof. Franz Boas, Scientist, Dies, 84,” New York Times, December 22, 1942, 25.
100 Barkan, Retreat, 30-31.
101 Quoted in Goldstein, Price of Whiteness, 136-37,
102 Boas, Introduction to Seligmann, Race Against Man, v; Goldstein, Price of Whiteness, 193; Degler, Search, 203.
103 Radin, “Franz Boas,” in Cowley and Smith, Books That Changed Our Minds, 133, 142; Herskovits, Franz Boas, 114; Paul H. Buck, The Road to Reunion, 1865-1900 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1937), 297.
104 “Statement of Principles and Program,” February 12, 1939, n. p., and “Personal Statement by Professor Franz Boas,” November 20, 1939, 1, 2, in Folder 1, Boas and Walter Rautenstrauch to the National Executive Committee, August 12, 1942, n. p., Folder 9, and “Strictly Confidential,” n. d., n. p., Folder 10, American Committee for Democracy and Intellectual Freedom file, Franz Boas Papers, B: B61, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.
105 Claudia Roth Pierpont, “The Measure of America,” New Yorker, 80 (March 8, 2004), 62.
106 Alan E. Steinweis, Studying the Jew: Scholarly Antisemitism in Nazi Germany (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2006), 25-34; Herskovits, Franz Boas, 4, 5, 117; “Environmentalist,” Time, 42; Leslie Spier, “Some Central Elements in the Legacy,” in Anthropology of Franz Boas: Essays on the Centennial of His Birth, ed. Goldschmidt, 147; Norman Boas, Franz Boas, 236, 252; “Dr. Boas on the Blacklist,” New York Times, May 6, 1933, 8.
107 Alex Haley, “Interview: George Lincoln Rockwell,” Playboy, 13 (April 1966), 76.
108 Weltfish, “Franz Boas,” in Anthropology, 123-25.
109 Weltfish, “Franz Boas,” in Anthropology, 127-28, 130-31.
110 Mead, Ruth Benedict, 54, and Foreword to Ruth Benedict, Race: Science and Politics (New York: Viking, 1959, viii; Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish, “The Races of Mankind,” in Benedict, Race, 167-68, 182; Baker, Anthropology and the Racial Politics of Culture, 166-70.
111 Frank, “Jews, Multiculturalism,” American Anthropologist, 738; Painter, History of White People, 338-340; Price, Threatening Anthropology, 110-35; Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008), 396.
112 Quoted in James W. Silver, Mississippi: The Closed Society (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1966), 26; Newby, Challenge to the Court, 148-49, 153-54; Carleton Putnam, Race and Reason: A Yankee View (Washington, D. C.: Public Affairs Press, 1961), 18-21, 23.
113 Quoted in Baker, Anthropology and the Racial Politics of Culture, 180.
114 Newby, Challenge to the Court, 138, 170-71; William P. Hustwit, “From Caste to Color Blindness: James J. Kilpatrick’s Segregationist Semantics,” Journal of Southern History, 77 (August 2011), 650,651-53, 655, 658-59; Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, Race Beat: The Press, they Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation (New York: Random House, 2006), 112-15; Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (New York: Harper & Row, 1944), lii, liii.
115 Quoted in Baker, Anthropology and the Racial Politics of Culture, 202.
116 [Charles E. Wilson, Frank P. Graham et al,] To Secure These Rights: The Report of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1947), 134.
117 Quoted in Newby, Challenge to the Court, 177.
118 Quoted in Kaplan, ed., Zora Neale Hurston, 611-12.
119 Newby, Challenge to the Court, 53-54; Kluger, Simple Justice, 482-84.
120 Quoted in Newby, Challenge to the Court, 93, 94.
121 Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr., The Fourth Ghost: White Southern Writers and European Fascism, 1930-1950 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009), 80; Simone de Beauvoir, America Day by Day, tr. Carol Cosman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 238-39.
122 Quoted in Baker, From Savage to Negro, 202; “Migration,” in Encyclopedia Britannica (Cambridge, U. K.: Cambridge University Press, 1911), XI, 431.
123 Quoted in Paul Slansky, The Clothes Have No Emperor: A Chronicle of the American ‘80s (New York: Fireside, 1989), 157, and in “Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad: On the Jews,” at www.adl.org (posted October 27, 2003).
124 Quoted in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), 902.
125 John P. Roche, The Quest for the Dream: The Development of Civil Rights and Human Relations in Modern America (New York: Macmillan, 1963), 196-97.
126 Norman Boas, Franz Boas, 259; Barkan, Retreat, 76-77; Banner, Intertwined Lives, 441; Baker, Anthropology and the Racial Politics of Culture, 204; Herskovits, Franz Boas, 120-21; Claude Lévi-Strauss in Odyssey: Franz Boas, 1858-1942 (PBS Video, 1980).
127 Quoted in Jeffrey Mehlman, Émigré New York: French Intellectuals in Wartime Manhattan, 1940-1944 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 182.
128 Eribon, Conversations with Claude Lévi-Strauss, 39, 134.
129 Daniel Bell in « The Revolving Bookstand, » American Scholar, 34 (Summer 1965), 476; Birnbaum, Geography of Hope, 1; « Claude Lévi-Strauss, le penseur du siècle », Le Magazine Littéraire, n. 475 (May 1, 2008), at http://www.magazine-litteraire.com/content/editorial/ article?id=14843; Lévi-Strauss in Odyssey: Franz Boas, 1858-1942 (PBS Video, 1980).
130 Eribon, Conversations with Claude Lévi-Strauss, 36.
131 David A. Hollinger, Science, Jews, and Secular Culture: Studies in Mid-Twentieth Century American Intellectual History (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1996), 18, 24-25.
A Note on Scholarship
The place of Franz Boas in the historiography of twentieth-century ideas and their champions is surprisingly spotty. The scholarly literature on Boas himself is huge. But beyond the works of Degler and Barkan, cited above, too little of it puts Boas into the context of early-twentieth-century thought. Few authors can achieve the ideal of comprehensiveness, and their varying purposes and ambitions require that they be cut some slack. It is nevertheless curious that Daniel Aaron’s portraits of “prophetic agitators” and other Progressives of the fin de siècle, Men of Good Hope (1951), omit any mention of either Boas or Du Bois. James T. Kloppenberg’s Uncertain Victory (1986) is devoted to progressive thought (and draws upon sources in German as well as English and French). Yet his book entirely omits Boas, who is also unmentioned in Daniel T. Rodgers’ Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (1998). Gary Gerstle’s American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century (2001) traces the conflict between democratic inclusion and ethno-racial exclusion. Yet only once does Gerstle mention Boas, who gets equal billing with two of his students, Benedict and Montagu. The cosmopolitan ideal does not entirely fit Boas, who was more of a pluralist than a believer in a kind of universalistic culture. Yet David A. Hollinger’s influential essay on the German-Jewish intellectual elite, published in 1975, also neglects Boas.
Hollinger got another chance—and seized it—in considering the decline of an emphatic Protestant cultural hegemony over the course of the twentieth century. Here Boas is situated “among the earliest of these Jewish intellectuals to achieve prominence” in helping to achieve a “de-provincializing influence.” Through a greater appreciation for the multiplicity of American society (and elsewhere), Boas helped made America less emphatically Christian. Hollinger sees during the era of the Great War some public intellectuals—Boas, the biologist Jacques Loeb, the literary critic Joel Spingarn, plus Lippmann, Felix Frankfurter, Horace M. Kallen, and Morris R. Cohen—as “free-thinking Jews.” Too many of them, T. S. Eliot would tell an audience at the University of Virginia in 1934, risked impeding the faith-based initiative that he wanted to realize: the idea of a Christian society.
Incredibly enough, no full-scale scholarly biography of Boas exists. Douglas Cole’s stops in 1906, when its subject still had another very productive thirty-six years of his career to go. Even the key selection of Boas’s scholarly writings, edited by George W. Stocking, Jr., entitled The Shaping of American Anthropology, is front-loaded; it stops in 1911. (Stocking does however include four of Boas’s political pieces from 1916 to 1919.) The short volumes by Herskovits and by Marshall Hyatt fail to exploit the huge personal and professional archive available at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. It is a measure of Boas’s stature in the profession that, in 1955, when American Anthropologist confronted Herskovits’s 131-page summation of his teacher’s achievements, two reviewers were assigned (one from Harvard, the other from Yale).
For a very long time now, Franz Boas has been ready for his close-up.
My thanks to Donald Altschiller, Jerold S. Auerbach, Matt Childs, Damon Freeman, Michael T. Gilmore, Eugene Goodheart, Roy E. Goodman, Mitchell B. Hart, Daniel Horowitz, Jonathan B. Imber, Richard H. King, Sarah Lamb, Herbert S. Lewis, Lee C. Whitfield, Jocelyn K. Wilk and Avihu Zakai for their encouragement and assistance. I also appreciate the opportunity to have presented a small portion of this essay at a conference that Lawrence J. Friedman organized at Harvard University in April, 2010, devoted to the subject of public intellectuals. A different — and much, much shorter version of this piece appeared in Society, vol. 47, no. 5 (2010)
From April, 2012