- Leslie A. White: Evolution and Revolution in Anthropology
Leslie White (1900–1975) was something of an intellectual hero in my early academic career. I still employ his evolutionary approach to the analysis of societies and cultures in my own work. One of the thrills of my undergraduate days was receiving a personal letter from him in 1966 in reply to questions I had written him while preparing a term paper about his theoretical antecedents, so having been given this book to review was a genuine opportunity for me to reconnect with my mentor from afar. Alas, I find in its pages more than enough reasons to be disappointed both with my hero and with the author of this book.
Peace reveals that White led a double life for most of his career, publicly denying active participation and membership in communist and socialist organizations while doing just the opposite. His infamous ongoing debates with the likes of Franz Boas and his followers, with Robert Lowie, Julian Steward, and Alfred L. Kroeber, in retrospect appear to have little intellectual substance and [End Page 221] were largely of White's own making, harping on trivial differences rather than seeing the broader similarities in their interests and efforts. In Peace's presentation White came across as a disagreeable man simply trying to pick a fight with anyone who was in his path rather than as an intellectual giant trying to sharpen the focus of the discipline. That clearly is not Peace's intent, and his respect for White is obvious. It is just that he has chosen to write about an important but seriously flawed man.
White's childhood and youth are well researched and quite revealing. It was far from an ideal childhood but one that clearly contributed to his character and intellectual development. White's World War One naval service also was important in shaping his outlook. Peace himself fails to unearth some parts of the early career of White, especially his three years at the University of Buffalo and the Buffalo Museum of Science (1927–30). It is only in a footnote that we learn that he was there and served as curator of anthropology. Yet it was there that he met and married Mary, a student of his who was his wife for thirty years. In contrast we learn a great deal of his time at the New School for Social Research (1922–24) and the University of Chicago (1925–27). His forty years at the University of Michigan are well presented, with all of the conflicts for which White was known adequately explained. Clearly, White was a controversial figure at Ann Arbor, both respected and disdained, depending upon which group one consults.
Peace is to be commended for reviewing the early career of White as an ethnologist among the Menominees in Wisconsin and at Acoma and the Keresan pueblos in New Mexico. White was in the field often from 1925 until 1957 and did excellent fieldwork among the Pueblo peoples. His studies of the San Felipe, Santo Domingo, Santa Ana, Zia, and Acoma pueblos were published as AAA memoirs and BIA bulletins, and he was a rich source of information on Pueblo peoples. However, Peace is right to note that the field techniques he employed would not be as well regarded today. He sought means of acquiring closely held knowledge from informants he cunningly cultivated, information that violated their oaths of secrecy and obligations to their own communities.
White felt the need to disguise his political affiliation during an era in American history when the exposure of atheist, anarchist, socialist, or communist leanings could damage one's career seriously. Between 1931 and 1945 he wrote numerous items for socialist publications using the name John Steel. Freedom of Information Act inquiries reveal that the FBI did not have a file on him but that his name and activities did appear in other files, so his precautions were reasonable.
It is ironic that the blacklisting that he may have feared ultimately did not...