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An Early Case of Personality: Ruth Benedict's Autobiographical Fragment and the Case of the Biblical "Boaz"
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An Early Case of Personality:
Ruth Benedict's Autobiographical Fragment and the Case of the Biblical "Boaz"

Why have I found favor in your eyes that you should take notice of me when I am a foreigner?

Ruth 2:10

Much Ado about Apollonian and Dionysian Fragments

It is easy to forget, with so much scholarship available today on the Boasian "culture and personality" anthropologists of the 1920s–40s that Ruth Fulton Benedict wrote her own autobiographical fragment for her confidante, colleague, and former lover, Margaret Mead. Written in 1935, "The Story of My Life . . ." is a short piece Mead dutifully includes in An Anthropologist At Work: Writings of Ruth Benedict, the first and largest "anthological biography" of Benedict after her death in 1948. Mead describes the piece in the title's footnote as "Uncompleted, partly typewritten, partly handwritten manuscript prepared for MM in 1935, at a time when life histories were becoming a matter of anthropological interest" (Mead 1959:97). Although many of the biographers and commentators on Boas's students' "culture and personality" school at Columbia warn against reading Benedict's work solely in terms of Nietzsche's Apollonian measure and Dionysian excess or in terms of the "trauma" of Benedict's "primal scene," they still do not present an alternative view to this bipolar or structuralist reading of Benedict's life. Only the recent work by Virginia Heyer Young (2005) goes beyond the reading of Benedict either "at home" or "at work" as Mead mystified her, a false dichotomy and lead that I think made for interesting "at home" portraits by early biographers. Mead was frustrated by her lack of access to Benedict's home life and described Benedict "at work" with a play of tensions and contrasts that mark Benedict's work as much as Bateson's, the two anthropological- and ethos-oriented colleagues that Mead relied on throughout her life to "think with" (Young 2005). A short review of [End Page 28] the biographical literature on Benedict up until Young's work and the autobiographical piece I will describe is therefore helpful.

Caffrey recognizes the "kaleidoscopic" themes that are present within the simpler "Apollonian-Dionysian" reading Benedict even makes of her own life "Because when examined, what she defined as a simple theme actually becomes a multiplicity of themes that kaleidoscopically illuminate her life and reflect the complexities of American society" (Caffrey 1989:1). Is Benedict an appropriate structuralist cipher for her time, for anthropology's American inception? Even after pointing out the more dominant theme in this autobiographical fragment: "the small role that human relations played" in Benedict's life and the ascetic two taboos against crying and showing pain—behaviors her mother engaged in constantly—(Caffrey 1989:2), still Caffrey agrees with the 1935 Benedict saying, "From her earliest childhood she had recognized two worlds" (Mead 1959:99). As Caffrey says, "One was a mental world, which she called 'the world of my father,' her calm Apollonian retreat, the other was the everyday world which was the world of her mother, the Dionysian world of confusion, disorder, anger" (Caffrey 1989:4–5). The anthropology of the armchair and of the exotic, Benedict and Mead's Columbia of traditional patriarchy and flapper-inspired feminisms are both present in Caffrey's portrait. Caffrey hews to Benedict's "patterns" of culture as if they were also a model for Benedict's biography.

Banner also revisits this dichotomy, injecting Mead's sense that it was incomplete and artificial: "Commenting in 1950 on the writing of autobiography, Mead criticized the 'trauma' approach as too rigid. Without mentioning Benedict's memoir by name, Mead used it as an example of the flaws in that method. Under the theory of trauma, she wrote, 'if your father died when you were two, everything was fitted into the background of your having lost your father at two'" (Banner 2003:66–67). Although Banner is aware of the biographical reduction of Benedict to a bipolar "Apollonian-Dionysian," she takes yet another turn that does not "ring true" in my work or Young's: to the issues that Mead and Benedict constantly refer, such as the critic or "deviant" within a...