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  • 10. Culture and Personality In Henry's BackyardBoasian War Allegories in Children's Science Writ Large Stories
  • Elizabeth Stassinos (bio)

Western civilization allows and culturally honors gratifications of the ego which according to any absolute category would be regarded as abnormal. The portrayal of unbridled and arrogant egoists as family men, as officers of the law, and in business has been a favorite topic of novelists, and they are familiar in every community. Such individuals are probably mentally warped to a greater degree than many inmates of our institutions who are nevertheless socially unavailable. They are the extreme types of those personality configurations which our civilization fosters.

Ruth Benedict, "Anthropology and the Abnormal," in Mead, An Anthropologist at Work

An intimate and understanding study of a genuinely disoriented culture would be of extraordinary interest.

Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture

"Oh," said Henry, "I'm beginning to get it . . . we're not born haters. Our Green Devils of prejudice and fear grow inside us . . . because we are worried and afraid."

Ruth Benedict, with Gene Weltfish, In Henry's Backyard

Ruth Benedict's ethnographies are often remembered as the most literary, even poetic, produced by the first generation of Boasians. But the creative process, and the slippage of selves and genres, that led up to Benedict's version of the culture-and-personality dynamic in anthropology is less well known. Before coming to ethnography and the final, authoritative name that we know her by, she wrote poetry under pseudonyms ("Anne Singleton" among others), at least one "chemical detective story" with a pseudonym she derived using her husband Stanley's name ("Edgar Stanhope"; see also Caffrey 1989:361, fn. 19), and "empirical biographies" [End Page 273] of radical historical figures she termed "highly enslaved women," including a finished piece on Mary Wollestonecraft (Mead 1959:491–519; for Benedict's journal entry in 1914 on this, Mead 1959:132). Interestingly, Mead even recounts Benedict's attempts to keep part of her life separate when she recalls Benedict's writing to her that "signing her married name ('which I always think of as a nom de plume,' she used to say) to such papers as 'A Matter for the Field Worker in Folklore' " (Mead 1959: xix; for comments on pseudonyms, see Stassinos 1997:3).

I have written in other places of Benedict's process of sloughing off pseudonymous selves with genres such as poetry as a way to understand her ethnographic writing about "highly enslaved" cultures, embedded as they are with deviants who are used to measure, even test, the homogeneity of cultural norms (1997). And in my dissertation I trace Benedict's theoretical development through Stocking's reading of Boas's work, where we find her "cosmographical" and subjective anthropology in a dynamic tension with the social science of her time (Stassinos 1998; Stocking 1974:10). In Benedict's last genre, this children's story, published in 1948 just before her death September 17th of that same year, Benedict and Weltfish, though, do not describe a deviant who is having difficulty conforming to the cultural "personality"; instead they describe and appeal to the "ordinary" American, a middle-aged conformist, and make him an object lesson in change.

Benedict borrowed heavily from Boas's intellectual trajectories. In the first phase of her work, from 1922 to 1934, she meticulously applies his diffusionist attack on evolutionary stages of culture, locating what she calls a "fixed causality" of culture in "centers" where traits "amalgamate."1 In the second phase, from 1934 until her death in 1948, she again borrows from his work when she locates this "fixed causality," now termed the "integrating force" of culture, in her notion of a "personality writ large." I argue that after 1934, Benedict had achieved a merger of Boas's "cosmographical" or subjective science and causality with her pre-ethnographic and literary penchant for pseudonyms, for writing herself large and Other, for being her own best informant, having interjected the "deviant's" point of view as a sage and critical voice within the study of a culture's norms. That is, like her biographies of "highly enslaved" women, Benedict's ethnographies contain within them internal critics, individuals who have paid...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1940-5138
Print ISSN
1557-637X
Pages
pp. 273-283
Launched on MUSE
2008-10-30
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived
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