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  • "The Truth in Anthropology Does Not Travel First Class":Reo Fortune's Fateful Encounter with Margaret Mead
  • Lise M. Dobrin (bio) and Ira Bashkow (bio)

The surest and most perfect instrument of understanding is our own emotional response, provided that we can make a disciplined use of it.

Margaret Mead (1949:299)

Introduction: Reo Fortune's "Reticence"

In 1939, the anthropologist Reo Fortune published an article disputing the representation of Mountain Arapesh culture offered in Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, which was written by Fortune's former wife and collaborator in the fieldwork, Margaret Mead. Whereas Mead depicted Arapesh culture as having a peaceful and cooperative ethos for both men and women, Fortune showed that Arapesh political life, while not categorically violent, also institutionalized conflict and warfare.

Most writings that deal with this dispute do so within the dramatic frame that Mead herself provided in her memoir Blackberry Winter, supplemented by her voluminous correspondence and interviews (Howard 1984; Boon 1985; Lapsley 1999; Banner 2003a; Crook 2007; Molloy 2008). From these documents we learn that Fortune was uncaring, volatile, and physically abusive (Mead 1972:230, 238, 242; Howard 1984:128, 149, 160; Lapsley 1999:224; Banner 2003a:330, 335-36, 341). He was ambitious to the point of paranoia, competing with his wife over their joint research (Mead 1972: 231, 234, 236, 290; Bateson 1984:162). He was limited by "puritanical jealousy," "the sternest Victorian values," and his colonialist ideas about gender roles (Mead 1972:185, 207, 230, 243, 289; see also Lipset 1980:135; Lapsley 1999:195, 223). This dark portrait makes it easy to assume that Fortune's objections to Mead's ethnography were energized primarily by his furious jealousy over the turning of her affections to Gregory Bateson, whom she left him to marry. The drama begins with "one of the great moments in the history of anthropology" (Stocking 1974:95): during a [End Page 66] transition point in their joint New Guinea fieldwork in December 1932, Mead and Fortune were taken by government launch up the Sepik River where they came into contact with Bateson, then on Christmas holiday from his fieldwork on Iatmul. A few days later, the three made a trip upriver in Bateson's canoe, and enclosed in the mesh mosquito room of a colonial guesthouse, tensely anticipating a possible raid, Mead and Bateson stayed up all night talking, establishing their desire for each other while Fortune slept off an uncharacteristic drunk in their midst (Mead 1972:243, MM/RF 12/30/1932 in Caffrey and Francis 2006:73-74).1

It is common knowledge that Fortune subsequently fell apart, "psychologically distressed by the failure of his marriage" (Lawrence 1980:2). According to Fortune's younger brother Barter, "Up to the end of the Mead era Reo was the most dynamic and physical individual," but this dynamism turned into "an 'incomprehensible lethargy' that he never managed to shake off" (Howard 1984:170). Interviews reported in Howard (1984:170-171) describe Fortune as having "a primal scream in him" that was "agony" and as having "simply [been] ripped to shreds" by Mead. His distress was not aided by the loss of his personal savings during the Depression and his difficulty finding stable academic employment over the next fifteen years. After Mead left him in 1933, Fortune returned to New Guinea for a period of further fieldwork; he then held a series of short-term academic and government posts in China; Toledo, Ohio; Toronto; and elsewhere before finally settling into a lectureship at Cambridge, where he remained for the rest of his career. Fortune's odd character during his Cambridge years is the subject of much vivid oral lore. He was said to be "a difficult colleague at the best of times," "exasperating," and "incomprehensible" to students (Young 1980:108). Others called him "very cut up, rampantly bitter, difficult, edgy," and "eccentric to the point of paranoia" (Howard 1984:171; see also Obituary 1979; Jones 1989). Commentators have noted that following his separation from Mead, Fortune ceased to produce any anthropological work of significance (Francis 2003). Apart from his masterful grammar of the Arapesh language (Fortune 1942), he published only a few scattered articles...


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