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THE KING OF THE WORLD IN THE LAND OF THE PYGMIES /Joan Mark Introduction "...on the whole, I think I am glad that I have remained a dilettante," wrote Patrick Tracy Lowell Putnam shortly after World War II. On the surface it seems like an odd statement for a Harvard-trained anthropologist, who at the time was the world's greatest authority on African pygmies. But Putnam was only being truthful. He was a dilettante, who had chosen to dabble in anthropology because it aUowed him to flee America and live by his own rules in Africa. While he learned volumes about the pygmies, it was the kind of knowledge that comes from life, not scholarship. He recorded data sporadically, and was careless with the notes he did take. A charismatic individual, who inspired others to write about the pygmies, he lacked the discipline to do it himself. His twentyfour years in Africa were to yield just one published essay. Putnam was a failure by academic standards, yet his life was anything but unproductive, as Joan Mark shows in the following excerpt from her biography, The King of the World in the Land of the Pygmies (forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press in March 1995). The numerous accounts of Putnam describe a magnetic personality, energetic, intensely interested in everyone and everything. Temperamentally he was too restless to be an academic. Instead he became what Mark calls "a middleman in the production and distribution of anthropological knowledge." It was chance that took Putnam to the Ituri Forest in the Belgian Congo (now Zaire), and determination to live as he wanted, outside the constraints of white society, that kept him there. A descendant of the Massachusetts Lowells, he entered Harvard as a chemistry major in 1921, and switched to anthropology the following year. Of the three professors in his department, the best known was Earnest Hooton, an exponent of eugenics. When Hooton sent an expedition to Africa to take physical measurements of the natives, he chose Putnam, by then a Harvard graduate, as one of its three members. The group set out in 1927 for French West Africa and the Niger River, but an outbreak of yellow fever caused them to change their route and study an alternate group of tribes, among them the pygmies (Mbuti), of the Ituri Forest. The hunting and gathering pygmies intrigued Putnam because of their unique cooperative relationship with the village-dwelling tribes in the vicinity. He returned to Harvard without the pygmy blood samples and physical measurements he was supposed to obtain, but with the conviction that their culture should be studied before it was wiped out by colonialism. 48 · The Missouri Review In practical terms, Putnam had done nothing but waste grant money. He had gathered no publishable data; he could hardly expect Harvard to sponsor him again. Finding a way back to the Congo looked difficult, until he hit on the idea of becoming an agent sanitaire for the Congo Red Cross. He returned to Africa in 1930, married a MboU chiefs daughter, Abanzima, with whom he had faUen in love on his first trip, and ran a hospital, until he was fired, partly for neglecting his census-taking duties, and partly for polygamy (along with Abanzima he had taken several more African wives). He had no intention of leaving Africa, though. He'd gotten the notion of starting a tourist hotel, a sort of African dude ranch, in the Ituri Forest, near StanleyviUe, on the Epulu River. With the income from paying guests—scientists and big-game hunters—he could support his own continuing studies in anthropology and natural history. In 1933 he married the American landscape architect, Mary Linder, and with her help he established Camp Putnam, on the Epulu. Staffed by twenty to forty Africans, it became famous for its "pygmy shows" and its okapis—shy forest giraffes. Putnam lived there for the rest of his life, with a series of three American wives, and various native ones whom he maintained concurrently. He died in 1953, at age forty-nine, following a prolonged struggle with emphysema, and intermittent bouts of madness. The excerpt pubUshed here covers the period from 1945...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 48-70
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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