- Culture, Personality, and the American Century
Margaret Mead (1901–1978) was one of the most famous anthropologists of the twentieth century and one of the most prominent faces of the human sciences both in the United States and abroad. She was also among the forgotten founders of American studies as a field: in And Keep Your Powder Dry! An Anthropologist Looks at America (1941), she wrote arguably the first anthropological treatment of the United States. During the war she pioneered the loose science of “national character” that led to formative studies like David Riesman’s Lonely Crowd (1950) and David Potter’s People of Plenty (1954), among many others. Erich Fromm (1900–1980) was a German Jewish psychologist who emigrated to the United States in 1934, central to the intellectual migration from Europe that so profoundly transformed US social science. Mead’s portrait of America drew on Fromm’s Escape from Freedom (1941), an influential sociological and psychological analysis of the rise of Nazism. Alongside literary criticism and traditional history, the social sciences and psychology were the major theoretical pillars of American studies. They were in part what made American studies modern.
Two of the books under review here yield important insights into “culture and personality” and “national character,” concepts that were central to American studies. Peter Mandler’s Return from the Natives: How Margaret Mead [End Page 1117] Won the Second World War and Lost the Cold War is a rigorously researched and largely sympathetic portrait of Mead and her cohort of anthropologists and social scientists, as they navigated the opportunities and the perils of World War II and the Cold War. Lawrence J. Friedman’s Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet is a thorough biography. As a counterpoint to this focus on individuals, this review considers Inderjeet Parmar’s Foundations of the American Century: The Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller Foundations in the Rise of American Power. To focus on the institutions that structured Mead and Fromm’s milieu yields a very different narrative. All three works, directly or indirectly, illuminate American studies and intellectual life in the American Century.
Return from the Natives elegantly weaves intellectual biography and institutional history. Though Mead is the protagonist, the book is in some ways an ensemble biography of Mead and her intimate collaborator Ruth Benedict, Mead’s husband, Gregory Bateson (the British anthropologist), and her almost husband Geoffrey Gorer (also a British anthropologist). The first chapter traces Mead’s education: her relatively comfortable progressive upbringing, her awakening in New York City in the 1920s, her study with Franz Boas. If Mead was “the most famous anthropologist who ever lived” (xi), it is because of the achievements of those years: Coming of Age in Samoa and Growing Up in New Guinea, books that showed Americans “how differently other cultures handled basic human functions” (14). Mead’s work bespoke a new liberalism toward gender roles, sexual norms, and cultural variety, along with a modernist yearning for the “wholeness” of “primitive” cultures against the neuroses of modern heterogeneous society (9). In the 1930s, hand in hand with émigré neo-Freudians like Karen Horney and Fromm, Mead participated in the exciting cross-pollination between anthropology and psychology that gave rise to the field of “culture and personality.” Mandler’s rehearsal of this ground is refreshing and clear, but his real story begins with Mead’s wartime activities, which were extensive and complex.
Mead “won the Second World War,” Mandler says, for the discipline of anthropology. Though her prewar milieu was shaped in the broadest sense by politics at home and abroad—the New Deal and the rise of fascism—her life and work remained...