"ONE of the deepest satisfactions of her life," Ruth Benedict's sister Margery wrote to Margaret Mead in an eight-page letter after Ruth's death in 1948, "has been the privilege of stirring up your interest--and then watching you carry the torch into fields where she could never go." Mead's artful and loving An Anthropologist at Work, a 1959 collage drawn from her mentor's journals, prose, field notes, letters, and poetry, makes it clear that the two women were close indeed.
Surely Mead expected us to "read between the lines" of her tribute, Judith Schachter Modell now suggests in Ruth Benedict: Patterns of a Life. Mead's book, given her closeness to its subject, could not even attempt to offer, as Modell's does now, a "broad-scale and deliberate assessment" of the older woman's life and career. Much will remain unknown until 1999, when the last two file boxes of Benedict's papers, according to the will of her literary executor Mead, will be opened in the Vassar College Library. But Modell's work, meanwhile, fills in a good many gaps.
We learn now, for example, that Benedict was not always as haunted and ethereal as her pictures make her look; she had a businesslike determination, akin to Jacqueline Susann's, to make sure her books got noticed. "She made no effort to hide from friends and editors her intense interest that (her 1934 book) Patterns of Culture sell and sell widely," Modell says. "Her concern led to discussions of title, jacket color, and price, as well as to several revisions of publicity blurbs."
"This seems too light a turquoise," Benedict wrote to her editor in June 1934, attaching "a slip of paper that seems to be more nearly the right tone." All this was part of a campaign, inspired by Benedict's mentor Franz Boas and much abetted by their energetic prot,eg,ee Margaret Mead, to spread the news, not just in academia, that "the absolute is a fire which burns men's fingers," and that it was culture, as much as biology, that makes us what we are, and to "make culture a household word" in the daily conversations of ordinary people. (The success of this campaign can be measured in part by the vehemence of Derek Freeman's recent charge, in Margaret Mead And Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, that Mead's first book, inspired by Boas and Benedict, lastingly misled the public in overemphasizing the importance of nurture, as the 1920s phrase had it, over nature.)
In any case, by the time World War II was over, Benedict's books Patterns of Culture, Race: Science and Politics (1940), and The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), her study of Japan, were "acclaimed by professional and lay readers, used by administrators, the army, teachers, and psychiatrists . . . her concepts and her perspective had become central to disciplinary development and part of the outlook of ordinary men and women." All cultures, in her view, were unique, and had better be understood, lest ignorance of their values lead to "head-on collision" and back to "the old patterns of imposing our own values by force." "Wise social engineering" could replace "random dice-throwing" if proper use were made of anthropology's special "ability," as Modell says, "to straddle and to incorporate two perspectives (those of science and the humanities) at once."
Benedict did her part not only by writing but on field expeditions, mostly to the Southwest, by working for the Office of War Information and by leading the postwar Research in Contemporary Cultures project, at Columbia University, backed by funds from the Office of Naval Research. She also taught. She was still a graduate student herself when her teaching career began, at Barnard under Boas, in a circle which outsiders, with reason, referred to as "a family." Unhappily childless, she lavished maternal concern on her students, struggling to get them grants, sometimes (as in the "No Strings Fellowship" to Margaret Mead in 1923) slipping them checks from her own personal bank account.
Women in her classes got special attention; "she called male students 'the boys,' a clearly asexual and somewhat condescending reference." Women, she held, were "less inclined to label as trivia the details of the daily round of living," which was important "because it is in small recurrent situations that any people learn their ways of acting and thinking." Women also were "particularly fitted to further international and minority understanding by paying attention to people."
Greater choice was needed, Benedict argued, "in the ways and means and timing of love . . . to expand choice in personal relationships suited American tradition; choice was a dominant culture-value and could be expanded without violating existing patterns. Changing the conditions under which women, and men, formed relationships would benefit the individual and the society . . ." Numbingly married to a biochemist who did research in poison gases, and who rarely touched her, Benedict eventually chose to love and when possible to live with other women.
Attachments like the one she formed with the undergraduate Margaret Mead were "not legislated and therefore not limited," and blessedly free of "the 'shoulds' of marriage"; although "the two women lived together only once, for a month one summer, and eventually circumstances prevented frequent 'overnight' stays . . . the dominant traits of the pattern had been set, indelibly" into a "lasting mutual dependence" that coexisted with Mead's three marriages and Benedict's two later alliances. "Loving Nat and taking such delight in her, I have the happiest conditions for living that I've ever known," Benedict wrote, in 1934, of Natalie Raymond, a research chemist who is nowhere mentioned in An Anthropologist At Work. Toward the end of her life she lived with the California psychologist Ruth Valentine.
Modell, an assistant professor of anthropology at Colby College, spent 10 years researching this book, in libraries and in interviews, among others with Mead, who gave this endeavor her blessing. The result could be leaner; too many sentences lumber to a start with the irksome word "too." More could be said of Mead's and Benedict's important collaborations with their British friend Geoffrey Gorer, whom Benedict succeeded as "Head, Basic Analysis Section" of the OWI, and of why it was that Benedict never received "high security clearance." One small error of fact is that Luther Cressman, Mead's first husband, was not her high school classmate.
But Modell is right on the big things, the patterns, which as she notes are often unknown to, and rarely exposed by, those who live them. Benedict "worked out" her own pattern, Modell writes, "along a theme that was essentially a contrast: life and death, experience and intellect, female and male . . . her life became a search for accommodation between two poles. 'I come out always on a special cross roads,' she wrote in her journal." She also, as her husband and many after him observed, was very much and very sadly a masked woman, and Modell's deftly detailed unmasking, a report from several of Benedict's "cross roads," will be welcomed by students of this woman, her discipline, her colleagues, and her time.