Volume 109 2000 > Volume 109, No. 3 > 'Lords of an empty creation': Manus, America, and the Depression, by Maureen Molloy, p 233-250
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Margaret Mead left New York in August 1928 with a crescendo of praise for her first book, Coming of Age in Samoa, rising behind her. Her ultimate destination was not yet decided—somewhere in the Admiralty Islands off the coast of New Guinea—but her aims were clear: “to collect a body of detailed material upon the behavior of children in a primitive community for purposes of comparison with the large body of data which psychologists and educators are collecting concerning the mental development of children in our own civilization…” (Mead 1930f: l). 1 She returned almost exactly a year later, having completed the fieldwork which was to be the basis of her next best-selling book, Growing Up in New Guinea. However, she returned to a very different New York. Having departed in a period of burgeoning optimism and economic expansion, shortly after her return that optimism was replaced by panic as the stock market plummeted, culminating in Black Thursday, 24 October. As Mead drew together her monograph in the months between October 1929 and May 1930, economic conditions worsened and the country struggled to come to terms with the catastrophe that was unfolding.

As the heady spirit of the 1920s had shaped both the writing and the response to Coming of Age in Samoa, so Growing Up in New Guinea is a product of the cusp of the 20s and the early days of the Depression. Although repeatedly slated for her anthropology of the contemporary West, Mead was nothing if not an astute reader of the temper of the times. The deepening economic crisis, and the first faltering attempts to understand and counteract it, would have been at the forefront of Mead's concerns as she wrote. This is definitely not a text that can be interpreted without taking into account authorial intent. However, like all texts, it exceeds that intent and is shaped, as well, by values and ideas that Mead took for granted, and by the complex interplay of cultural, professional and personal pressures to which she and those around her were subject. In Growing Up in New Guinea and its many spin-offs, she was, once again, to deploy her anthropological material in ways that addressed those concerns. In the Manus boy, she created a vehicle which personified the crisis in confidence which the United States was undergoing in the early 1930s.

Cultural historians have noted a number of themes that recur in personal documents, expressive culture and social criticism of the times. In both - 234 decades individualism and individual responsibility were deeply engrained, even in the face of economic disaster. Lawrence Levine (1993) has argued that even in the grip of fear and desperation people felt, almost despite themselves, a sense of personal responsibility for their plight. The American belief that hard work, thrift and individual initiative led to success did not disappear even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the problem was structural, rather than personal. This individualism was probably most succinctly expressed in that peculiarly American phenomenon that Ann Douglas (1995) has called the Mind-cure tradition, epitomised by the likes of Mary Baker Eddy, which avowed that a positive attitude could and would overcome external odds. Levine notes that two of the top selling books of the decade were Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind and Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, which shared the theme that attitude could overcome event. Strongly linked to this sense of personal responsibility was the shame that people felt at their predicament. This sense of shame and failure, Levine argues, almost in passing, was particularly acute for fathers whose inability to fulfill traditional responsibilities exacerbated familial tensions already intensified by the hardships the Depression imposed. The impact of the Depression was played out through traditional gendered structures.

Yet, despite the economic hardship and the strength of the traditional work ethic, there were countervailing trends. The unforeseen loss of savings and employment brought the values of hard work and thrift under scrutiny. On the one hand, then, there was a greater emphasis on consumption, rather than saving, in economic theories, in advertising and in popular culture. This shift towards consumerism began to consolidate in the 1920s with the increase in prosperity and the invention of mass advertising. On the other hand, prosperity, even in the 1920s, was neither as widespread as popular images of that period might indicate, nor even at the time seen as an unmitigated blessing. Pells (1998) has noted the 1920s emphasis on the sensitive artist or intellectual, alienated or indeed exiled from a materialistic mainstream culture. Concern with standardisation of human life permeated 1920s social commentary. These concerns and ambivalences were carried forward into the Depression years. In the 1930s both expressive culture and alternative economic theories were advocating increased consumption as the nation's economic solution and the individual's key to security and fulfilment. Coincidentally, there was also a greater emphasis in popular culture on living for the present. Films such as You Can't Take It with You and books such as Life Begins at Forty expressed what many Americans were experiencing—that there was no sure route to material security or success and that the pleasures of the present may be all that one could count - 235 on. Between these two, sometimes complementary and sometimes contradictory positions, “lifestyle” and its less materialistic cousin, which Mead was to term “the art of living”, were coming into being.

In the two years between her return from Samoa and her departure for the Admiralties Mead began in earnest her lifelong romance with the popular press. Like the Samoans, the Manus people were deployed, not just in the actual book, but also in a wide field of texts. These texts included articles by Mead and others in the popular and professional presses, radio talks, public lectures, book reviews in print and radio, and university and public education courses. During this period Mead was commissioned to write a number of broadly comparative articles on more general topics—adolescence, childhood, the family—for professional educational publications, such as textbooks and The Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Between late 1928 and early 1932, she published 28 articles, of which 15 drew on her Manus material, for publications as varied as The Nation, Parents' Magazine and The New York Times. Although Growing Up… did not get anywhere near the sensational response that Coming of Age in Samoa received, it was widely reviewed, and Mead and her research were the subject of feature articles in magazines such as Travel, Scientific American and The Woman's Journal. However, Growing Up… and the articles that drew upon the Manus fieldwork are very different from those which initially grew out of Coming of Age…. Pervading these articles are anxieties of the times, an uneasy mix of themes from the 1920s—concern with soulless materialism and sustaining individuality in the face of standardisation—and themes more typical of the early Depression—the dysfunctionality of American society, the need for strong leadership for change. These concerns were condensed in the figure of the Manus boy and his transition from spoiled, but lively and intelligent youth, to unhappy, quarrelsome, but hardworking adult, an alter ego for contemporary America, in its transition from the Roaring Twenties to the Hungry Thirties.

Although she left New York at the end of August 1928 Mead did not begin fieldwork until the beginning of December. After a trip across the country and two weeks in Hawai'i, she sailed to New Zealand where, on 8 October, she married her second husband, New Zealander Reo Fortune, in the Auckland Registry Office. The Manus trip had been engineered by Fortune, who had just completed a stint in the D'Entrecastreaux Islands which would become the basis of his classic study Sorcerers of Dobu (Fortune 1932). The Admiralties were his choice of a location for their joint research project. He intended to collect further material for his thesis on comparative religion; they decided that Mead's planned study of “primitive” children's thought could be undertaken there as well as in any other culture - 236 “unchanged” by European encroachment. 2 Through a series of almost accidental engagements involving the employment of an interpreter from the village, they ended up in Peri village at the end of November, ordered a house to be built, and began work.

Mead's “bulletins” to family and friends evince a growing confidence and engagement with the ethnographic detail. 3 Unlike her bulletins from Samoa, which tended to be more personal and gossipy, those from Manus recount in detail the practical difficulties of living in a culture where daily life is governed by an elaborate etiquette of affinal avoidance and exhaustive rituals of divination set in train by illness or accident. After their own house was built, she and Fortune spent the days apart—he in the old government station house working on the general ethnography and she in their new one working with the children. In choosing to study young children Mead was clearly in her element. The new house, she wrote her family, was

[f]rom morning to night… full of children, drawing, chattering, spatting, begging cigarettes from each other until one cigarette has gone the round of twenty. When the drawings are finished, they come to me to be dated and named, and then are deposited in a great wooden bowl which is already full to overflowing. At sunset I sometimes make bread or roast a chicken in a camp oven on the little islet with twenty eager helpers shrieking, exclaiming, running to throw rotten eggs in the sea or fetch wood for a dying fire (Mead 1929b).

That these children were principally boys is apparent from other accounts of her fieldwork:

By selecting the oldest boys of the adolescent group, youngsters of about fourteen, as house boys, we were able to attract all the rest of the children to our little patch of back yard. Each fourteen-year-old had a ten-year-old slavey, who in turn delegated the disagreeable aspects of his task to a six-year-old. Dinner was often prepared by some dozen small hands, one small boy tending each pot, faithfully blowing up the twig fire underneath it. The little girls were enlisted to pluck the wild pigeons and to fetch the fire wood (Mead 1931e:72).

Girls were likely to be betrothed younger, and once betrothed or at the latest at puberty, they were confined to the company of older married women and set to work preparing the goods which would be exchanged in the various ceremonies involving their sisters-in-law or during their own wedding. Constrained by strict rules of avoidance their mobility and ability to operate in mixed-sex groups was severely limited.

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While living in Peri Mead began corresponding with Bronislaw Malinowski whose Sex and Repression had just been published. He encouraged her to focus sharply on the details of kinship, building up from her studies of daily individual interactions a picture of how kinship actually operated. The letters show Mead trying to engage in the theoretical issues raised by Malinowski's Freudian-inspired attempts to understand the relationships between structures of kinship and psycho-affective patterns (Malinowski 1928, 1929,1930; Mead 1928a, 1930c, 1930d). However, the systematic reading and theoretical rigour required for that work was clearly at odds with her tendency to common-sense generalisation and her educative mission. In the end she developed what might called a kind of dys-functionalism, viewing Manus society not as a functioning whole, but as a dysfunctional culture which was unable to harness to good effect the considerable individual strengths it cultivated in its youth.

At the end of March Mead announced to her family that there would be no more field bulletins as “work is getting faster and furiouser [sic] as the end of the trip approaches” (Mead 1929a). In July Mead and Fortune decamped from Peri village. She described the moving ceremony which marked their departure:

the people gathered in the thatched pile house which we were deserting and stood there silent, huddled together, possessing no customary phrase for so drastic a leave taking. But as our canoe was poled, solemnly, by the elders of the village… the people we had left behind beat out upon the great slit drum first the call which we had used to call our house boys and, second, the death beat (Mead 1931d:44).

From Manus Fortune returned to Dobu for a month, while Mead stayed in Rabaul with Mrs. Phoebe Parkinson, an American-Samoan expatriate. After short sojourns in Sydney, Vancouver and San Francisco, Mead and Fortune established themselves in New York, where Mead returned to her curatorial duties at the American Museum of Natural History and Fortune took up a doctoral fellowship at Columbia University. She settled down to write Growing Up in New Guinea, he Sorcerers of Dobu and his general ethnography of Manus. The next two years were to be a period of intense productivity for both of them. However, their security was fragile. The American Museum of Natural History began cutting staff, cancelling expeditions and reducing salaries in early 1930, and academic jobs in anthropology were fast disappearing. Their strategy was to write their material up as quickly as possible and then get back to the field where costs would be lower and covered by research funds, in the hopes that they could weather the Depression. 4

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By May 1930 Mead had completed Growing Up in New Guinea and sent it off to her publisher William Morrow. In it she described a lagoon-dwelling, trading people whose social organisation was based on a cycle of inter-generational debt, sexual Puritanism and inter-gender hostility. The children, she argued, were trained in three things only—to be physically safe in their watery environment, to respect property, and to observe a system of sexual and excretory taboos that resulted in extreme prudery. Other than these matters, they were completely indulged by their parents and, once safe, left to entertain themselves until bethrothal or puberty for the girls, or marriage for the boys. Upon marriage young men were forced into debt, and thence into fishing and trade. Young people, she contended, were saddled, ignorant and unprepared, with the burdens of adulthood—for the girls an oppressive array of in-law taboos, marital violence and alienation from their children. Boys, with whom Mead was more concerned, were faced with almost unceasing monetary and social indebtedness. For them adult life was a continual struggle, first to pay off the debts incurred to finance their marriage, and second to increase prestige and wealth through the financing of the marriages of their younger kin. From tyrannical toddlers Manus boys turned into litigious, unhappy, quarrelsome adults “sexually repressed” and indebted to their uncles for the brideprice of wives they loathed.

In Manus Mead found a society which she presented as having direct parallels with the United States and its capitalist economy, “a caricature in brown of contemporary American society” (Mead 1932a:285). Like Americans, the Manus were obsessed by business: “The news of the day was money, unpaid debts, bankruptcy, a new economic deal, the merger accomplished between two business men, or a contract successfully concluded between two traders” (Mead 1932a:285).

And like the Manus,

Americans tend to spoil their children, to demand no work from them, not even to ask that they understand the veriest outlines of steel manufactory or soap-making, investment banking or civil engineering, upon which their bread and butter and the purchase of a popgun depend (Mead 1932a:288).

There were things she approved of in Manus culture, such as the emphasis on competence and success that made the smallest children capable of living safely on land or sea, and the close nurturing relations between fathers and children. But the culture generally she found rancorous, empty and without grace.

Following the pattern of Coming of Age…, the second part of Growing Up in New Guinea, entitled “Reflections on the Educational Problems of - 239 Today”, draws out the implications of her findings for American parents and educators. The four chapters deal with respect for older generations, fathers' roles in the raising of boys, the cultural basis of imagination and art, and the strength and inevitability of tradition. Manus and American children, she argues, are “lords of an empty creation”, having no respect for their elders, for the finer values, nor, for the majority, any choice but to conform to the patterns that their particular cultures have laid down for them. She found in the Manus a surrogate America where spoiled undisciplined children turned into indebted unhappy adults. A more direct connection to a still puritanical nation in the throes of the Depression cannot be imagined.

The response to the book within anthropology was mixed. Friend Ruth Benedict praised it in the New York Times. Melville Herskovits (1931), reviewing it for The Nation, called it “challenging” and “stimulating”, but did not think the “applied anthropology” was of any interest to professionals. Alfred Kroeber (1930) wrote to her privately, “… you have sharpened your technique, but been under the handicap of touching lightly on the culture in order to protect your husband”. His review in the American Anthropologist, however, was highly critical. Mead was now an established, if unorthodox, anthropologist and fair game for the full blast of peer criticism. Kroeber lumped her with the functionalists, whose approach he dismissed as being of only passing interest. But even comparison to Malinowski, he wrote, is “wholly to Dr. Mead's disadvantage”. Malinowski had given to anthropology “unusually saturated, detailed, accurate, well-integrated, and valuable” ethnographic information, Mead only “scraps”. He again took a swipe at her professional relationship with her husband—“is the providing of [ethnographic detail] always to be left to a Kramer or a Fortune?” 5 Mead's “near-genius”, he wrote, was essentially aesthetic, but, he pointed out, “a piece of work need not be ethnographically unreliable because it is aesthetically effective” (Kroeber 1931:249).

In Britain as well, doubts began to be expressed about Mead's ability to do “real” anthropology. A review by Edith Clarke of the University of London was both restrained and damning. Mead was accused of empirical and theoretical naïveté, and of conducting fieldwork too hastily and without adequate language skills. Internal contradictions in the book, such as Mead's contention that the Manus were virtually untouched by European encroachment, were politely but firmly exposed and her assessments of the “emptyness” of Manus children's patterns of play were greeted with incredulity (Clarke 1931). C.W.M. Hart wrote a withering review for Man, querying whether Mead was “an anthropologist at all”, and condemning the ethnographic section for “oversimplification and unjustifiable dogmatism”.

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In an left-handed compliment, which must have exacerbated the growing strain between Mead and Fortune, he suggested that Fortune had not completed his promised general ethnography because the time in the field was not sufficient “to allow the more careful and judicial Mr. Fortune, trained in English methods of scientific research, to give an authoritative account of the culture” (Hart 1932:146). 6 Hart, like Clarke and others, was especially critical of her superficial analyses of modern life:

The second section of the book is of no value to anthropology and one imagines of very little value to any other of the social sciences. The use of Mr. J. B. Priestley's novel Angel Pavement as an account of English inter-family conflict with which to compare her own account of such conflict in Manus is not without its significance, while the naïveté with which she assumes the identity of English and United States communal values is remarkable, to say the least (Hart 1932). 7

The review, published when Mead and Fortune were back in the field, prompted letters from Benedict and Fortune in defense of both Mead's and Fortune's anthropological credentials. The editor of Man issued a restrained rap on the knuckle to Hart for professional discourtesy, but did not publish the rebuttals. 8

The anthropological response to Growing Up… horrified Mead. By now accustomed to her public status as girl prodigy, she was shocked at the charges of ignorance and incompetence that underpinned these reviews. In a private letter to Kroeber, in which she struggled with her outrage, she told him that his review had

taught me how incredibly naïve I have been in my reactions to previous criticisms…. To discover that [my colleagues] thought me so lacking in method, so deficient in ethnological training as to be making flimsy generalizations without having done the kinship system, or understood the economic arrangements or the religious ideas, was a real revelation to me (Mead 1931b).

Although based on a maturing ethnographic capability, Growing Up… undermined Mead's professional status within the international anthropological community and must have added to the stress on her marriage. While Fortune may have been dismayed by Mead's rising star, he was also likely to have been disquieted with the demeaning of his professional reputation by association with hers. In 1933 Benedict wrote to Margaret's godmother:

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I'm worried about the lack of appreciation their work gets, on both sides of the Atlantic. They care so much for approval, and so much of it is withheld just because people are chagrined by being outdistanced, and find it easier to refuse to believe than to recognize that work can be done more quickly and thoroughly than they could do it in the field…. So they come out a little at the end of the horn, and the pity of it is that they want recognition so much (Benedict 1933).

The non-academic reviews, however, were, with a few exceptions, positive. A number noted how the book dispelled the myth of savage bliss and sexual freedom, and most reviewers were charmed by Mead's account of the Manus adults as very like New England Puritans and Manus children as spoiled brats. Her argument that such indulgence and lack of “repression” did not necessarily lead to new heights of creativity was particularly noted. The parallels drawn with American society did not stop reviewers from describing the Manus as “curious”, “startling”, “weird” and “strange”, and some compared Mead's emerging corpus to Gulliver's Travels (Schneider 1930). Many newspapers and magazines and even the American Library Association referred to it as a “travel book”, prompting Ruth Benedict (1932) to request that the ALA reclassify it as Social Science or Social Psychology or Education. But, unlike the spirited responses to Coming of Age…, reviews tended to simply summarise Mead's findings and urge readers to consider her “provocative” ideas. By comparison with reactions to Coming of Age…, however, no reviewer seemed to be particularly provoked. It is a dour book, offering much criticism of American society but little vision of the way forward.

Mead's response to the anthropological criticism was, as Benedict indicated, to come out fighting. Rather than heading back to New Guinea in early 1932, she added yet another book to her already formidable workload. Fortune had originally been committed to writing a “complete ethnology of the Manus culture” (Mead 1930e, Appendix II:293). However, sometime in early 1930 the division of labour over the Manus material was renegotiated. Fortune now limited himself to Manus religion, promising a book on language in the future, while Mead took over the detailed inter-relationships between kinship and economics. Kinship in the Admiralty Islands was written to demonstrate her mastery of the “real” concerns of anthropology— kinship, economics and material culture. After completing Growing Up…, she and Fortune spent the summer of 1930 in Nebraska working with the Omaha Indians, she on a privately funded study of women, he funded by Columbia University. They returned to New York in September and she wrote both The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe and Kinship in the - 242 Admiralty Islands in a year, while Fortune likewise strove to complete Manus Religion and write Omaha Secret Societies. Trying to complete their commitments in time to leave in June 1931 for New Guinea, they worked separately during the days on the Omaha material and together at nights on the Manus (Mead 1930b).

Despite this all-out effort to improve her professional credibility, Mead knew where her strongest support came from. Sticking firmly to her vision of an applied and comparative anthropology, she consolidated her reputation among the educators and the educated public by continuing to place her work in venues that were less cognisant of the details of anthropology and more open to her pedagogical approach. By the time she returned to New Guinea late in 1931, in addition to the three books she had written 15 articles which drew on her Manus material for publications as varied as Parents' Magazine, The Thinker and A Handbook of Child Psychology. However, she avoided putting her ethnographic work into the major anthropological journals, publishing only one such article from her Manus fieldwork and that, not in the American Anthropologist for which she wrote many reviews, but in the British Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (Mead 1932b). 9

Even in the field of popular writing, however, not all her attempts were immediately successful. The Saturday Evening Post invited her to write an “amusing” article comparing “Manus people and our own” (Hulburd 1930a). Despite having a very acerbic sense of humour, Mead was not apt to display it in her public pedagogy. In an attempt to stave off criticism of inadequate knowledge of her own culture, she spent months finding the very few studies of the post-graduation careers of college men. The article, entitled “Stone Age Education —and Ours”, suggested that Americans were creating unnecessary inefficiency and unhappiness by sending their young men to college, rather than training them for business in their teenage years when they were more pliant, liken this to Manus who created miserable adults by allowing children to run free until marriage. She concluded her article:

But is there any need for us to go on wasting the time of our youth in this way? The chief boast of the maching [sic] age over the stone age is self-consciousness. Where stone age man had to muddle along, dependent upon some chance invention, some accidental adjustment, to better his lot, modern man can stand aside and analyze his environment. The Manus have probably been wasting their young men's time for a thousand years. We, with our different rate of change, have made the same mistake for a couple of generations. It should take an even shorter time to evict this stone age anachronism from our twentieth century machinery (Mead 1930g).

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After months of negotiation over the content of the article the Post's editor was not impressed. His response was swift and final:

I am awfully sorry to have to tell you that “Stone Age Education — And Ours” does not pan out as we had hoped it would. You have been a little broad in your indictment of our educational system, and have thus killed what pleasant humor there might have been in the article. Somehow we can't stomach such a sweeping blow at practically everything we stand for…. At any rate, we are regretfully sending back the manuscript and we cannot, with any conscience, suggest a revision, for the chances don't look too good. I am only sorry that we have put you to such an amount of work with no reward (Hulburd 1930b).

Mead was later to publish this paper as “Growing Up in the South Seas” in the May 1932 issue of Forum: The Magazine of Controversy, which must have seemed a more appropriate venue, and by 1932, as the Depression deepened, its chastising tone may have been more palatable.

This emphasis on the transition from boyhood to manhood permeates the popular articles. As the Samoan child was, by default, female, the Manus child was, by default, male. In the popular articles it is the boy child who is described, frolicking in the lagoon, punting his miniature canoe between the house posts, demanding care from his parents, and then, under the pressures of marriage, slipping sullenly into fishing and trading to pay for his bride. In the book itself Mead devoted an entire chapter to the comparison of fathering of boys in America and Manus. She contrasted the warm, intimate care of children by men of strongly developed personalities in Manus with the distant, impersonal fathering she argued was characteristic of American men. With a superficial foray into psychoanalytic theory she argued that the Manus boy develops strong individuality because of the opportunity for close identification with the father. In fact, she argued that the Manus boy's personality reproduced that of his social father. By contrast American boys had no such opportunity: “[T]he degeneration of the father's role into that of a tired, often dreaded nightly visitor makes his son's happy identification with him impossible”. American boys, she argued, were raised principally by mothers, nurses and female teachers who “muffle [them] in feminine affection” and act as a “smoke-screen through which the father's image filters distorted, magnified, unreal”. This Mead argued is a “dangerous thing in a heterosexual world: if he identifies himself with [his mother] it is at the risk of becoming an invert, or at best of making some fantastic and uncomfortable emotional adjustment”. She saw problematic identification as particularly damaging in the case of sons of successful men who typically, she argued, rather than building on their father's successes, were often - 244 “failures because their fathers were famous” (Mead 1930e, emphasis in original, all quotations 234-36). America was wasting its youth; even more seriously it was wasting the gains made by one generation through its failure to secure them in the next; “a strong man's sons should be strong, every gain made by an individual should be conserved for the next generation” (Mead 1931g). The end result was, she argued, a loss of vitality which was as much a loss to the society as it was to the individual. Given only “… a dull generic idea of manhood…”

[t]he American boy's conceptions of manhood are diluted, standardized, undifferentiated…. The contrast between what we might make of our boys and what we do make of them is like the contrast between a series of beautiful objects made by individual loving craftsmen, and a series of objects all turned out by a machine (Mead 1930e:241).

Concern with individuation and standardisation permeates both the book and the articles. This was a long-standing theme in 1920s cultural critique, being one of three which emerged out of the Stearns' 1920 conference on American civilisation (Stocking 1989:215). In a number of venues Mead argued that the age grading of American schools should be discarded or at least modified by more attention to individual ability (Mead 1931h, 1932c). In “Standardized America versus the Romantic South Seas”, she shifted her argument somewhat, arguing that “homogenous” primitive societies were internally standardised, whereas large-scale manufacture allowed “the common man… to build and externalize an individual taste” (Mead 193lg:491). She compared consumer choice to a mosaic in which although, “each small block of color has a thousand exact counterparts… the combination, the design is new and individual and worthy of attention” (Mead 193lg). The problem, she argued, was not with the machine age perse, but with the organisation of society which standardised human beings.

Perhaps the most interesting idea in the work that is articulated in Mead's Manus writings is her concept of the “art of living”. This idea appears first in the Introduction to Growing Up…, and many reviewers quoted and commented on this passage:

Like America, Manus has not yet turned from the primary business of making a living to the less immediate interest of the conduct of life as an art…. The dreamer who turns aside from fishing and trading and so makes a poor showing at the next feast is despised as a weakling. Artists they have none, but like Americans, they, richer than their neighbors, buy their neighbor's handiwork. To the arts of leisure, conversation, storytelling, music, dancing, friendship and lovemaking, they give scant recognition (Mead 1930e:9).

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Like other generalisations in the Mead oeuvre, this one was based on over-simplification, but it clearly spoke to the concerns of reviewers and to the intellectuals and artists, many of whom saw themselves as alienated and unappreciated in America. More than any of her other lessons, she built this from comparisons between America, Manus and Samoa. Perhaps one of the things that eventually turned Mead against the functionalism of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown was what she saw as the disjuncture between the Manus' admirable childrearing practices and their disagreeable adult culture. She saw no smooth fit between the lively intelligence and flexibility she observed among Manus children and the “anarchic”, undignified, unhappy social order of the adults. By contrast, she argued that Samoan social life was superior:

although the Manus system would appear to be a better one for training young people to be progressive flexible leaders in adult social life, actually the Manus social life is politically anarchical. The Samoan children, less well-trained in appearance, inherit a social form so superior to the Manus, that adult social life is a far finer social product than is Manus (Mead 1931h:496).

In another article she wrote that “the Samoan contribution to the world gallery of human experiment is primarily a point of view, an attitude of mind, a grace of living, impossible to impale on the iron pin of the collector, almost impossible to preserve in films and records—a unique spirit of living” (Mead 1931a:228). This spirit or art of living was one in which finer values— respect for knowledge, the arts and experience, for one's elders, valuing the person, not his possessions, discipline and dignity—were the guiding principles. These she saw as giving a grace and gravitas to Samoan society that was sorely lacking in Manus and American life. More than that she saw America as hostile to those whose temperament inclined them towards such values: “a type of personality which sets a premium upon the art of living is out of place in present day America” (Mead 1930a:320). The “meditative person”, the person with “other world values”, the individual bent on self-expression were not valued by American society which determined that “even a parson must be a go-getter and the premium is always to the energetic”, another instance of standardisation (Mead 1930a:107, 1930e:226).

By reading across these texts it is possible to see what Mead apprehended as the links between these themes of masculinity, individuality, standardisation and the art of living. She repeatedly poses the question of how to preserve what is valuable in American culture, while allowing for innovation and change. Unlike Coming of Age in Samoa, where America's - 246 heterogeneous “culture” is seen as providing options for change in the modern West, in Growing Up in New Guinea culture is the dead hand. Mead disputed progressive education theory, which assumed, on the basis of bowdlerised versions of psychoanalysis, that children can be the source of social change if they are freed to express their creativity. Manus children, she argued, although free and undisciplined, showed no signs of imaginative play or artistic creativity. The capacity for and content of imagination were no more natural than the strains and stresses of adolescence. Both were provided or set in place by culture or “tradition” as lived and practised by adults. Generalising, she argued that “[t]he inevitable fashion in which children of each society become the adults of that society would discourage any tendency to utopian dreams of reforms sprung from the schoolroom” (Mead 1931f:111). Change had to come from adults and in order to change society had to produce adults strong enough and individual enough to set new directions. This argument was most clearly set out in an article for The Thinker, entitled “Are We Mature?” In it she argued that what any society takes for maturity is simply those behaviours which correspond to its dominant values. Adherence to those values for most people is a necessity, for “[w]ithout a chosen and cherished road for the feet of the majority of its people, a culture loses its form”. However, if a culture allows no venue for change, it will not advance: “generations would merely follow each other down the road of social maturity. For change we need immaturity—rejection of the beaten track (Mead 1930a:32).

Depression America was a culture stuck on the beaten path. The gains in prosperity and freedom of the 1920s had been lost, and no redemptive leader had yet emerged to steer the nation out of its doldrums. It is in this context that emphasis on boys and men in the Manus texts can be understood, for they were “the sex which has the greatest freedom to make permanent contributions” (Mead 1930e:241). To develop strong personalities, Mead argued, boys needed close and intimate association with a particular strong man. That opportunity was denied American boys to the cost of the whole society. Distant “generic” fathering led to a myriad of social and individual problems: either over-emphasis on the peer group and lack of respect for experience or over-identification with women, with its consequences of emotional maladjustment and inversion. Although Mead couches this threat as dangerous for the individual boy “in a heterosexual world”, it also can be, and undoubtedly was, read as a threat to the social order. In any case, both the strengths of previous generations and the potential for change in the current one were jeopardised.

Although many reviewers picked up on the parallel between the spoiled children of Manus and America, almost none commented on her contrast - 247 between Manus and American fathering, except perhaps to note it with incredulity. While her analysis synthesises some of the predominant social themes of her times, her solution—better, closer fathering—was peculiarly blind to the economic exigencies and fears which were preoccupying America. As a prescription for change it offered little to grasp. For American men, watching jobs disappear on a daily basis, with their ability to provide the necessities of life for their families under threat, Mead's proselytising about yet further inadequacies offered neither humourous distraction nor practical solution. However, in arguing for a new version of masculinity—one which was more nurturing—she demonstrated her developing ability to negotiate between traditional values and new visions in her communications with her public.

Debates over the veracity of Mead's depiction of Samoa have dominated Mead scholarship since the early 1980s. As a result, Coming of Age in Samoa's somewhat whimsical place in popular culture has been reinforced, and one of anthropology's classic and most problematic texts has been scrutinised and re-scrutinised. Remarkably little attention has been paid to Mead's other work during the past 20 years, or to the question of how it is she maintained her position as arbiter of anthropological knowledge into recipes for social progress. Growing Up in New Guinea, and its far more numerous spin-off articles, allow us to examine this process apart from the over-charged atmosphere of the Samoa debates. Ironically, contemporary response to Growing Up… within the discipline was far more critical than was the response to Coming of Age…. Indeed, the book was virtually uniformly severely criticised in anthropological reviews. Paradoxically, however, its earnestness, its chastising tone, its iconoclastic position on the natural creativity of children, and above all its uncannily precise articulation of the concerns of intellectual and liberal middle-class America on the cusp of the Depression confirmed and consolidated Mead's position as a leading public intellectual. Her professional colleagues might be critical of her methodology, her ethnographic interpretations or her understanding of modern society. However, there can be no doubt of Mead's ability to read her public and to reflect back to it, in the guise of scientific ethnography, its principle preoccupations. On that, not the least of her talents, was her enduring place in American public life secured.


The research on which this article is based was made possible by a grant from the Marsden Fund of the Royal Society of New Zealand. I wish to thank Professor Valerie Raoul and the members of the Centre for Research in Women's Studies and - 248 Gender Relations at the University of British Columbia for their support during a sabbatical leave, and the University of Auckland for granting me leave to undertake this research. My gratitude also to Mary Wolfskill and the other archivists at the Library of Congress, Manuscripts Division, the archivists of the London School of Economics, and to Ann Chowning, Judith Huntsman, Yvonne Marshall, Andrew Crosby and Dolores Janiewski for their support and encouragement.

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  • Abbreviation:
  • MMP: Margaret Mead papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
  • Benedict, R. F., MS. 1932. Letter dated February 2 to The American Library Association. MMP.
  • Benedict, R. F., MS 1933. Letter dated January 11 to “Dear Isabel”. MMP.
  • Clarke, E., 1931. Water babies. The Saturday Review of Literature, 791-92. Offprint in MMP.
  • Douglas, A., 1995. Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhatten in the 1920s. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
  • Fortune, R. F., 1932. Sorcerers of Dobu. London: G. Routledge and Sons.
  • Hart, C.W.M., 1932. Review of Growing Up in New Guinea by Margaret Mead. Man 32:146.
  • Herskovits, M., 1931. Primitive childhood. The Nation, 131-32. Clipping in MMP.
  • Howard, J., 1984. Margaret Mead: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Hulburd, R. MS. 1930a. Letter dated November 22 to M. Mead. MMP.
  • ——MS 1930b. Letter dated December 9 to M. Mead. MMP.
  • Kroeber, A. L., MS. 1930. Letter dated October 23 to M. Mead. MMP.
  • ——1931. Review of Growing Up in New Guinea by Margaret Mead. American Anthropologist, 33:248-50.
  • Levine, L. W., 1993. The Unpredictable Past: Explorations in American Cultural History. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Malinowski, B., MS. 1928. Letter dated September 22 to M. Mead. MMP.
  • ——MS. 1929. Letter dated September 4 to M. Mead. MMP.
  • ——MS. 1930. Letter dated March 29 to M. Mead. MMP.
  • Mead, M., MS. 1928a. Letter dated August 9 to B. Malinowski. MMP.
  • ——1928b. The role of the individual in Samoan culture. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 55:481-95.
  • ——MS. 1929a. Bulletin letter dated March 27. MMP.
  • ——MS. 1929b. Bulletin letter dated February 14. MMP.
  • ——1930a. Are we mature? The Thinker, 2 (December):25-32.
  • ——MS. 1930b. Letter dated October 30 to A. Kroeber. MMP.
  • ——MS. 1930c. Letter dated January 28 to B. Malinowski. MMP.
  • ——MS. 1930d. Letter dated August 9 to B. Malinowski. MMP.
  • ——1930e. Growing Up in New Guinea: A Comparative Study of Primitive Education. New York: William Morrow & Co.
  • ——MS. 1930f. Proposal to Social Science Research Council. MMP.
  • ——MS. 1930g. Stone age education — and ours. MMP.
  • ——MS. 1931a. Civil government for Samoa. Nation, 132 (February 25):226-28.
  • ——MS. 1931b. Letter dated May 1 to A. Kroeber. MMP.
  • ——1931c. Growing Up in New Guinea: A Comparative Study of Primitive Education. London: George Routledge & Sons.
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  • ——1931d. Jealousy: primitive and civilised. In S. Schmalhausen and V. F. Calverton (eds), Woman's Coming of Age: A Symposium. New York: Liveright, pp.35-48.
  • ——193le. Living with the natives of Melanesia. Natural History, 31(l):62-74.
  • ——1931f. The meaning of freedom in education. Progressive Education, 8(2): 102-11.
  • ——193lg. Standardized America vs romantic South Seas. Scribner's Magazine, 40(5):486-91.
  • ——193lh. Two South sea educational experiments and their American implications. University of Pennsylvania Education Bulletin, 31(36):493-97.
  • ——1932a. Growing up in the South Seas. Forum: The Magazine of Controversy, 87 (May):285-88.
  • ——1932b. An investigation of the thought of primitive children, with special reference to animism. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 62:172-90.
  • ——1932c. South Seas tips on character training. The Parents' Magazine, 3 (March):231-32.
  • ——1933. The Marsalai cult among the Arapesh, with special reference to the rainbow serpent beliefs of the Australian aboriginals. Oceania, 4(l):37-53.
  • ——1976. Introduction. In J. Gordan (ed.), Margaret Mead: The Complete Bibliography 1925-1975. The Hague and Paris: Mouton, pp.1-23.
  • ——1977. Letters From the Field 1925-1965. New York: Harper and Row.
  • Pells, R. H., 1998. Radical Visions and American Dreams: Culture and Thought in the Depression Years. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
  • Schneider, I., 1930. Manus and Americans. The New Republic: 330. Clippings in MMP.
  • Stocking, G. W., 1989. The ethnographic sensibility of the 1920s and the dualism of the anthropological tradition. In G. W. Stocking (ed.), Romantic Motives: Essays on Anthropological Sensibility. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, pp.208-76.
1   The problem and the form of the research had been inspired by a conversation she had had with George Cressman, her first husband's young brother.
2   Mead under-emphasised the extent to which European contact had affected Manus society, a weakness in her analysis that was pointed out by contemporary reviewers.
3   Rather than write many individual letters, Mead wrote what she called “bulletins” which were sent to family and friends and gave general news of her activities. Her mother re-typed them and circulated them to family. These bulletins are the basis of Letters From the Field (Mead 1977).
4   They tried to set up projects in Africa, Fiji and Rotuma, as well as New Guinea during this period.
5   Presumably a reference to Augustin Krämer whose general ethnography of Samoa was published in Germany in 1902-3.
6   Note that Fortune only spent six months with the Dobu, a fact that had not bothered Malinowski, who lavished praise in his Introduction to The Sorcerers of Dobu.
7   The first English edition contains significant differences from the American editions and later English ones. The reference to Priestley is one sentence inserted in the English edition, presumably to bolster relevance to the British public. At various points in the text “America” is changed to “England”. In the first English edition the four chapters of Part 2 are consolidated into two. Most significant, for the purposes of this article, the long section on American fatherhood was cut (Mead 1931c).
8   According to Mead's later retrospective on her own publications, Hart's piece was prompted by Malinowski expressing the opinion that Mead did not know anything about kinship or the Manus language (Mead 1976:5).
9   Unlike many of her peers, Mead did not publish extensively in anthropological journals. She published only one article from each of her Pacific field trips in anthropology journals (Mead 1928b, 1932b, 1933), two in British journals and one in Oceania, an Australian journal. This may be because British and Australian journals were more sympathetic to her quasi-functionalist approach than the more historicist Americans.