Leslie A. White: Evolution and Revolution in Anthropology

Leslie A. White: Evolution and Revolution in Anthropology

by William J. Peace

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Few figures in modern American anthropology have been more controversial or influential than Leslie A. White (1900-1975). Between the early 1940s and mid-1960s, White's work was widely discussed, and he was among the most frequently cited American anthropologists in the world. After writing several respected ethnographic works about the Pueblo Indians, White broke


Few figures in modern American anthropology have been more controversial or influential than Leslie A. White (1900-1975). Between the early 1940s and mid-1960s, White's work was widely discussed, and he was among the most frequently cited American anthropologists in the world. After writing several respected ethnographic works about the Pueblo Indians, White broke ranks with anthropologists who favored such cultural histories and began to radically rethink American anthropology. As his political interest in socialism grew, he revitalized the concept of cultural evolution and reinvigorated comparative studies of culture. His strident political beliefs, radical interpretive vision, and often combative nature earned him enemies inside and outside the academy. His trip to the Soviet Union and participation in the Socialist Labor Party brought him to the attention of the FBI during the height of the Cold War, and near-legendary scholarly and political conflicts surrounded him at the University of Michigan.

Placing White's life and work in historic context, William J. Peace documents the broad sociopolitical influences that affected his career, including many aspects of White's life that are largely unknown, such as the reasons he became antagonistic toward Boasian anthropology. In so doing, Peace sheds light on what made White such a colorful figure as well as his enduring contributions to modern anthropology.

William J. Peace is an independent scholar and lives in Katonah, New York. He has a PhD in anthropology from Columbia University

Editorial Reviews


"The biography's strength is in explicating White's views in the context of his personal experiences and his engagement in politics, both ideological and academic. Peace avoids adulation, despite sympathy to White's lifelong struggles; the book sagely illustrates a controversial figure in American anthropology. It will interest political scientists and historians of intellectual ideas as well as anthropologists."—Choice
American Ethnologist

"An illuminating portrait of a complex figure whose ideas were ahead of their time—one whose critical role in the recent history of anthropology has been too little appreciated as other theoretical currents have gained sway."—American Ethnologist
Journal of Anthropological Research
“William Peace is to be congratulated for dealing with a set of complex issues and dilemmas which pervaded a very complex personality. As both an intellectual historian and anthropologist, Peace’s scholarship is impeccable, and his footnotes are as interesting as the text.”—Journal of Anthropological Research
The Michigan Historical Review
“William Peace has provided a thoroughly documented and carefully balanced biography of Leslie A. White.”—The Michigan Historical Review
Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences
“Peace’s biography is a fine contribution in a number of respects.”—Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences
Left History
"Peace's biography of Leslie White. . . . is a welcome contribution to the history of anthropology."—Left History

Product Details

University of Nebraska Press
Publication date:
Critical Studies in the History of Anthropology Series
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.65(d)

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Leslie A. White

Evolution and Revolution in Anthropology
By William J. Peace

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2004 University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.

Chapter One

Early Life and Formative Experiences

I am beginning to question very closely the value of my college training. I don't believe the knowledge I will gain at college will really help me much.-White, journal, circa 1922


Leslie A. White, the second of three children, was born in Salida, Colorado, on January 19,1900. He and his siblings (Helen, born 1898,and Willard, born 1902) were the children of Alvin Lincoln White, a civil engineer, and Mildred Mae Millard. Alvin White, originally from Calhoun, Nebraska, received an A.B. and B.S. from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. For several years the elder White worked for various railroads locating routes in Colorado, mostly in the vicinity of booming mining towns. Mildred Mae Millard, born in Boone, Iowa, met White's father in Nebraska; they were married in 1896 and moved to Salida in the late 1890s.

Alvin White was employed by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, and Salida, a busy mining town, was division point for the railroad. All three children were born in Salida, where they resided in a small brick house.

White's father was apparently a brilliant engineer but had little time for his family (White to Meyer, April 3, 1964, BHL-WP). He was one of six children and his father, Alvin Granville White, was an outstanding Nebraskapioneer whom White described as being "a straight-laced deeply moral, profoundly religious New England Puritan Methodist minister" (White to Webb, May 7, 1968, BHL-WP).

Perhaps due to his influence, the younger Alvin White believed, as Calvin did, that work was a virtue unto itself. He was a hard man, emotionally distant from the family. White wrote that his father "tried to break away from the orthodoxy and fervor of his [own] father" but never truly succeeded (White to Webb, May 7,1968, BHL-WP). A childhood friend of White remembered his father as being "the straightest man I ever saw, who walked like he was going into a fire."

According to Mrs. Lippard, a neighbor in Salida, White's father was "brilliant, studious, withdrawn and nongregarious; a man who regarded gaiety and frivolity wasteful, if not a bit sinful" (Meyer to White, April 23, 1965, BHL-WP).

White's mother, 12 years younger and much more outgoing, did not receive the necessary emotional support or love she expected from her husband. Apparently, White's father refused to attend picnics or parties planned by his wife, and in time she began going out while he stayed home. When White was five years old his mother fell in love with another man, and his parents divorced. This caused quite a stir among family and friends, who were evenly divided as to who was to blame for the end of the marriage. White's mother moved to Denver and, as was the custom at the time in cases of abandonment or adultery, custody of the three children was awarded to White's father. White never spoke nor wrote about the impact his parents' separation had on his childhood, yet he retained a number of vivid memories of Salida; for example, he remembered seeing Teddy Roosevelt speak from the rear platform of a train during a campaign stop there (White to Meyer, April 3, 1964, BHL-WP).

After White's parents separated in 1905, his father moved the family to Kansas City, Missouri. With his career advancing, White's father no longer conducted regional surveys but worked in the main office of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. However, he did not like working in an urban setting and became convinced that spending all day indoors was unnatural and was adversely affecting his health. Having spent a portion of his younger life working on a farm, he firmly believed that a return to vigorous outdoor life would improve his health. Accordingly, in 1906 he moved his family to a farm near Greeley, Kansas (approximately 65 miles southwest of Kansas City). Although he knew little about farm management, he purchased a farm in March 1907 near Lane, Kansas. The White family would remain in Lane from 1907 to 1914. Leslie White's formative years and earliest memories were dominated by rural farm life.

When in a retrospective mood, White would tell people he learned many valuable lessons living on a farm. However, he told precious few that his childhood was unsettled and unhappy. At first he was excited by the livestock and the huge expanses of land, but this was quickly forgotten. In an autobiographical document, White wrote: "The household became desolate and lonely. I used to cry almost every night before going to bed. My father used to ask me, in helpless sympathy, why I was crying, but I could not tell him. I did not know. I knew only an overwhelming loneliness and need for love. My father loved us children deeply and his devotion to us knew no bounds. But perhaps as a stern Puritan's son, he could not express his love affectionately" (White, untitled reminiscence, circa 1952, BHL-WP).

White's father was tender at times such as these, but this did not stop his son's tears or alleviate his overwhelming sense of loneliness. White frequently argued with his father and took great delight in being able to catch him in logical fallacies. These arguments frequently ended in White's father beating him.

A number of autobiographical letters White exchanged with various people toward the end of his life confirm that his father had a profound impact on his development. For example, White remained grateful, if not relieved, that his father did not speak for or against religion. Apparently his father "believed that there was a God of some sort, and that he was good. But there was never any suggestion that God had anything whatever to do with the world we lived in or in our personal lives" (White to Webb, May 7,1968, BHL-WP). White was not exactly sure why his father never spoke of religion and did not know if this nonverbalization was a conscious decision on his father's part. White did specifically recall that his father never set foot in a church after his marriage.

In 1952 he returned to the farm near Lane in the hope that it would cause him to remember things of consequence he had forgotten. The visit prompted him to describe the farm: "Our home was a small two-story structure. As was the case of houses in that community at that time, it was without running water, plumbing, or electric lights. We had a windmill and a well nearby, an outdoor privy; we heated the house with wood stoves and lighted it with kerosene lamps. Near the house-not beneath it-was a cellar which served as a refuge from cyclones as well as to store potatoes, apples, and canned fruit. There was an old dilapidated barn, a tool shed, a big old straw stack and a few forlorn trees. The railroad ran through our farm about a half-mile from our house" (White, untitled reminiscence, circa 1952, BHL-WP).

The isolation of farm life created a lonely existence. There were no neighbors and no playmates aside from his brother and sister, and White quickly became bored by the tedious work required to maintain a farm. The farm was several miles from Lane, a small town with stores abutting a single dirt road. White's limited social life revolved around school, where the teacher was 18 years old and had only just finished the eighth grade herself. Eight grades coexisted in a one-room schoolhouse dominated by a wood-burning stove. The stove heated the room in the winter and kept the ink bottles from freezing at night. The highlight of White's social life was the monthly Saturday afternoon trip to Lane with his father, sister, and brother. In town his father sold butter, cream, and eggs to purchase groceries from the general store. White revisited Lane several times and kept in contact with several people from his childhood. After one such visit he was prompted to write:

I have seen quite a few people and the old town. It is not an inspiring sight. It is small grubby, untidy, in fact ugly. It has deteriorated considerably since I was here twenty-five years ago.... Many, many houses here are just as they were 25 years ago except for the natural weathering and degeneration that a quarter of a century will bring.... Not only are little towns like Lane untidy, and their houses unsightly, but the men are dirty.... It is hard to understand how so many of the men can be so dirty. The town is full of weeds. There are no lawns. The trees have had no care. Cows, pigs and chickens are kept right in town. They all have outdoor crapping cans.... I seem so remote here. The world where I customarily live has been so far left behind it hardly seems to exist. Of course, it is just the other way around-time has marched on and left Lane behind-the "town that God Forgot." Only I don't know whether Lane knows it or not. [White, untitled reminiscence, September 2,1938, BHL-WP]

White's father employed an elderly housekeeper and a hired man to help with farm chores. White found the hired man, John, a novelty; unlike his father, he was capable of carrying on light-hearted conversations. John joked with the boys and was willing to play practical jokes on White's younger brother, Willard. The housekeeper was an elderly woman whom White and his brother named "Aunt Frank." She mothered the children, told them endless stories, and cared for them through routine childhood illnesses. As White's father became more settled, the hired man was fired; when the children became more self-sufficient, the housekeeper was dismissed as well. Hence by the time White was eight, he was responsible for many of the household chores; when his father was too tired to prepare a meal, which was often the case, White cooked for his siblings. He was expected as well to help feed the livestock, milk the cows, and work in the fields. He was exposed to the elements and wrote that he suffered greatly in the heat of the summer and the cold of the winter. White sadly recalled: "First John left, then Aunt Frank. We were alone, my father, Helen, Willard and I. The house seemed so quiet and desolate. There was no woman there. There was no odor of coffee, no aroma of John's Bull Durham. We had only one kerosene lamp lighted. Papa would cook supper, or sometimes we would have a cold meal. Helen would help him wash and dry the dishes. Then Dad would take Billy [Willard], as he would always call him, and who by this time was asleep, upstairs and put him to bed" (White, untitled reminiscence, circa 1952, BHL-WP).

This way of life abruptly ended in 1915,whenHelen became pregnant at the age of 17. A strict and devout man, White's father was devastated and reluctant to let anyone he knew see his daughter's "condition." Deeply embarrassed, he moved the family from place to place during Helen's pregnancy because of the stigma attached to her age and marital status, eventually settling down in Zachary, Louisiana (north of Baton Rouge), one year later. The event caused a profound rupture in the household and led to White's estrangement from his father, and to a lesser degree his brother, for several years, although he was never estranged from his sister.

While White's sister was pregnant, the family lived a nomadic existence. White also spent some time in Denver with his mother for the fist time since he was a young child. White's mother was with her daughter when she gave birth at the East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana (White to County Clerk, Denver, Colorado, April 5,1967, BHL-WP). After baby Herbert was born, Helen moved to Denver to live with her mother and stepfather, who legally adopted Herbert. Although White and his brother remained with their father, they began to visit their mother on a regular basis. The two boys subsequently became closer to their mother and White's feelings for his father hardened.

Growing up in a house that was male-dominated had a profound effect on White. This was exacerbated by the rupture his sister's pregnancy caused; for instance, he could no longer accept his father's dichotomy that there were two kinds of women-good and bad. Although no letters survive between White and his sister regarding her pregnancy, he remained close to her throughout his life. White could not accept that an unplanned pregnancy suddenly made his sister a "bad woman," which led him to question what he had been taught by his father. Certainly, traveling around the United States while his sister was pregnant exposed him to things and ideas he had only heard about on the farm in Lane. While the following passage does not concern his sister's pregnancy directly, White recalled how the lack of a female presence affected his development:

This all-male family unquestionably had a profound effect on the development of my personality and character. There were girls in the schools I attended, of course, and my teachers-except the principal-were women. But that was different. I had no chance to become well acquainted with womankind. The greatest difficulty that I encountered in my social life after I left home was learning how to behave toward, and with members of the opposite sex. This difficulty was compounded too, I believe, by my father's Puritan conception of women: all women could be divided into two classes: good and bad. A good woman was a good woman, and a bad woman was a bad woman. This classification may have simplified matters for my father, but its artificial nature created enormous difficulties for me in my efforts to find my way in the real world of real people. [White, untitled reminiscence, circa 1952, BHL-WP]

Despite the turbulence of White's home life, he distinguished himself in school. His grades rarely dipped below 90 percent. His teachers remarked that he was intellectually gifted, and more than one report card noted he had "Marked Ability." When White graduated from Zachary High School in 1916, he was class president and valedictorian. By now openly antagonistic to his father, on the day he graduated from high school he moved out of his father's house. Anxious to explore the world and make a life for himself, he had only been waiting until graduation. He put his meager possessions into a single valise and left home for good-on foot.

He immediately got a job as secretary-bookkeeper with his former high school principal, Chapple R. Regan, and moved to Alexandria, Louisiana. Regan published a school journal entitled Louisiana School Work, for which White took dictation, wrote letters, kept books, and wrote some editorials. Unfortunately, no editorials have survived. Regan concluded that White could get a much better job, and he suggested White apply for a position at the Armour and Company as stenographer and bookkeeper. White held this position until summer 1917, when the U.S. government began construction of Camp Beauregard. White worked at Camp Beauregard in the fall of 1917 and spring of 1918. In March 1918 he visited his mother and sister in Boulder, Colorado, where he enlisted in the navy.


Excerpted from Leslie A. White by William J. Peace Copyright © 2004 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

William J. Peace is an independent scholar and lives in Katonah, New York. He has a PhD in anthropology from Columbia University.

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