The startling coming-of-age story of famed anthropologist Margaret Mead whose radical ideas challenged the social and sexual norms of her time.
The story begins in 1923, when twenty-two year old Margaret Mead is living in New York City, engaged to her childhood sweetheart and on the verge of graduating from college. Seemingly a conventional young lady, she marries, but shocks friends when she decides to keep her maiden name. After starting graduate school at Columbia University, she does the unthinkable: she first enters into a forbidden relationship with a female colleague, then gets caught up in an all-consuming and secret affair with a brilliant older man. As her sexual awakening continues, she discovers it is possible to be in love with more than one person at the same time.
While Margaret’s personal explorations are just beginning, her interest in distant cultures propels her into the new field of anthropology. Ignoring the constraints put on women, she travels alone to a tiny speck of land in the South Pacific called Samoa to study the sexual behavior of adolescent girls. Returning home on an ocean liner nine months later, a chance encounter changes the course of her life forever.
Now, drawing on letters, diaries, and memoirs, Deborah Beatriz Blum reconstructs these five transformative years of Margaret Mead’s life, before she became famous, revealing the story that she hid from the world – during her lifetime and beyond.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.40(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
She was hitching her wagon to a star, and I felt grateful I had never stood in her way. ...
— Luther Cressman
On the third of August, 1925, a Southern Pacific passenger train streaked across the Arizona desert. Inside the dining car a girl in pale-colored silk sat eating breakfast. Her name was Margaret Mead and she was traveling alone, en route to California, where she was to catch the SS Matsonia, the first of two steamers that would take her to the South Seas.
Known among her friends as extravagantly talkative, Margaret was quiet now, gazing out at scenery that was passing by in a blur. Her mind was full of what had just happened, and what was to come.
Margaret's light brown hair, cut short in a bob, was unruly, the bridge of her nose lightly freckled. At just over five-foot-two, and weighing not quite one hundred pounds, she looked more like an eleven-year-old child than a twenty-three-year-old woman. Accustomed to being underestimated, she had long ago decided it didn't matter. As soon as she spoke it was apparent from her Main Line accent and the hint of command in her voice that she was, in reality, a young lady who knew what she was about.
Raised in the privileged environs of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and recently married to her childhood sweetheart, Margaret had never spent a night alone in her life, yet now she was at the beginning of a journey that would span nine thousand miles. Once she reached her destination — American Samoa — she would spend the better part of a year separated from family and friends. Sometimes, though she was loath to admit it, she went numb at the thought.
Breakfast finished, Margaret took out her writing case and began a letter to one of her preferred confidants: Dear Grandma ... Ruth left me last night at Williams and in three hours I shall be in Los Angeles and see Uncle Leland, I hope. We had gorgeous weather all the way across the desert, almost cold, even in the day time.
For the last two years Margaret had been working toward her doctorate in anthropology at Columbia University in New York City. When faced with choosing a culture on which to base her professional career, she said she had no intention of being like the rest of the women in the department who were content to study the American Indian. She wanted to go to Polynesia. Nearly everyone she knew had said no, the South Pacific was impossible. Young ladies, traveling on their own, simply did not go there.
Her letter continued:
We saw many Indians baling alfalfa into square blocks, and we marveled that the alfalfa was green. Blue and red and yellow are the colors of this country; green is swallowed up when it does occur. The cattle and horses are lean and lost looking, gaunt and gray on the barren lands. But the trees bloom, Grandma, all of them, pines and junipers and all. Think of a little tree that smells like an evergreen and has daisies on it. And there are also delicate scarlet flowers, growing unexpectedly in the waste land.
Everyone had said the enterprise carried too many risks. Margaret could not speak a word of the native language and the tropics were treacherous. But Margaret was adamant, and stubborn. She prevailed and now, in a mere four weeks, she would begin fieldwork in Samoa to observe the way that adolescent girls in a primitive culture differed from their counterparts in America. It was not for nothing that, as a child, her determination had earned her the nickname "Punk." She was also known to be irrepressibly curious.
Ruth and I got different things out of the Grand Canyon, but we both loved it. She was the most impressed by the effort of the river to hide, a torturing need for secrecy which had made it dig its way, century by century, deeper into the face of the earth. The part I loved the best was the endless possibilities of those miles of pinnacled clay, red and white, and fantastic, ever changing their aspect under new shadowing cloud. One minute I saw a castle, with a great white horse of mythical stature, standing tethered by the gate, and further over, a great Roman wall.
Margaret did not realize it, could never have guessed it, but those words that she'd just put to paper, the ones that alluded to the "endless possibilities" before her, were prophetic. That quality she exhibited, the ability to engage with the life around her, to respond to events as they were unfolding and turn the moment to her advantage, was a gift, one she was armed with as she set out to confront the unknown.
IT WAS A JOURNEY THAT HAD BEGUN FOUR YEARS EARLIER
ONE FOR MY LADY LOVE
Darling mine ..., You are made up of ... pretty eyes that shine with happiness of love, two red lips that tell me you love me and give me yourself in their kisses, two pretty white arms that I love to feel around me ... and a beautiful soft delicate rounded body full of mystery and strange fascinating power.
— Luther Cressman
With a rush of wind and sleet pushing at his back, the young man opened the heavy door and stepped inside. Shaking a layer of snow off his coat, feeling the warmth of the room, and seeing the floor-to-ceiling shelves of books, he felt happy.
Luther Cressman, a lean, clean-shaven twenty-five-year-old, had rushed from his class at the General Theological Seminary on West 21st Street, to reach his favorite bookstore before closing time. Brentano's, on Fifth Avenue, between 48th and 49th Streets, boasted the city's most complete collection of the classics, some even in their original Greek.
The smell of the books, the texture of their leather bindings, the varied thickness of the volumes, all of this created in Luther a feeling of well-being.
As he made his way down the aisle, Luther's head was still filled with the ideas he'd just been listening to, a lecture on Saint Thomas Aquinas, delivered by the elderly Father Arthur Jenks.
The experience, strangely mind-numbing and inspiring at the same time, had ended with an Aquinas quote that caught Luther's fancy: "If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship, he would keep it in port forever." On the way out of class Luther had told his friend Holly, "I am going to write a paper for Jenks that will make his hair crack ... I shall give him an earful."
Now, intent on making good on that promise, he headed for the history section.
Some minutes passed before the lights dimmed. Luther looked up to see the clerk crossing the floor, moving from tidying up the islands of books. Tucking a book under his arm and grabbing up another, Luther made his way to the cash register.
"One for myself," said Luther, placing a collection of essays by the pacifist Romain Rolland on the counter, "and one for my lady love," putting a slim volume of Sappho's poetry on top of it. "I couldn't resist."
Luther had a cleft chin and a high domed forehead topped with dark coppery-colored hair. His narrow face had a solemn aspect until something or someone grabbed his attention, then he was quick to break into an easy grin. But the most striking thing about his appearance were his eyes. It wasn't the color, which was a muddy blue-gray and indistinct, but the quality of his gaze. His fiancée, Margaret, called them "kind eyes."
Luther was the son of a country doctor, one of six brothers, all raised in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Born in 1897, he'd grown up at a time before telephone lines had been strung and when people still traveled by horse and buggy. As a boy he had especially enjoyed accompanying his father on house calls:
I remember when in high school we had a terrible blizzard and papa could not get out. He had a typhoid patient out at Pughtown and had to go see him. We started on foot. The snow came in from that ridge of hills and stung the face like hail. It was drifted so that there wasn't any road. We just went, he and I.
Leaving Brentano's now Luther was on an equally important mission. He was on his way uptown, traveling by subway, to reach the infirmary.
For the last two weeks Luther had been worried about Margaret. She was very sick. The night she fell ill he'd been with her, and when she complained about how sore her throat was, he'd felt her forehead and it almost burned his hand. He'd half carried her over to Brooks Hall, the Barnard College infirmary. While they were in the waiting room he noticed that an angry red rash had spread across her cheeks. Then a nurse slid a thermometer under her tongue and a few minutes later announced that Margaret's fever was 103 degrees.
They'd led Margaret off to an examination room. Finally the nurse had come out, shaking her head. "Miss Mead has scarlet fever," she said. "She'll be with us for a while, I'm afraid."
By the end of the week, five other cases of scarlet fever had been confirmed and Miss Abbott, Barnard's assistant dean, was calling the girls the "Scarlet Six." They were to remain in the infirmary for at least six weeks under "strict quarantine," by order of New York's Board of Health.
Everyone knew that scarlet fever often damaged the heart and could even be fatal. What no one had dared yet say was that six cases, popping up at once, was a full-fledged epidemic, a potential catastrophe for the college. Hoping to keep a lid on the hysteria, Miss Abbott had written to parents, assuring them that "all sorts of investigations are being made by the college and health authorities to try to trace this germ to its source."
For Luther, the next stretch of days had seemed interminable.
At the end of the first week the nurses had reported that Margaret was still running a high fever, unable to eat solid foods or even swallow water. There was nothing any of them could do beyond plumping her pillows and applying cool compresses to her body. Luther knew that Margaret was in a fight for her life until the infection reached its crisis point, when her body's natural defenses would either kick in or fail.
Quite naturally, Luther had found it impossible to do much of anything, let alone concentrate on the research paper he was supposed to be writing for Father Jenks. He sent Margaret two letters a day, but she was too sick to answer.
Then on Christmas day, Margaret's mother telephoned. They had just received a telegram from Margaret:
Dear family cannot contaminate the telephone am doing swimmingly and simply drowned with letters and flowers the family ink bottle seems to have run dry yours with love and no germs.
It seemed that the worst was over, or so they all thought, but the quarantine was still in effect. Margaret wasn't allowed visitors, nor could she talk on the phone.
Greatly relieved, Luther was yearning for the sight of her, and her touch:
My arms ache for you, my lips are burnt for lack of your kisses, my body is weary with wanting you and my whole self is crying and longing and impatiently waiting for you, you, my own dearest love.
Margaret had always been his closest confidant. A few years earlier, when Luther had first started to contemplate a life in the clergy, Margaret had convinced him that the Episcopal Church might suit him better than his family's Lutheran faith. With her encouragement he'd enrolled at General Theological Seminary. Since then her influence over him had only increased. Recently she'd bragged to her mother: "You should see how far Luther has swerved toward the left wing since last winter. He no longer boasts an inflexible moral code nor a single reactionary principle, thank heaven."
While Margaret may have applauded Luther's move to the left, the Brothers at the seminary reacted differently. Luther told Margaret, "They have me down for a Bolshevik Red, Communist, Socialist or what not here — I guess I can stand it though. You watch me stand it."
Now, emerging from the subway stop, looking at the snow swirling around him, Luther found himself thinking once again about fate, and how it had swept him up in a maelstrom of events, events that all revolved around the Great War, as everything had in those days before he'd met Margaret.
Newspapers in the fall of 1916 had run story after story describing how the trenches in France were filling with corpses. Between July and November, over 400,000 British soldiers were wounded or killed in the fields along the Somme River.
During the spring of that year Luther had been in school at Penn State studying Ancient Greek, hearing about Heinrich Schliemann's excavation of Troy, and reading the plays of Sophocles. He was nineteen years old and those ancient tales, extolling the virtue of the great heroes of the battlefield, mixed with the news from overseas, lent the Battle of the Somme an even greater poignancy.
Full of idealism, Luther was determined to prepare himself for future service. That summer he enrolled in the Citizens Military Training Camp at the Plattsburgh Barracks in New York. After four weeks of field maneuvers that entailed slogging through the mud with full packs, and firing a Springfield rifle at targets at five and six hundred yards, Luther was commissioned to first lieutenant in the Cadet Regiment. In March of 1917, he wrote to his parents to ask for permission to enlist in a specialized naval unit. Two weeks passed and he still had not received a response. Then a letter came from his mother saying that their family home had burned to the ground.
Everything was gone. Mrs. Cressman needed him to come home to help run the family farm for the summer. His elder brother George was already there.
Sensitive to his parents' loss, both economic and emotional, Luther agreed. By Monday morning he was working as a farmer, cleaning out the barn, spreading manure on the field he would soon be plowing. His brother George was teaching science at the local high school in Doylestown. When the school principal asked George to give the commencement address he agreed and, borrowing their father's motorcar, brought Luther along for the occasion.
Before the evening ceremony Emily Mead, the mother of a girl in one of George's classes, invited the two young men to supper. Luther and George drove through the gentle rolling hills of Buckingham Township, then up a long dirt road lined with poplar trees to a faded white Georgian house. Luther was introduced to Emily's husband, Sherwood Mead, a university professor, and their eldest daughter Margaret, who appeared to be about sixteen.
Luther sat down to a rather tasteless plate of roast chicken, a dish that became even less appetizing when Professor Mead exhibited his caustic sense of humor, making derisive comments about the "folly of young men who were determined to enlist." While Sherwood was busy talking, taking thinly veiled potshots at George and Luther, Luther's gaze settled on Margaret. He was surprised to find her looking straight at him.
By December of 1917, Luther, George, and their parents had moved into a rented farmhouse in Pughtown.
With Americans now fighting overseas, all the talk at the Cressmans' table was about joining up. Fearing that the family might not be together again for a while, Mrs. Cressman summoned all her sons home for Christmas. To counterbalance the "heavily male contingent" she asked George to invite his "bright young student" Margaret, and her classmate, Esther, the sheriff's daughter, for Christmas lunch.
After the meal the brothers took their guests outside to French Creek, where the snow was deep and the ice was hard. Esther, a "thorough extrovert, was full of fun and laughter and willing to try almost anything, ... quite the perfect foil for the rather intellectual Margaret."
Luther found himself skating with Margaret. With hands crossed, they circled the pond again and again. Luther pointed out a group of young children playing Crack the Whip.
"Look at that little fellow," he said, pointing to a small boy at the end of the line, now sitting on his bottom on the ice. "He's the lash. That's just what I always was. I used to clean up yards of ice and not with my skates."
Pressing his luck, Luther took a gamble and started telling Margaret the story of Antigone, his favorite character in Sophocles' play by the same name. Antigone was willing to go to her death in defense of her beliefs; she was, in Luther's mind, "a timeless heroine." He was gratified to see that Margaret seemed to respond to the story.
A few nights later, on New Year's Eve, Margaret returned to the farm to visit with Luther. Bundled up against the cold, they set out on a walk toward Daisy Point. Stars sparkled in a black sky.
After about half a mile, they turned back. "We had said little, but our bodies by some subtle means exchanged messages as we walked arm in arm, our shoes crunching the dry snow in the bitter cold."
Seeing that they were almost home, Luther stopped. He turned Margaret toward him. For a moment they stood facing one another. "I love you, Margaret," he said, stepping forward to embrace her.
She lifted her veil worn against the cold. "I love you, too, Luther," she replied.
"Does this mean we're engaged?" she asked.
"I think it does," Luther said. "I really think so."
"I do, too," said Margaret.
Excerpted from "Coming of Age"
Copyright © 2017 Deborah Beatriz Blum.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Author's Note ix
1 Shooting1 Star 1
2 One for My Lady Love 4
3 Girls, Unmarried as Yet 13
4 A Course in Old Maids 25
5 The Promise of His Birth 36
6 A Glass Full of Cyanide 45
7 Paper Dolls 53
8 Hell's Kitchen 64
9 A Cottage on Gape God 73
10 A Woman of Spare Effects 86
11 The Rideau Canal 96
12 They Dance for Rain 109
13 Her Head Was Spinning 116
14 Guardian Angel 126
15 The Old King Must Die 135
16 A Second Honeymoon 142
17 Ariel 153
18 Hotel Pennsylvania 164
19 A Need for Secrecy 172
20 Quicksilver Love 179
21 The Telegram 193
22 A Ceremonial Virgin 203
23 A Bonfire on the Beach 213
24 A Practical Joke 221
25 Stranger from Another Planet 230
26 The Arena Has Always Been About Blood 242
27 A Hopeless Muddle 251
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A rather sensationalist expanase of writing where the main characters are little more than empty robots.