Georgetown University professor King (Midnight at the Pera Palace) serves up a tasty group biography of trailblazing American women and depicts how the field of cultural anthropology emerged to challenge popular Eurocentric beliefs about human development. Early chapters chronicle how, at the turn of the 20th century, the process of field work turned pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas away from dominant theories of cultural and racial hierarchy, toward a more broad-minded, inductively reasoned approach that took seriously the “many different ways of being human.” The second half of the book follows the adventures and achievements of four notable women Boas trained at Columbia University. Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, both well-known theorists who helped to popularize anthropological insights at midcentury, had an intellectually productive, emotionally supportive lifelong partnership; Zora Neale Hurston and Ella Cara Deloria each applied their anthropological skills outside of traditional academic settings to study and depict their own cultures (African-American and Native American, respectively). King chronicles both the women’s struggles to achieve professional recognition and institutional support in a male-dominated field and the challenges of debunking white supremacy in a period of xenophobia, scientific racism, and imperialist ideologies. King’s prose is energetic, enlivened with delicious quotations, juicy personal details, and witty turns of phrase (“Fieldwork was the destroyer of worlds. Marriages failed. Youthful ambitions came to look quaint.”). This complex, delightful book will get readers thinking and keep them turning the pages. (Aug.)
Thoughtful, deeply intelligent, and immensely readable.”
—Alison Gopnik, The Atlantic
“King’s comprehensive archival research illuminates intellectual giants . . . With a light yet unmistakable touch, King connects the dots from Boas’s time to ours. He mentions President Donald Trump’s describing of Mexicans as ‘rapists’ during the kickoff of his presidential campaign, and we get the point: The reduction of human beings to types—people stereotyped as inferior and menacing, deserving of being keep out or cast out—is a clear and present danger. Reading Gods of the Upper Air, though, provides inspiration. The anthropology of equality tells us that every population is as fully human as any other, and deserving of understanding and compassion.”
—Barbara J. King, NPR.org
“[Gods of the Upper Air] offers a vitally relevant way to frame the ugly spectre of racism as it resurfaces in our politics . . . Now, more than ever, we need to recognise how Boas and others developed an alternative vision of humanity. Understanding this oft-ignored intellectual history is a first step towards defending it.”
—Gillian Tett, Financial Times
“[King] succeeds in bringing Mead and her fellow travelers into sharp focus as they pioneered a new field and documented mankind’s many-splendored diversity in a positive, rather than a divisive, light.”
—David Holahan, USA Today
“An intellectual adventure story of the best sort—elegantly written, thought-provoking, and full of biographical riches.”
—Sarah Bakewell, author of How to Live and At the Existentialist Cafe
“A masterful history of a group of maverick thinkers in the early 20th century who aimed to dethrone the eugenicists dominating racial thought. With eugenics ascendant again, King’s story is a vital book for our times.”
—Ibram X. Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, winner of the 2016 National Book Award
“Deeply thought-provoking and brilliantly written, Gods of the Upper Air is a walk in the shoes of giants. Charles King takes you on an unforgettable journey as daring anthropologists unravel the profound mysteries of culture and mankind, and discover that they, too, were only human.”
—David Hoffman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Dead Hand and The Billion Dollar Spy
“This exciting—even entrancing—story traces the birth of a new science in the early twentieth century, championed by a scrappy genius who trained a cadre of bold women for the work. Charles King writes with verve and authority as he follows the nation’s first cultural anthropologists to far-flung field sites that suggested antidotes to the racism and xenophobia of American society.”
—Dava Sobel, author of The Glass Universe and Longitude
“In any era, Gods of the Upper Air would be a scholarly masterpiece—an elegantly written, wickedly perceptive account of Franz Boas, the father of cultural anthropology, and his impact upon the key moral issues of his time and ours. Mentoring the likes of Margaret Mead and Zora Neale Hurston, Boas employed the skills of scientific observation to argue that all societies are part of a single, undivided humanity guided by circumstance and history, but none superior to another. In today’s deeply polarized world, Charles King’s stunning new book reminds us of the brilliance of these renegade anthropologists, and the work still to be done.”
—David Oshinsky, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Polio and Bellevue
The story of cultural anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942) and "a small band of contrarian researchers" who shaped the open-minded way we think now.
In this deeply engaging group biography, King (Government and International Affairs; Georgetown Univ.; Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul, 2014, etc.) recounts the lives and work of a handful of American scholars and intellectuals who studied other cultures in the 1920s and '30s, fighting the "great moral evils: scientific racism, the subjugation of women, genocidal fascism, the treatment of gay people as willfully deranged." Led by "Papa" Franz, who taught for four decades in Columbia University's first anthropology department, the group of "misfits and dissenters" (as a university president called them) included Margaret Mead, whose expeditions to Polynesia produced Coming of Age in Samoa (1928); Ruth Benedict, Boas' assistant, Mead's lover, and author of Patterns of Culture (1934); Zora Neale Hurston, the Harlem Renaissance writer whose ethnographic studies led to her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937); and Ella Cara Deloria, a Native American scholar and ethnographer. King offers captivating, exquisitely detailed portraits of these remarkable individuals—the first cultural relativists—who helped demonstrate that humanity is "one undivided thing," that race is "a social reality, not a biological one," and that things had to be "proven" before they could shape law, government, and public policy. "When there was no evidence for a theory," Boas argued, "…you had to let it go—especially if that thing just happened to place people like you at the center of the universe." King's smoothly readable story of the stubborn, impatient Boas and his acolytes emphasizes how their pioneering exploration of disparate cultures contradicts the notion that "our ways are the only commonsensical, moral ones." Rich in ideas, the book also abounds in absorbing accounts of friendships, animosities, and rivalries among these early anthropologists.
This superb narrative of debunking scientists provides timely reading for our "great-again" era.
Even though anthropology is considered to be related to psychology, King (international affairs & government, Georgetown Univ.; Midnight at the Pera Palace) demonstrates how the field's history makes it unique by taking readers through each leading character who influenced a developmental phase of anthropological thought and practice. In its development, anthropology had to undergo a transformation that started with the questioning of early 20th-century Western cultural ideals, such as race, religion, and sexual expression. Detailed, storylike chapter biographies trace the lives of scholars, writers, and anthropologists such as Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ella Cara Deloria. Using this method, King calls upon future anthropologists to understand how their scholarly predecessors used their distant view from the "upper air" as a means of observation and what that means for ethical methods of study moving forward. VERDICT This group portrait of pioneering leaders in the field is recommended reading for undergraduate and graduate students, professional academics, and individuals with an interest in anthropology, cultural anthropology, and history.—Monique Martinez, Univ. of North Georgia Lib., Dahlonega