A friend asked recently, well, what are you reading now that you’ve stopped doing the radio show (for which all my reading energy was spent)? Honestly, I wasn’t really reading anything. Dipping into many things without real interest. But I’ve not begun reading Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century, by Charles King.
This title has been heavily reviewed in all the major outlets but I picked it up because it appeared that it might address some of the questions/assertions made by George Blaustein (see RELATED below) in his book, Nightmare Envy, as regards the work of Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict (telling stories about America – or rather, defining “an American” – in order to encourage many to support the US entry into WWII).
Now, I’ve only just started but I have two quibbles.
One: The following sentence is an historical marker as regards the subject of the first chapter (Franz Boas) – which is to say it situates the subject in his time. “…Grover Cleveland was vying to become the first Democrat to claim the presidency since before the Civil War…”
Now this is just a fact and King goes on to tell us that Cleveland was also a womanizer who “likely” fathered a child “out of wedlock.” That’s it for good old Grover in this book. Fine. But Cleveland and his presidencies (two non-consecutive terms) were part of a deeply complex alteration in how we even think of our particular “two-party” system. Which is just to say that the casual use of Democrat and Republican is less than useful and oddly confusing IF a reader cares at all.
Two: Right on the heels of the Cleveland sentences we move toward the Smithsonian Institution (Boas is traveling to DC to meet John Wesley Powell, the director of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian at the time) and we discover that the Smithsonian was so named after the man who bequeathed his fortune “the the people of the United States for the purposes of scientific research and education.” This was James Smithson, who, we learn, was “the illegitimate son of an English Duke” (and amateur chemist). My only question is, does his “legitimacy” matter in this story? What work does the word do?
These are “just facts” – but they annoyed and seem careless.
RELATED: Interchange interview with George Blaustein: “Just a Spoonful of America: Prescribing American Studies to Fight Fascism“