Gods of the Upper Air
How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century
2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award Winner
Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award
From an award-winning historian comes a dazzling history of the birth of cultural anthropology and the adventurous scientists who pioneered it—a sweeping chronicle of discovery and the fascinating origin story of our multicultural world.
A century ago, everyone knew that people were fated by their race, sex, and nationality to be more or less intelligent, nurturing, or warlike. But Columbia University professor Franz Boas looked at the data and decided everyone was wrong. Racial categories, he insisted, were biological fictions. Cultures did not come in neat packages labeled "primitive" or "advanced." What counted as a family, a good meal, or even common sense was a product of history and circumstance, not of nature. In Gods of the Upper Air, a masterful narrative history of radical ideas and passionate lives, Charles King shows how these intuitions led to a fundamental reimagining of human diversity.
Boas's students were some of the century's most colorful figures and unsung visionaries: Margaret Mead, the outspoken field researcher whose Coming of Age in Samoa is among the most widely read works of social science of all time; Ruth Benedict, the great love of Mead's life, whose research shaped post-Second World War Japan; Ella Deloria, the Dakota Sioux activist who preserved the traditions of Native Americans on the Great Plains; and Zora Neale Hurston, whose studies under Boas fed directly into her now classic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Together, they mapped civilizations from the American South to the South Pacific and from Caribbean islands to Manhattan's city streets, and unearthed an essential fact buried by centuries of prejudice: that humanity is an undivided whole. Their revolutionary findings would go on to inspire the fluid conceptions of identity we know today.
Rich in drama, conflict, friendship, and love, Gods of the Upper Air is a brilliant and groundbreaking history of American progress and the opening of the modern mind.
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.