Humane Studies

The eminent New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell profiled the greatest anthropologist in the world -- and his fans somehow forgot about it for decades. Scott McLemee reports from the scene of the excavation.

March 29, 2017

“A newspaper can have no bigger nuisance than a reporter who is always trying to write literature,” Joseph Mitchell confessed in the opening pages of My Ears Are Bent (1938), a selection of the pieces that had, presumably, gotten him into trouble. “It is not easy,” as he also noted in passing, “to get an interview with Professor Franz Boas, the greatest anthropologist in the world, across a city desk.”

But in fact he had recently done so -- in a series of articles for The New York World-Telegraph that have only now been collected between covers as “Man -- With Variations”: Interviews With Franz Boas and Colleagues, 1937, published by Prickly Paradigm Press and distributed by the University of Chicago Press. The volume, best described as a pamphlet, was edited by Robert Brightman, a professor of Native American studies at Reed College, whose excellent introduction supplies not just context but also a thoughtful consideration of Mitchell’s place at the convergence of ethnography, journalism and memoir.

In 1938, Mitchell became a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he passed into legend as one of the pre-eminent literary journalists of all time. These earlier pieces are invaluable for understanding his work as a whole, and it's good to have them rescued from oblivion.

“Greatest anthropologist in the world” may sound like journalistic hyperbole, but much the same was said by Boas’s peers, and Mitchell was well within the bounds of fair comment in presenting the German-born professor to American readers as “the most dangerous enemy of Adolf Hitler’s racial concepts.” (The very concept of race he regarded as imprecise and scientifically dubious, while that of a “pure” or “superior” race was “impossible to countenance.”)

Beyond the topical significance of Boas’s work -- increasingly clear as the Nazi juggernaut was warming up -- Mitchell presented anthropology as the discipline that could, in effect, teach the world to recognize human nature within human variety, and vice versa.

A solemn priority -- not that Mitchell was po-faced about addressing it. In the third article, he pivoted from profiling Boas to describing the work done by the anthropologists he had trained, making the transition with what is the best sentence I have read so far this year, and probably for a longer while than that.

Nothing disgusts the average young anthropologist so much as the heroic stories in the newspaper about those African expeditions organized by well-heeled young gents whose mamas are willing to buy them yachts and tons of Abercrombie & Fitch equipment just to keep them from going on sit-down strikes in fancy gin mills or from getting themselves betrothed to fan dancers.

This is the first line -- in journalistic argot, the lead -- of the third of Mitchell’s six articles. Any lead tries to stake a claim on public attention somehow; that obligation grows exponentially more difficult if it is certain that quite a few readers will not have seen the earlier installments of a series. Mitchell goes about it with humor, obviously, but also with great rhetorical finesse.

Every word in the sentence is precisely chosen to elicit wry recognition from the newspaper-buying public of 1937. The reader today will share very little with the “imagined community” (to borrow a more recent anthropologist’s expression) for which Mitchell was writing. Yet after 80 years, his lead still works: scenes from some long-lost Marx brothers film flicker in the mind for just a second while reading it.

In 1937, the American high school graduation rate had not yet reached 50 percent, yet Mitchell was undertaking not just to explain anthropology to a heterogeneous public but also to convey to readers that Boas’s students and colleagues were dedicated and serious researchers. Two paragraphs after mentioning the fan dancers, he sketches a portrait of the anthropologist as a young penny-pincher.

If, for instance, he goes for a summer’s work on aboriginal linguistics he will not have much more than $500 to spend, and he will probably buy a used automobile to save traveling expenses, selling it when he returns, and he will eat scantily and live simply spending every possible copper on the problem he has set for himself.

How effective was this in convincing John and Jane Q. Public at the height of the Depression? It’s impossible to know, but with a few precise words in the best possible order, he conveyed a sense of fieldwork as work, rather than the pastime of dilettante playboys out to collect souvenirs. I don't know if his series qualifies as literature, but very little journalism reads this well after 80 years. Very little of anything does.


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