Edward Sapir is best known to general readers as the author of Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech (1921). Still in print, this popular introduction to linguistics, while dated in some respects, remains a lively and accessible work. As a linguist and anthropologist, a man of wide-ranging interests who was involved in some of the main currents of modern American intellectual life, Sapir would seem to be a good candidate for a biography intended for the general reader. InEdward Sapir: Linguist, Anthropologist, Humanist, the first full-length biography of Sapir; Regna Darnell does not fulfill that desideratum, though there are indications (beginning with her subtitle) that she intermittently sought to address a general audience.
Instead of organizing her account in a strictly chronological narrative, as one might find in a traditional biography, or in the topical pattern characteristic of intellectual history, Darnell traces the professional currents of Sapir’s life, trying to keep track of the main streams in such a way that both chronology and subject matter are sometimes repeated and sometimes skipped over with an “as we shall see further on statement. This approach may seem innovative and useful to some, but it is likely to confuse and disorient the majority of readers. It is not that there is not good material on Sapir to be had in this book, but simply that it is too much work to try and get at that material.
The book does have a certain amount of chronological organization: It begins with four pages on Sapir’s formative years with his parents before entering Columbia University and ends with several pages on Sapir’s death and his professional colleagues’ response to it. In the former pages the reader learns that Sapir was born in Poland of immigrant Jewish parents who later came to New York. It is a quintessential American success story, repeated often in many fields of endeavor from the latter part of the last century up to World War II. Darnell provides a glimpse of the tenacious, understated ambition that drove Sapir to excel in his intellectual pursuits from an early age. Much of the energy for this striving may well have come from the tension between Sapir’s parents and his own reaction to it, but Darnell wisely stops short of psychologizing overmuch this aspect of Sapir’s life.
Sapir’s career is traced from its beginnings as a student of Germanics and later anthropology (under the famous anthropologist Franz Boas) at Columbia University to his final years as a teacher of ethnology and later linguistics at Yale University. In between, much is made of Sapir’s wide- ranging interests in linguistics, anthropology, music, and even psychology and psychiatry. The political machinations of his academic career are given considerable attention, but through it all Darnell gives what looks to be a fairly thorough treatment of Sapir’s production, from his early work on North American Indian languages to his return to Indo-European and his later interest in psychology and psychiatry. (The volume concludes with a complete bibliography of his works, which is one of the most useful features of the book for those genuinely interested in Sapir and his work.)
Perhaps the most interesting, if not the most important, observation made by Darnell has to do with the apparent connection between Sapir’s personal psychological profile and his interest in the cross-fertilization, if not the connection, between psychology/psychiatry and anthropology/I inguistics. According to Darnell, Sapir was deeply introverted and hypersensitive, which led him to place great emphasis on psychological explanations of human behavior. Such was his interest in this area that he formed an informal working relationship with Harry Stack Sullivan, the...
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