The collaboration of Margaret Mead and Rhoda Metraux was a happy one. Aspects of the Present is the fourth book the late Margaret Mead wrote with her friend, and it is the second derived from their seventeen-year collaboration on essays for Redbook magazine. It is a companion to the earlier collection, A Way of Seeing, and it contains essays on a variety of topics written for Redbook between 1969 and 1979. Both women came up with ideas for columns, which they discussed over lunches; Dr. Metraux did the research and Dr. Mead did the writing. Hence, the personality of the book and its convictions are Margaret Mead’s.
The two women’s friendship began in 1942; Metraux served as Mead’s research assistant when the latter became Executive Secretary to the Committee on Food Habits in the National Research Council, a role Metraux says “demanded great skill in interpreting American culture to Americans.” When the two women began their earliest collaboration, Mead had already accomplished her basic research in six South Seas cultures, work which Metraux writes “provided the foundation for all her later work.” Metraux, thirteen years younger, was “a very new anthropologist,” recently home from her first exploratory field trip to Haiti. These two women shared, as Metraux writes, “a long-term commitment to understand American culture.”
That commitment, and the desire to communicate their understanding, is everywhere apparent in the book Rhoda Metraux put together after Margaret Mead’s death in November of 1978. Metraux discovered the organizational principle for Aspects of the Present in something Mead had written in her book Blackberry Winter. There, Mead wrote, “I speak out of the experience of my own lifetime of seeing past and future as aspects of the present.” The essays Metraux has collected may or may not be the best from the decade, but they are held together on this thread and through the force of Margaret Mead’s concern for people. Sey Chassler has provided a preface and Rhoda Metraux a foreword for the book.
Metraux has organized the essays under seven headings without regard for their time of composition. Appropriately, sections dealing with the family (“Women in Today’s World,” “American Families Today—and Tomorrow,” and “Children—Our Future”) constitute the heart of the book. The sixth section, “Transitions,” dramatizes Mead’s growing concern for the environment, and the final section, “New Directions,” brings her back to a central concern—the rights and welfare of children. A paragraph from Mead’s “Preliminary Report to the President,” United States National Commission on the International Year of the Child, fittingly and movingly concludes the book.
Aspects of the Present opens with a section called “Looking Back and Ahead,” the first essay of which is a brilliant assessment of the state of “our knowledge about our own humanity” in 1971. Mead rejects the belief that human beings are struggling with loss of faith in old beliefs and suggests, instead, that people are “struggling with new insights that at present are being expressed in many strange and bizarre ways.” From this strong beginning, however, the section descends into essays likely to appeal to the “general” reader but to which Mead can bring no special insights: Unidentified Flying Objects and the occult, no matter how sensibly treated, require competencies Mead never claimed to possess.
The best of the essays in Aspects of the Present are the ones most...
(The entire section is 1481 words.)