Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 368

When it was first published, The Golden Bough was considered an insightful work that tied together the widely divergent canon of anthropology into one cohesive theory. The book was praised for its thoroughness and accepted as a major scientific accomplishment. A 1890 review in the Journal of American Folklore, for instance, proclaimed the anonymous reviewer ‘‘grateful’’ to Frazer ‘‘for the exhibition of materials so rich, and for the literary skill with which he has made accessible observations so important to the central ideas of our modern thought.’’ As time passed, however, questions arose about Frazer’s methodology, which consisted of combining works that were gathered through non-scientific methods. His use of hearsay and third-person accounts of cultural practices made anthropologists doubt the value of his work as science.

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Still the book’s reputation as a work of literature grew. It was recognized as having influenced such important twentieth-century thinkers as Freud, Anatole France, Arnold Toynbee, Margaret Mead, and Oswald Spengler. In 1941, noted anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski noted an inconsistency in Frazer’s impact on the intellectual community when he stated that ‘‘Frazer was and is one of the world’s greatest teachers and masters’’ but that, despite his enormous following, ‘‘[h]is inability to convince seems to contradict his power to convert and to inspire.’’ His point was that other writers followed Frazer for his vision and for the far-reaching thoroughness of his theories, even though they did not believe in the actual theories. By the second half of the century, critics found little sense in dwelling on shortcomings in The Golden Bough and instead accepted its impact. Stanley Edgar Hyman, for instance, wrote in 1962 that the book is ‘‘not primarily anthropology, if it ever was, but a great imaginative vision of the human condition.’’ He saw no problem with reading this book, which was meant to be a scientific work, as a work of literature, noting that the author was trained in literature and not in anthropology: ‘‘It is in his original field of classical studies . . . that Frazer may have produced his greatest effect.’’ Since then, many critics have joined Hyman in accepting The Golden Bough as an important piece of literature, but not as an important scientific achievement.

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