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J. G. Frazer

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

It would be difficult to find a modern anthropologist, archaeologist, classicist, or religionist who has not encountered and been influenced by the enormous body of works written by Sir James George Frazer. His 1898 translation and commentary of Pausanias’ Perigsis ts Hellados (c. 150 c.e.; Description of Greece) which fills six thick quarto-sized volumes bound in characteristic forest green, and his magnum opus which ensured recognition of comparative anthropology as a scholarly discipline, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1890), the third edition of which fills eleven quarto volumes not counting its full-volume general index, remain essentials in every university library and continue to be reprinted. Bookstores, even those catering primarily to popular taste, stock Theodor H. Gaster’s one-volume abridgment The New Golden Bough (1959) in inexpensive paperback format. Were Frazer to have written nothing else, these two works would have assured his reputation; nevertheless, he did write more, much more, everything from translations and commentaries of the second century c.e. mythographer Apollodorus and Fasti (before 8 c.e.; English translation, 1929) of the Roman poet Ovid to editions of the eighteenth century essayist Joseph Addison and the poet William Cowper. In short (if one can apply that word even indirectly to Frazer, who never wrote anything that was not compendious), Frazer’s mark on intellectual history is indelible and profound.

With Frazer’s greatness duly noted, one must also remark that to a large extent his popularity has always resided with educated general readers rather than scholars and specialists. Since World War II especially, but even in the last years of Frazer’s life, anthropologists have turned to psychology to explain similarities in the rituals of geographically distant cultures, and French structuralists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss have come to the fore. Even among classicists (Frazer’s own formal training was in Greek and Latin), Frazer’s Victorian translations annd digressive commentaries often elicit smiles.

Why, then, did Robert Ackerman write a life of Frazer? There are several good answers to this question. First, before Ackerman’s treatment, no scholarly outline on the development of Frazer’s thought existed. Robert Angus Downie’s James George Frazer: The Portrait of a Scholar (1940) is a well-intentioned appreciation written by Frazer’s former secretary. It was written under a commission by Lady Frazer with the stipulation that not even a hint of criticism appear. Ackerman’s work properly sets Frazer’s scholarship in its historical context, notes where it has become outmoded, and indicates the new directions comparative anthropology, archaeology, and classical studies have taken in these areas since Frazer’s death. Second, unlike Downie’s book, Ackerman’s deals relatively little with Frazer’s private life, his nonacademic concerns, or external facts not directly relating to Frazer’s work. Ackerman’s is a scholarly biography which therefore logically deals with Frazer’s scholarship. He considers each of Frazer’s works, from the early article “Totemism” (1885), written originally for the Encyclopaedia Britannica (and which along with another article, “Taboo,” influenced Sigmund Freud) to the masterful four-volume Totemism and Exogamy (1910). More important, Ackerman discusses, in reference to the latter work, the scholarly influences and broadened knowledge which allowed Frazer to develop a more than one-thousand-page work from a slim early volume of only eighty-seven pages.

As one might guess, Ackerman’s biography does not pander to readers who desire to discover little-known or possibly sordid details of Frazer’s private life. He appropriately skirts the contemporary taste for psychological hypothesis and neatly distills the massive body of Frazer’s thought into an amazingly short volume. Ackerman’s is a study that will be read with most...

(The entire section is 1,770 words.)