Letters from the Field, 1925-1975 by Margaret Mead

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Margaret Mead was born on December 16, 1901, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, one of five children of Edward Sherwood Mead, a University of Pennsylvania economist, and Emily Fogg Mead. After attending DePauw University for one year, Mead switched to Barnard College, Columbia University. Taking a course with Boas during her senior year led her to make anthropology her life work. After receiving her B.A. from Barnard in 1923, she did graduate work at Columbia under Boas and Benedict. She wrote in 1925 for her Ph.D. a library-based dissertation titled “An Inquiry into the Question of Cultural Stability in Polynesia.” Her first field trip was to the Samoan Islands in 1925 and 1926, where she studied female adolescence in Samoan society.

The resulting book, Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization (1928), made Mead’s reputation in anthropology and was a popular success. The book pictured adolescence in Samoa as a happy, carefree time without the stress and turmoil associated with adolescence in the United States. Mead’s findings were widely read as an indictment of the sexual repressiveness of American society. Even more significant were the work’s implications for the ongoing nature-versus-nurture controversy. Mead underlined that her findings indicated the decisive importance of culture—rather then biology—in determining human behavior. That conclusion became the center of renewed controversy when Derek Freeman’s Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth (1983) accused Mead of misunderstanding not only Samoan adolescence but also the larger Samoan culture. Although he exonerated Mead from deliberate falsification of data, Freeman charged that her ideological commitment to cultural determinism had distorted her interpretation.

The letters from the Samoan trip in Letters from the Field reveal Mead’s excitement, even awe, at “being in a strange land.” They also show a literary artist’s talent for describing vividly the physical landscape, the dress of the people, and ceremonies and customs. The materials shed no direct light on the Freeman-Mead controversy, but there is evidence confirming the superficiality of Mead’s immersion in Samoan culture. At the primary site of her investigation, for example, she lived at the house of the local representative of the United States naval administration rather than in a Samoan household, to avoid “the loss of efficiency due to the food and the nerve-wracking conditions of living with half a dozen people in the same room, in a house without walls, always sitting on the floor and sleeping in constant expectation of having a pig or a chicken thrust itself upon one’s notice.”

After her return to the United States in 1926, Mead was appointed assistant curator of ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History. She would remain associated with the museum for the rest of her career. A Social Science Research Council fellowship in 1928-1929 allowed her to make her second field trip—this time to Manus Island, one of the Admiralty Islands off the coast of New Guinea and part of the Melanesian cultural area—with her second husband, Reo F. Fortune, to study the thought patterns of primitive children. The outcome was her Growing Up in New Guinea: A Comparative Study of Primitive Education (1930).

In the summer of 1930, Mead made a third field trip—to study an American Indian tribe, focusing upon the changing life of...

(The entire section is 835 words.)