Article abstract: Depicting culture as an integrated set of traits chosen from the vast range of behavioral possibilities, Benedict directed the focus of American anthropology in the 1930’s and 1940’s toward the search for describable cultural configurations.
Two traumatic events, one physical and one psychological, profoundly affected Ruth Fulton as a child. In 1889, Ruth’s father, Frederick Fulton, a gifted homeopathic surgeon, died at the age of thirty-one. His young widow Beatrice Shattuck Fulton publicly expressed her immense grief, insisting that twenty-one-month-old Ruth view her father in his coffin, an image which retained potency for Ruth throughout her life. Shortly after her father’s death, she began exhibiting signs of emotional trauma, initially with violent tantrums in which members of her family feared for her safety and that of her sister Margery, and later as she became old enough to check her temper, through bouts of depression. Ruth was emotionally withdrawn as a child, preferring solitude and shunning physical contact. She idolized her dead father and disliked her mother, whose frequently recurring expressions of grief Ruth found appalling. Her traumatic response to her father’s death was exacerbated by substantial hearing loss sustained as a complication from measles. The condition had occurred when Ruth was an infant, but was left undiagnosed until she was five years old. Her partial deafness contributed to her surliness and isolation from her family.
During Ruth’s childhood, her mother uprooted her family several times in search of employment before finally settling in Buffalo, New York, where she became head librarian for the Buffalo Public Library. Beatrice Fulton’s pay was relatively low, but the job provided security. Although the family settled in the prosperous upper-middle-class area of the then thriving city, the Fultons were poor in contrast to their neighbors. As scholarship students, Ruth and Margery attended the private St. Margaret’s Academy where they were distressingly aware of their poverty relative to their socially privileged schoolmates.
After attending Vassar on a full scholarship, Ruth Fulton sought to balance the desire for public accomplishment with personal satisfaction. She returned to Buffalo after graduation, and for two years she was employed as a social worker. She then moved with her family to California where she taught school in a private girls’ academy. Both occupations left her unfulfilled and bored. Her marriage in 1914 to Stanley Benedict, a talented young biochemist, and their subsequent move to the New York City suburb of Bedford Hills, left her similarly unsatisfied. Although she wrote poetry, which she published with moderate success under the pseudonym Anne Singleton, and feminist biographies which at the time remained unpublished, she found domestic life and suburban isolation abhorrent. Winter-induced depressions led her to seek external fulfillment and in 1919, at the age of thirty-one, Benedict enrolled in graduate work at the New School for Social Research in New York City. Later, through the influence of anthropologists Elsie Clews Parsons and Alexander Goldenweiser, she met and convinced Franz Boas of Columbia University to admit her to the doctoral program in anthropology.
Assisted by Boas’ acceptance of her coursework from the New School of Social Research, Ruth Benedict earned her Ph.D. in three semesters. As Boas’ graduate teaching assistant, personal friend, and aide, and later as a lecturer in anthropology, she assumed a progressively significant role at Columbia.
Her 1923 dissertation, “The Concept of the Guardian Spirit in North America,” was the result of library research rather than fieldwork. While narrow in scope, her study contributed to the knowledge of American Indian religion and myth. Although she took several trips into the field, including excursions made between 1922 and 1926 to the Serrano, Pima, and Zuni, Benedict’s partial deafness made the collection of oral myths and folk culture difficult. Because she used lip reading to enhance her limited hearing, it was impractical for her to immerse herself in a foreign linguistic tradition, depending instead on interpreters for interviewing informants. Benedict’s forte was interpreting and organizing other anthropologists’ data. Her expertise was most evident in her 1934 publication of the seminal Patterns of Culture, in which she...
(The entire section is 1856 words.)