Sir James George Frazer Biography

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(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Although Frazer’s theories are not held in high esteem by most modern anthropologists, he was a pioneer in applying the comparative approach to the study of human institutions. At the same time, his writings had a broader intellectual impact that did much to undermine late Victorian ethnocentrism. His masterwork, The Golden Bough, would play a major role in inspiring and shaping twentieth century modernist literature.

Early Life

James George Frazer was born on January 1, 1854, in Glasgow, Scotland, the son of Daniel F. Frazer, a partner in a long-established drug and chemical firm, and the former Katherine Brown. He grew up in a devout Presbyterian household where daily reading of the Scriptures was the rule. Even after abandoning any belief in divine revelation, he would continue to venerate the Bible as “noble literature” (an opinion evidenced in his work of 1895, Passages of the Bible Chosen for Their Literary Beauty and Interest . . .).

After attending local preparatory schools, Frazer went on in 1869 to the University of Glasgow and received an M.A. degree in 1874. His study with the famous physicist Sir William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) was the source of his lifelong belief that the universe was “regulated by exact and absolutely unvarying laws of Nature expressible in mathematical formulas.” Winning a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, he placed second in the first class of the historical tripos in 1878. The following year, he was elected a Fellow of the College. Frazer started his scholarly career as a classicist. His first published work was a revised edition of the writings of the Roman historian Sallust. His more important contributions in this area were his translations of and commentaries upon Pausanias’ Description of Greece (c. 150 c.e.) and Ovid’s Fasti (before 8 c.e.), in 1898 and 1929, respectively.

Frazer’s interest in anthropology was first awakened by his reading of E. B. Tylor’s landmark, Primitive Culture (1871). Frazer would adopt Tylor’s evolutionary scheme of mankind’s progressive development from savagery through barbarism to civilization along with its corollary assumption that contemporary primitive societies represented the earlier stages through which civilized peoples had passed.

An even more decisive influence in shaping Frazer’s future career came from William Robertson Smith. Smith was dismissed in 1881 from his chair of Old Testament exegesis at the Free Church College of Aberdeen because of accusations that he denied God’s authorship of the Bible. Appointed reader in Arabic at Cambridge in 1883, Smith became Frazer’s intellectual mentor. In Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (1889), Smith portrayed Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as “positive religions” owing “their origin to the preaching of great religious innovators.” What most influenced Frazer, however, was Smith’s thesis that earlier religions had been shaped by “the action of unconscious forces operating from age to age.” Smith inspired Frazer’s first foray into social anthropology: “On Certain Burial Customs as Illustrative of the Primitive Theory of the Soul” (1885). More important, Smith was responsible for his selection to write the articles on “taboo” and “totemism” for the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, appearing in 1888. “The researches I made for these articles,” Frazer would recall, “were the beginning of a systematic application to anthropology and especially to a study of the backward races of men whom we call savages and barbarians.”

Life’s Work

Frazer was a poor public speaker. Although he was appointed professor of social anthropology at the University of Liverpool in 1907, he was so temperamentally ill-suited for teaching that he returned after a year to Trinity and remained there for the rest of his life. He was exclusively a library-bound anthropologist. A superb linguist, he knew Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, German,...

(The entire section is 3,260 words.)