Sir James George Frazer Essays and Criticism

Start Your Free Trial

Download Sir James George Frazer Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Essays and Criticism

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

For well over half a century literary audiences have listened to modern artists and critics speak of Frazer’s literariness and its salutary effects upon Modern art and criticism; Eliot found Frazer’s literary ‘‘vision’’ and style an essential component of the emerging Modernist temperament, and by the early sixties Frye and Hyman brought to a culmination the literary usefulness of Frazer’s graceful text for myth and ritual studies. Typical of interdisciplinary relations, however, was the lag between social scientific production and aesthetic appreciation and appropriation: Eliot’s plaudits for Frazer in 1922 (in his Notes to The Waste Land as well as the famous review of Joyce’s Ulysses) coincided with the publication of Bronislaw Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific, a model for the emerging functionalist monograph that would have little use for Frazer’s self-confessed brand of literary social science. Malinowski’s work, however, hardly constituted a radical break with a dominating Frazerian school; in fact, Frazer’s method and ideas had been roundly attacked by leading anthropologists since the turn of the century. Leach’s condemnation of Frazer in 1966, then, was anything but a novel statement in anthropological circles; in fact, the position required such a restatement only because a colleague had attempted a positive reappraisal of the author of The Golden Bough.

Though the sixties and seventies witnessed a thorough historical mapping of Frazer’s literary influence (as seen primarily in studies by Stanley Edgar Hyman and John Vickery), the death of myth criticism in the 1960s signaled a waning of interest in Frazer on the part of literary theorists. Anthropological reality, it appeared, had finally arrested the literary world’s fascination for The Golden Bough. However, Frazer’s text, like the seasonal gods that populate it, will not stay in the ground. The definitive critical biography of Frazer, by Robert Ackerman, has just appeared, a sure sign of increasing interest in Frazer studies. More broadly, recent theories arguing for the metaphorical nature of anthropological writing, made possible by literary criticism’s questioning of the easy referentiality of language, encourage new readings of Frazer’s already ‘‘literary’’ anthropological corpus.

This essay adopts current textual approaches to anthropology in an effort to understand the rhetorical power behind Frazer’s masterwork. The anthropological authority operating in Frazer’s text, I maintain, had significant repercussions in Modernist writing broadly conceived. That rhetorical authority, rooted in an alluring brand of literary comparativism, exerted a powerful influence upon the intricately linked poetics and politics of much Modernist writing. The analysis of The Golden Bough’s textual strategies, then, will not stop with Frazer’s study, but will broaden to the ways in which its rhetorical tactics, and the ideologies underlying them, were duplicated in the texts of a major literary High Modernist—T. S. Eliot—and a prominent myth critic—Stanley Edgar Hyman.

The harshest anthropological attacks leveled at Frazer generally have centered on his reputation as the premier ‘‘armchair anthropologist,’’ the scholar who plundered the various travelers’ reports that made their way into his study in order to draw gross evolutionary comparisons between the present-day ‘‘savage’’ and our Western ancestors. For anthropologists after Malinowski it was precisely the gap between Frazer the theorist and his ‘‘man on the spot’’ fieldworker that posed an insurmountable obstacle to ethnographic accuracy, to capturing the ‘‘native’’ in the pure state.

But as James Clifford and George Stocking have shown, modern ethnography closes this gap by creating the narrator-persona of the anthropologist fieldworker, a dominating figure whose ‘‘field’’ experience supposedly shapes the text. According...

(The entire section is 4,922 words.)