Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Their Circle
By Lois W. Banner
(Vintage, Paperback, 9780679776123, 576pp.)
Publication Date: December 7, 2004
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A uniquely revealing biography of two eminent twentieth century American women. Close friends for much of their lives, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead met at Barnard College in 1922, when Mead was a student, Benedict a teacher. They became sexual partners (though both married), and pioneered in the then male-dominated discipline of anthropology. They championed racial and sexual equality and cultural relativity despite the generally racist, xenophobic, and homophobic tenor of their era. Mead’s best-selling Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) and Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935), and Benedict’s Patterns of Culture (1934), Race (1940), and The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), were landmark studies that ensured the lasting prominence and influence of their authors in the field of anthropology and beyond.
With unprecedented access to the complete archives of the two women—including hundreds of letters opened to scholars in 2001—Lois Banner examines the impact of their difficult childhoods and the relationship between them in the context of their circle of family, friends, husbands, lovers, and colleagues, as well as the calamitous events of their time. She shows how Benedict inadvertently exposed Mead to charges of professional incompetence, discloses the serious errors New Zealand anthropologist Derek Freeman made in his famed attack on Mead’s research on Samoa, and reveals what happened in New Guinea when Mead and colleagues engaged in a ritual aimed at overturning all gender and sexual boundaries.
In this illuminating and innovative work, Banner has given us the most detailed, balanced, and informative portrait of Mead and Benedict—individually and together—that we have had.
Lois Banner has taught at Rutgers University, Princeton University, the University of Scranton, Hamilton College, the University of Maryland, and George Washington University. She is currently Professor of History and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California and is a past president of the American Studies Association and the Pacific Coast Branch, American Historical Association. Her previous books include American Beauty; In Full Flower: Aging Women, Power, and Sexuality; and Finding Fran: History and Memory in the Lives of Two Women. She and her husband live in Santa Monica, California.
"Banner has intertwined not only the lives of Mead and Benedict, but all the assumptions about women and sex in the first half of the twentieth century. The history of anthropology has never been so plainly set forth. An amazing, invaluable, unprecedented book--a delight to read."
--Carolyn Heilbrun, author of Writing A Woman's Life
"A most amazing, magnificent, and very moving chronicle of Lesbian brilliance. Lois Banner continues to break down bigoted barriers and write real history."
--Larry Kramer, author of The Normal Heart
"Intertwined Lives is a luscious detective story in which Banner ingenuously finds the clues and breaks the codes critical to understanding these two giants of American intellectual life and the bond between them. Banner has written a rich and incisive biography of their relationship, but she has also written a book that helps us make sense of that pivotal cultural shift as the Victorian sexual system gives way to the modern. How did people born into the Victorian world, but coming of age in the modern, negotiate this transition? Here, Banner allows us to see Mead and Benedict up close as they grapple with, even as they help shape, a new order that holds both pleasures and terrors for hem. A canny book and a must-read for anyone interested in the history of sexuality and gender."
--Alice Echols, author of Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin
"Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict loved anthropology, and they loved each other. They concealed that second love during their lifetimes, but left ample clues for a bold and sensitive biographer to recreate the richness of their shared personal and professional lives. Lois Banner is that biographer."
-- Susan Ware, editor of Notable American Women
"Intertwined Lives is an enticing and gorgeous adventure story about two brilliant divas, whose intellectual travels also involved extraordinary experiments in friendship and sexual love. Banner's approach to these amazing women is both erudite and wonderfully imaginative."
--Christine Stansell, author of American Moderns
"An engrossing narrative....bringing Mead and Benedict to life and placing
then with their circle of friends in a lovely mosaic."
-- Christopher Carbone, Washington Post Book World
"A brilliant introduction to two women who stood in the vanguard of a new America."
--Jamie Spencer, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"A major work, impressive in its depth and breadth."
-- Joan Gartland, Library Journal