Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century

Charles King. Doubleday, $30 (448p) ISBN 978-0-385-54219-7
Georgetown University professor King (Midnight at the Pera Palace) serves up a tasty group biography of trailblazing American women and depicts how the field of cultural anthropology emerged to challenge popular Eurocentric beliefs about human development. Early chapters chronicle how, at the turn of the 20th century, the process of field work turned pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas away from dominant theories of cultural and racial hierarchy, toward a more broad-minded, inductively reasoned approach that took seriously the “many different ways of being human.” The second half of the book follows the adventures and achievements of four notable women Boas trained at Columbia University. Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, both well-known theorists who helped to popularize anthropological insights at midcentury, had an intellectually productive, emotionally supportive lifelong partnership; Zora Neale Hurston and Ella Cara Deloria each applied their anthropological skills outside of traditional academic settings to study and depict their own cultures (African-American and Native American, respectively). King chronicles both the women’s struggles to achieve professional recognition and institutional support in a male-dominated field and the challenges of debunking white supremacy in a period of xenophobia, scientific racism, and imperialist ideologies. King’s prose is energetic, enlivened with delicious quotations, juicy personal details, and witty turns of phrase (“Fieldwork was the destroyer of worlds. Marriages failed. Youthful ambitions came to look quaint.”). This complex, delightful book will get readers thinking and keep them turning the pages. (Aug.)
Reviewed on : 06/10/2019
Release date: 08/06/2019
Genre: Nonfiction
Audio book sample courtesy of Penguin Random House Audio
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