Gods of the Upper Air by Charles King

Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century   by Charles King Doubleday, 2019

New from Charles King is a stirring and colorful new account of the birth of the discipline we now think of as anthropology. Gods of the Upper Air (appended by the depressingly customary long-winded subtitle) tells this story in large part as a polyphony of biographies, not just of Franz Boas, the eccentric wizard at the heart of this new discipline, but also of the steadily-widening circle of his adherents, imitators, detractors, and students, a heterogenous group “especially adept at sensing the distance between what is real and what we say is real” - a skill that was born, as King puts if, “because they were living inside a case study.” 

This extended group included not only expected figures like Margaret Mead, whose Coming of Age in Samoa would not only introduce this new practice of anthropology to the wider world but also give it one its earliest imperishable classics, or the brilliant Ruth Benedict, who pioneered some anthropological studies of Japanese society in the wake of the Second World War and wrote the seminal The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,  or the figure who is in many ways the book’s most arresting biographical subject and the one who will surprise the greatest number of readers: the novelist Zora Neal Hurston, met here as a new Barnard graduate trekking through Florida collecting “folktales and jokes, verbal quips and half-true lies” for Boas (and encountering a zombie in Haiti).

These kinds of treks were crucial to the professor’s new conception of the endeavor. “Anthropology should be a conversational science,” King writes about Boas. 

To be an anthropologist was to be committed to the critical refinement of your own experience. That was the whole point of purposefully throwing yourself into the most foreign and remote of places. You had to gather things up before you refined them down.

King’s book bristles with the warts-and-all personalities of these pioneers, and the whole narrative is built on that quest to gather up traditions and lore and refine the understanding of it all in the same broader context of the anthropologists’ own world:

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see racial science, eugenics, colonialism, and the excesses of nationalism for the misguided things they were - and, in their modern guises, still are. The more difficult thing, even for committed cosmopolitans, is to recognize in oneself the errors that Boas and his students were trying to correct. “I have seen and heard,” Hurston wrote in a passage deleted from her autobiography. “I have sat in judgment upon the ways of others, and in the voiceless quiet of the night I have also called myself to judgment.” The most enduring prejudices are the comfortable ones, those hidden up close; seeing the world as it is requires some distance, a view from the upper air.

Gods of the Upper Air is a terrifically readable chronicle of a hobby’s rebirth as a science. It’s a needed reminder that cultures consist of people, rather than the reverse. 

—Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.