Elsie Clews Parsons: Inventing Modern Life

By Desley Deacon | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
New Science

ELSIE Clews Parsons observed accurately in 1909 that she required a time-consuming occupation to preserve her peace of mind--or "serenity," as she termed her ideal state of being. And her heartfelt cry to Herbert, during their 1912 confrontation, for companionship in new places, was as much a plea for adventurous intellectual companionship as it was for a partner in physical adventures. Her forays into the American Southwest in 1910 and 1912 brought her into contact with an extraordinary group of young New York anthropologists who quickly became challenging intellectual partners. In these young men (later joined by a number of young women), Parsons found a sympathetic and admiring collegial circle. And through them she found the vital thread that, along with her children, kept the diffuse parts of her life together. With stimulating work to pull from her ever-present book bag, she was always able to telegraph from New Mexico, or Barbados, or Haiti, "All serene."


A New American School

When Parsons first made contact with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, during 1911 or early in 1912, a group of Young Turks were in the process of revolutionizing American anthropology. All except Pliny Goddard, the museum's associate curator of ethnology, were former students of Franz Boas at Columbia University. The central figures were three Jewish- Americans, Alexander Goldenweiser, Robert Lowie, and Paul Radin. Closely linked to them, though distant geographically, were Alfred Kroeber at Berkeley and Edward Sapir in Ottawa. Through the unlikely pages of the Journal of American Folklore, this maverick group had become, by 1912, the voice of a new anthropology, which they called, with the arrogance of youth, "the American School."

In 1912, Franz Boas was fifty-four years old and was just begin-

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