Elsie Clews Parsons: Inventing Modern Life

By Desley Deacon | Go to book overview

EPILOGUE

BY CATHARINE R. STIMPSON

BORN to affluence and privilege, Elsie Clews Parsons rejected the ease and indulgences of both. She fought to have a vital life and succeeded. She was adventurous in mind and body, courageous, original, creative. She also had her complexities and limits. One sign of a vital life is the quality of the memories it inspires. She deserves the immense integrity, clarity, sweep, and fullness of this new and unmatched biography.

After her death on 19 December 1941, Parsons received tributes and admiring obituaries. After World War II, historians of anthropology never wholly neglected her. The emergence of women's studies in the late 1960s increased interest in her career. However, Elsie Clews Parsons proves how much more there was for subsequent generations to know. So doing, it provokes readers to ask obvious questions: why did anthropology push Parsons toward the margins of its records, why did modern intellectual and cultural history tend to forget her? Because she was a woman? Because her circumstances both permitted and forced her to work outside of the academy? Because, in her free-ranging independence, she bends any grid of interpretation out of shape?

As Desley Deacon demonstrates, to ignore Parsons is to ignore important elements in the history of modernity. Indeed, a biography of Parsons, that is, the writing of a life, is inseparable from an aeonography, that is, the writing of a time. To ask what Parsons saw, heard, touched, smelled, wanted, thought, and taught is to grasp how very much was at stake in the invention of the modern. Like others, she wanted to kill the nineteenth century--in part because its conventions were killing her. Recently, I had an experience that symbolized for me how suffocating the nineteenth century must have seemed for rebels like Parsons. I was in a Victorian house that had been restored and refurbished to a fare-thee-well. After one evening, I felt that if I had to walk by one more fringe, one more furbelow, one more swirling pattern, I would run screaming out

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