How Margaret Mead Won the Second World War and Lost the Cold War
Edited by Peter Mandler
ISBN 9780300187854
RRP £30.00

I like Peter Mandler. He’s written lively yet scholarly books on subjects such as the English national character, traced from Burke to Blair, and even an interesting volume on stately homes and their fall and rise.

So, although at first sight I wouldn’t have guessed that he was working on the then-celebrated twentieth-century American anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978), the subject makes sense on short reflection. Here was, after all, a member of the US Establishment, and yet a perpetually turbulent, trouble child within that context.

Having been born to academic parents within a blue chip ‘power family’, Mead proclaimed herself Anglican. She went off to Samoa to do a PhD and came back with inescapable evidence for sexual behaviour deeply unsettling to a western, Protestant ethic. Papua New Guinea was the follow-up, and Mead, much later, became a poster girl for the sixties. She had views on breast feeding according to a schedule demanded by the baby, not the mother, for instance.

As well as all this, she nurtured personal relations with both genders, fearlessly marrying three times, bucking the chauvinistic values of her generation, and taking up with at least two long-term female partners. One of them, Ruth Benedict, became the subject of whole books. As Mandler puts it, although this is not his quarry as such, “at times their story will sound like a mid-twentieth century joke that begins: There was an American, an Englishman, a homosexual and a scientist…”

Mead virtually invented anthropology as a discipline, and yet her publications attracted vicious slap-downs by male scholars. One in particular, Derek Freeman, was seemingly obsessed with her work and proving why it was, in his eyes, unscientific. Her reputation has collapsed since her death.

For all these reasons she’s a robust subject for revealing the preoccupations of the western mores in the 20th century, but what Mandler does is much more ambitious still. He doesn’t dwell on the Flapper years and the grandmother phase, when Mead was the Oprah Winfrey of her time — and something of an oracle for America.

Instead, he roots around in the period 1939-53, when Mead spent most of her time trying to raise anthropology to the level of economics, as a mainstream, progressive science that could pave the way to a better understanding of different national characters. By the 1960s, says Mandler, “Mead’s role in analyzing national difference in the 1950s appeared to be part of the Cold War, to be repudiated, rather than, as I will be arguing, itself a casualty of the Cold War.”

That argument leads to the view that Mead, whose mind was a legendary steel-trap, was undone by events as much by hubris. As such she is re-accommodated somewhat within this narrative, or at the least returned to flesh and blood as a credible, brilliant person as well as a fallible, stupendously ambitious one.

Whether Mandler’s treatment leads to a revision of Mead’s reputation is moot, but in some sense it doesn’t matter. His argument extends, as he is fully aware, to lots of other human scientists who, to differing degrees, played their patriotic cards in the fifties and sixties. They got tangled up with grant-funding government bodies, only to be absolutely damned to the furthest circle of hell by the post-Vietnam generation who could only see starry-eyed complicity and naivety.

This latest work underscores Mandler’s strength in producing entirely scholarly, ultra-careful work that is still a good read even if you don’t need the copious notes and bibliography. He occupies what I consider to be one of the most desirable history chairs in the world — Professor of Modern Cultural History at Cambridge — and since late last year is the President of the Royal Historical Society.

In fact, Mandler is one of very few UK historians who gets intellectual and cultural history. Rooting it all in a single biography is very wise, but it would be a complete error to see this as only a biography. It is so much more.