Jane Howard

Margaret Mead: A Life

VTR Date: November 10, 1984

Guest: Howard, Jane


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Jane Howard
Title: ”Margaret Mead: A Life”
VTR: 11/10/84

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. You know, the most rewarding, personally pleasing aspect of presenting The Open Mind over all these years is that I’m free to pick our topics and our guests with an eye to ideas that truly loom large in our national concerns, and personalities who have played truly major roles in their development. From this program’s very beginning, again and again I would ask Margaret Meade to join me here. And always graciously and generously she would give of her time, coming to this table to illumine one great issue or another. This morning I looked back at a transcript of a program Dr. Meade and I did in January. It was January 12, 1957. The subject was homosexuality. And joining Dr. Meade and me was another brilliant commentator on American issues, Max Lerner, for Margaret Meade agreed to come only if I got Mr. Lerner to promise not to call her Maggie on the air. Margaret Meade’s long gone now, though her influence will, I think, live on forever. And today’s program is one of two on that great person. One with her daughter, Mary Katherine Bateson, and today with the distinguished reporter and editor, Jane Howard, whose new Simon and Schuster book, Margaret Meade: A Life, provokes so many wonderful memories of that star in our intellectual firmament. And I do want to thank you so much for joining me today, Ms. Howard.

Howard: Thank you for asking me. I’m happy to be here.

Heffner: Well, you know, there’s a question I want to start off with. And I want to get it straight. And I think when I put it to you you’ll understand why. I made a note to myself, and it’s perfectly true that I did cry as I read your account of the end of Margaret Meade’s life, that of course at the end of your book, and her battle with cancer. And yet I had the feeling that even at the end, at the end of her life and at the end of your book, you wanted somewhat to distance yourself from those of us who probably would have given our own lives for her. And I was fascinated by your own last words, “Lord knows she meant well. And she did well too.” And I wondered whether that meant that in a sense, well, she meant well, and she did well too, that you didn’t’ join the group of us who were so totally, incredibly devoted to her.

Howard: Having spent moiré than five years learning about this woman and talking to 300 or more people to whom she was important for all kinds of reasons, my head became full of many various impressions of her. She was a woman of many ambiguities and contradictions. Anything anybody said about her, someone else was bound to say the exact opposite in a week or two.

Heffner: But you? Where did you come out of all this?

Howard: I think she did mean well, and she did well. I have a feeling of affection and good will toward her at the end, although there were things about her that I think I might not have liked so much had I known her. I think I might have liked knowing her at certain times of her life more than other times.

Heffner: You said that. You said that in the book, because you also indicated that after all those years of work on her, people did ask you, “Well, what did you think of her?”

Howard: “Well, do you like her?” It’s not so simple. Sure, I think she’s, much about her is wonderful, some about her is less wonderful. But she is a figure to reckon with. As someone said, she was one of those who came by and left their footprints, and they led in more trails than many people would ever even dream of attempting to go. She said at one point, “The important thing is, you can be anything you set out to be, but you’ve got to set out”. And that’s what distinguished her from a lot of the rest of us. Well, not you and me and our listeners of course, but some people don’t set out.

Heffner: What do you think If you had to add it all up, what do you think her major contributions were?

Howard: Not entirely as an anthropologist. She was many things besides an anthropologist. She made major contributions in the fields of religion and psychology. But I think mainly as a citizen, as a human being. She was so gifted at juxtaposing and connecting, making intuitive leaps of mind that wouldn’t have occurred to other people. I think her main contribution is not any one particular seminal theory, but what she was, the way her work and life intermeshed.

Heffner: How is she regarded now by the single profession, that of, I mean by that the anthropologists?

Howard: They rushed to her defense last year when her early Samoan work was refuted by Dr. Derek Freeman, the Australian anthropologist. I think the anthropological community was more united on the subject of Margaret Meade after she was, her reputation was attacked than probably it ever was during her lifetime.

Heffner: Because of the nature of what it was that was her major work, or because of the person?

Howard: I think they felt that her contributions by and large had been so great that flawed though her early work may have been, incomplete though her Samoan research by her own admission was, that it wasn’t fair, especially posthumously, to make such an attack on her. That the things she had done, she was such a generous, such a humane woman that she deserved defense on those grounds.

Heffner: Yes, but the defense you suggest came on anthropological grounds. Or was it a matter of defending a wonderfully warm and humane person?

Howard: It was a wonderfully warm and humane person who also made significant contributions as a scientist. Her early work in Samoa was just the beginning. Admittedly it was the springboard from which everything else followed. But she did significant, innovative work in Manas with her second husband, Reo Fortune in Bali, and along the Sepig River in New Guinea with her third husband, Gregory Bateson, and with other later colleagues. Interestingly, after her first Samoan field trip she never went anyplace alone. She took care that she had a husband or a protégé or a friend go with her on all of her subsequent work.

Heffner: Why?

Howard: Because she felt it would be good to have more than one set of impressions. She was very much with a small “s” a social woman. She about the most gregarious person that I’ve ever heard of. She had a Christmas card list of 521 names, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. She cared passionately and convincingly about an enormous number of people who in turn cared very much about her.

Heffner: In your book, which is so fascinating and as I say so evocative for me, and I don’t pretend for a moment that I was close to Margaret Meade, but she was very generous to me in terms of the time that she gave.

Howard: Sure. She didn’t have to come here. She must have done so because she wanted to.

Heffner: Well, I think she probably wanted to for so many of us who belonged in what you described so tellingly as this incredibly extended family of hers.

Howard: Yes. She defined the word “family” very, very generously. She didn’t think that a mother and father and baby or even several babies were nearly enough for anybody. She felt that the nuclear family as we know it in this society was a very limiting thing, that a human being growing up ought to have the fixed and concentrated and affectionate attention not just of a few blood relatives but of a large number of other. And if they didn’t’ have to be blood relatives, if the grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins were not conveniently located, then why not appoint other people who are around to these roles, to what anthropologists sometimes call fictive kinship.

Heffner: Well you know, one of the things that interested me so much about Margaret Meade: A Life, in your writing, was that it didn’t seem to me in all the descriptions that you offered that her own personal family ever felt slighted by the fact that she was available to so many of the rest of us.

Howard: I think they might have felt slighted here and there for moments or maybe days, but they forgave her. One of her oldest friends said, told me something that Margaret had done which was intrusive and offensive, but she said, “I forgave Margaret. People were always forgiving Margaret. You had to forgive her.”

Heffner: What would you say – now, this is a very difficult question, particularly in terms of the attack a year or so ago upon her contributions – what will you say would be the major contribution that she made anthropologically speaking?

Howard: I think that that would be her work with cultural relativity. Her emphasizing the fact that different and distant though other cultures may be, they are just as valid as our own. This seems a simple thing to say, but a lot of people didn’t then and don’t now necessarily believe it. She pointed out that there are ways and ways not only of coming of age in Samoa but of doing almost anything. And that other ways are in no way necessarily inferior to our own, and deserve equal attention.

Heffner: Do you feel that the criticism that that anthropological cultural relativism was damaging ultimately to this society? Do you think there was something to that?

Howard: No, I don’t think it was damaging to this society. I think it was liberating for this society.

Heffner: Well, liberating.

Howard: I think this society could have used and could well use and did use this influence.

Heffner: Well, in looking back at the transcript this morning of the Lerner/Meade program.

Howard: Where she made him promise not to call her Maggie. She was not a Maggie.

Heffner: Did anyone ever call her Maggie?

Howard: Well, I guess people tried to, but she didn’t appreciate it. Several people told me, several avuncular, jovial men said they said to her, “Oh Maggie, don’t do this or that”. And she would bristle and say, “That is not my name!”

Heffner: I hadn’t known that that was a concern of hers until the program, and I didn’t know that it was a general concern of hers. I thought she just didn’t want Max Lerner calling her Maggie on the air. But talking about cultural relativism, their discussion was, one might say about cultural relativism, he seemed to be emphasizing the need within a general acceptance of the fact that there were others besides ourselves and other patterns of behavior. The need for standards, the needs for family standards and national standards. There have been those who have said that this cultural relativism with its liberating influence also is negative in terms of its liberating influence.

Howard: Well, if you just took it indefinitely and had no boundaries or standards whatever, that would be unfortunate and perhaps dangerous. But I think there’s more of a danger of narrow, tunnel-visioned narrow-mindedness. And I think that we need to be prodded more out of that danger than we need this rather fascistic, parental, paternal treatment.

Heffner: Yes, but she herself, within the context of this vastly extended family, larger family, she herself didn’t seem, as I read your book, didn’t seem herself to be one who had no concern for standards, family standards.

Howard: No, she had great concern for family standards. She was very concerned with rituals. She felt very strongly that we paid not enough attention to them in this society. She once asked why shouldn’t there be house coolings as well as housewarmings? And why shouldn’t there be divorce ceremonies, or some acknowledgment made of this major event in many people’s lives, as well as for weddings? And she believed, she was very attentive about funerals and memorial services ad rituals of all kinds.

Heffner: That doesn’t sound to me, and it didn’t read to me like a cultural relativist. Now, maybe I’m missing something.

Howard: Does the one preclude the other? I don’t think it does. You can be involved with the rituals and ceremonies of your own culture, that doesn’t mean you’re contemptuous of others.

Heffner: She really was very much involved with those ceremonies.

Howard: She really was. A lot of her colleagues were astonished to discover that she was a devout Episcopalian. She became that at the age of 11. Her parents were rational, secular academics, agnostics bordering on atheism, bordering on being atheists. And so at the age of 11 in early rebellion against them she announced that she wanted to be baptized and confirmed. And nothing could have horrified her parents more, I think. But they acceded to her wishes and she forever after was a fervently religious Episcopalian.

Heffner: Did you find in your researches – this may seem like a peculiar question – but I refer to this point frequently with my own students in talking about this medium that’s entertaining us or that we’re being entertained by right now – I remember asking Dr. Meade to a, I guess it was a seminar on the impact of television with the Federal Communications Bar Association many years ago. And she came down to Williamsburg and spoke with the staff and stood there.

Howard: Oh yes, her famous cleft stick.

Hefner: Right.

Howard: A great trademark.

Heffner: And it was a great trademark. And she insisted. She said, “Never again in the history of mankind will they be able to pull the wool over our eyes again”. “They” being the interests. Why? Because there was television which would show us what was happening in the world all around the world.

Howard: She was very early to recognize the importance of television, and it was a big factor in the way in which she made herself a national icon, myth, legend. It was very important to her. She handled it well.

Heffner: But it was such a naïve assumption that somehow or other this magical instrument was really going to take us…

Howard: Would get at the real truth?

Heffner: Yeah.

Howard: That was a little naïve, I must say.

Heffner: Was that symptomatic?

Howard: As witness the recent, well, we’re not going to talk about politics, are we? But I don’t think that the people who come across best on television are necessarily the people whom I most wish to govern me, but that’s…

Heffner: Okay, I do get your reference.

Howard: Yes.

Heffner: But I wonder whether, I wondered whether that was symptomatic of a level of naiveté…

Howard: On her part?

Heffner: On her part.

Howard: There were those who did say that she was naive and gullible in some respects, among them the first of her three husbands, Luther Kressman, who has become a good friend of mine in the course of all this research. He said that there were, dignified and true of herself though she was, there were ways in which she really did sometimes miss the point. So, I mean, but we’re all bundles of contradictions, and she certainly was, as I said before.

Heffner: Yes, you do seem to keep coming back to that theme.

Howard: Yes.

Heffner: Certainly in the book, the contradictions. Let’s go back for a moment to the debunking of Dr. Meade’s contributions. What’s happened to that effort to put into question?

Howard: I think that her reputation will survive. I don’t think that it will ultimately be harmed. Her third and favorite husband, Gregory Bateson, said at her memorial service at the Natural History Museum that for years they’ll try to figure out what her contribution was, and they won’t quite know because it’s not easy to put your finger on it, but it will undeniably remain. Her reputation will remain strong. And I think that that is true.

Heffner: Do you think that the cultural relativism…

Howard: Yes, and lots of other contributions that she made, innovations in field work, that sort of thing, and in just drawing the public attention to her work and to her discipline. She was resented by many of her colleagues for being, as they put it, “a mere popularize”. I continually wonder what is so mere about popularizing. If something’s important, why shouldn’t everybody know about it?

Heffner: Well, you’re a popularizer.

Howard: Yes, and so are you, I guess.

Heffner: Right, and…

Howard: And so was she.

Heffner: …so it’s hard for us to see the limitations. But if you were to look at the downside of what she did, have you discovered anything?

Howard: I don’t think she did anything particularly harmful. I think that she spread herself awfully thin, perhaps too thin. I don’t think that her writing is evenly…some of what she wrote was lyrical and wonderful, some of it less so. I think that if she’d asked me, which, since we didn’t know each other, she certainly didn’t, I might have said, “Write less, take a few months off. Or at least take an hour off, take an afternoon off”. But she was driven. She couldn’t seem to stop.

Heffner: I wanted to ask you about that, because in your book this quality of being driven, of not being able to stop, surfaces. Tell me a little bit more about that.

Howard: She was in constant flight. Who knows from what. From herself perhaps. She found it very uncomfortable. If a meeting ended 20 minutes before it was supposed to, this was not for her a wonderful opportunity. She thought, “Do you realize what I could have done with this time?” She liked to have every minute scheduled and structured.

Heffner: You write here about what happened when meetings were cancelled, and…

Howard: Yes, she would be apoplectic. She would say, “Why wouldn’t they have told me I was going to have this time to myself?”

Heffner: Do you think this indicates…I couldn’t help but think as I read the book, were we talking about, were you writing about a mental state, an intellectual state, or a glandular state?

Howard: (Laughter) I never thought of it that way. Perhaps it was all three. I shouldn’t wonder if it were. She was just not a contemplative woman. She urged many people around her to be psychoanalyzed, but this was not for her. She never underwent the procedure herself.

Heffner: Was there any indication that she indicated to herself why not?

Howard: She once said something like “There is no analyst for the upper ten percent of the upper ten percent”.

Heffner: Do you think that’s true?

Howard: No. i3 think it probably isn’t true.

Heffner: Well, you’ve done a lot of work in this area.

Howard: I’m interested in this subject myself, but I’m certainly not an expert on it. But I think that most of us can benefit by a certain amount of supervised introspection.

Heffner: Then how do you account for, let’s assume if you feel that way…

Howard: I don’t want to be arrogant about it, but that is what I think.

Heffner: Okay. You do feel that way. Why do you think she felt that way?

Howard: Maybe she was afraid to open – it’s inelegant to say a can of worms – but that’s what we all see when we contemplate ourselves.

Heffner: it’s funny. You say “maybe”. You’ve never struck me in what you’ve written before as someone who would be hesitant to make wild guesses, not wild in the sense of not based, but guesses anyway. Why do you hesitate here?

Howard: Well, all right. I’ll say that she probably was. She’s a very complicated woman, this woman. I don’t’ want to say that I have the final answers about her.

Heffner: Why not?

Howard: People say, “Oh, you must know everything there is to know about her”. I only know how much I don’t know. Maybe if I’d spent 16 years instead of six I would feel all the more humble about it.

Heffner: That’s a funny word.

Howard: But I have just scratched the surface of this complicated character.

Hefner: But that’s a very strange word, particularly for a journalist.

Howard: Well, this was less journalistic than a lot of things I’ve done. It certainly took more time and more out of me than anything I’ve done before.

Heffner: Why?

Howard: Because in examining her life I had to try to follow some of these many footsteps that she, footprints that she left behind.

Heffner: Do you think that’s to be left to the historian biographer rather than the professional journalist?

Howard: Yes, I think my contribution in doing this book was to try to talk with people who knew her well while they were still here and able to be talked to. The archives will remain. Her scholarly papers will be here presumably indefinitely for future generations to examine and assess. But I think the contribution that I tried to make in this book was to talk to the people who, as many as I could of the people who were important to her who will not be here indefinitely. Indeed, her second husband died just a couple of weeks before he and I were supposed to have an interview in Cambridge, England, where he lived. So there was a certain urgency about trying to see some of these people.

Heffner: Is there some sense – again a peculiar question, but it comes from the book, from my reading of the book – was there some sense of reluctance or reticence(I don’t know quite what the word is) on your part to form overarching conclusions to, not to jump to them, but to come to an evaluation of this woman? Because you are, you are very even-handed here, and you seem to be very reluctant…

Howard: To say, “This is true. On the other hand, so is that”?

Heffner: No, you’re saying, “This is true, and on the other hand, so is that”. I wondered when I started to read the book whether I was going to find some clear – no, not clear; I do find a very clear picture of Margaret Meade – but some very personal picture of Margaret Meade from Jane Howard.

Howard: Well, I’m neither a muckraker nor am I a hygeographer. And I’m presenting the views of other people. And I guess that’s my picture, what they say is what I came to think.

Heffner: What do you think is going to happen in the future in terms of the evaluation of Margaret Meade?

Howard: I think that she will remain a figure of historical importance. We will look back on her, as we do on Will Rogers, as we do on Eleanor Roosevelt, as we do on certain other great American personalities, as somebody whose stature is assured and will endure.

Heffner: that’s interesting, because when you talk about personalities, and you mention Mrs. Roosevelt and Will Rogers, you’re not talking about scientists who have made specific contributions, you’re talking about, as you said before in describing Dr. Meade, citizens.

Howard: Yes. This is a book of course about an anthropologist, about a scientist, but it is also a book, largely a book about a person, a very humane, gregarious human being who fought for and won the attention of not only her nation but the world at large.

Heffner: Do you think that that’s…you know, you talk about Eleanor Roosevelt, you talk about Will Rogers. I talked about Will Rogers today, or I’ll take a little bet that for many of the people watching this program now the name Will Rogers may register…

Howard: They’ll say, “Oh yeah, he’s somebody I ought to know”.

Heffner: Somebody. Somebody. But I don’t think they’d be able to identify him. Eleanor Roosevelt, that’s different. I remember a young schoolgirl seeing a picture of Eleanor Roosevelt on my wall and saying, “Wasn’t Franklin Roosevelt her husband”?

Howard: Oh, yeah.

Heffner: Okay. But I wonder whether that doesn’t indicate that Margaret Meade will be remembered sort of the way Will Rogers was, again…

Howard: As a mythic folk figure…

Heffner: Yeah.

Howard: I think she probably will. And more than as a scientist, per se. but people who were interested in her as a folk figure can learn about what she did, which was considerable.

Heffner: Are there scientists today who are building upon her contributions?

Howard: Oh yes, a whole generation of younger anthropologists. Nobody of her stature has to my knowledge emerged as that conspicuous a figure. But she had many, many protégés and students who are following in various paths in which she directed them originally.

Heffner: And which of the books would you say, as you’ve discussed this with anthropologists and others, will loom largest?

Howard: Of her books?

Heffner: Yes.

Howard: Sex and Temperament is a book that I think holds up well. Coming of Age in Samoa is a classic, although it has been found to be dated certainly. But I like Sex and Temperament myself. And Male and Female has some provocative things in it as well.

Heffner: Which was the one that became most popular, Male and Female?

Howard: I think Sex and Temperament was more popular, yes.

Heffner: But Male and Female did seem to relate as much as possible to what was going on in this country.

Howard: Oh she had a wonderfully accurate idea about where America’s thoughts were, what was on the national mind and in the national mood. At all times she had this. She was very prophetic.

Heffner: You use the word “accurate” and “prophetic” now. What do you mean?

Howard: She sensed what we were going to care about five or ten years before we did care about it. It was very intuitive of her.

Heffner: And yet she was very positive, and people today are not terribly positive about what we have become.

Howard: No, she wasn’t entirely positive about what we have become or might become either. On her gravestone is inscribed the legend: “To Cherish the Life of the World”. And she was very afraid, with good reason in my opinion, that we would not cherish the life of the world. She was well aware of the imminent danger of annihilation of the human race and the planet. She wasn’t just Mrs. Optimism.

Heffner: Well I, I didn’t really mean that. I didn’t mean our relationship in the United Nations, our relationship with the world outside.

Howard: Yeah.

Heffner: I mean what was happening to us in our society, the relationship of male and female.

Howard: Yes. Oh, I see. Yeah.

Heffner: do you think that there was a great deal more optimism there?

Howard: Yes, I think that was one of the reasons she won such a wide following. She herself was divorced three times, so she could say with some authority when the wave of divorce, the epidemic of divorce came over, it seemed, the whole nation, she would say, “Now, come on, that’s not so terrible. We can pull ourselves together if we are rejected by our husbands. That is not necessarily the end of our lives”. And she was a very comforting, reassuring figure.

Heffner: You mention – one brief, last question – you mentioned a number of times on this program about her various husbands, and in the book certainly that’s a major theme. Why?

Howard: But it’s not the only theme of her life. She had three…many women don’t have three marriages. (Laughter). Many women don’t have 521 Christmas card lists. And lord knows how many, former brothers-in-law was a big category in her life. She kept in touch with her ex-in-laws as well as with her present ones.

Heffner: I knew that you would get back to that point. Thank you again for joining me today, Jane Howard.

Howard: Thank you very much for asking me.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”