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'Gods of the Upper Air' review: Renegade anthropologists

"Gods of the Upper Air" by Charles King

"Gods of the Upper Air" by Charles King (Doubleday) Credit: Penguin Random House

GODS OF THE UPPER AIR by Charles King (Doubleday, 428 pp. $25).

As “Gods of the Upper Air” begins in August, 1925, the shipboard figure steaming into a South Sea island harbor is a 23-year-old Pennsylvanian hauling a typewriter, cheap notebooks and a laundry list of chronic ailments.

Readers of Lily King’s 2014 bestseller “Euphoria” will identify Margaret Mead instantly, a few beats before Charles King names her in his beguiling book, grandly subtitled “How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century.”

King, a Georgetown University professor of international affairs and government, made his authorial reputation with well-researched, readable nonfiction. He likes to immerse in a particular place, such as “Odessa” or “Midnight at the Pera Palace,” a book about Istanbul. This vivid new title is a departure, geographically diffuse and framed as a history of ideas.

Like Sarah Bakewell in her marvelous 2016 “At the Existential Café,” King lets a fascinating, contentious cadre of friends, lovers and rivals carry his argument that our rigid human hierarchies are balderdash.

Mead is one crusader; her lover and professor Ruth Benedict is another. She toiled for terrible wages and navigated crushing sexism but her research, and her bestseller “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” shaped post World War II Japan. Another inimitable scientist is Zora Neale Hurston, whose fieldwork still yields posthumous gold. Witness last year’s publication of “Barracoon,” the 1927 testimony of a man who survived the Middle Passage.

King writes that Hurston’s 1935 book “Mules and Men” demonstrates that “there was a distinctive there to be studied in the swampy southeastern [Florida] landscape she knew from childhood — not a holdover from Africa, or a social blight to be eliminated, or a corrupted version of whiteness in need of correction, but something vibrantly, chaotically, brilliantly alive.”

A fourth foundational anthropologist went by the name Ella Cara Deloria but was born Anpetu Waste Win or Beautiful Day Woman on the Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota. She lived out of her car; her last mailing address was a motel, but her research and writing created bedrock knowledge, an indispensable bridge into the subtleties of Plains Indians languages and rituals for inquisitive, wrong-headed white Easterners.

For their efforts, King writes, “they were dismissed from jobs, monitored by the FBI, hounded by the press, all for making the simple suggestion that the only scientific way to study human societies was to treat them all as parts of one undivided humanity.” In the end, Mead’s cape and walking stick went on permanent display at the Smithsonian.

But in the early to mid-20th century, this core of intrepid women all found their footing through the offices of the gruff, brilliant Franz Boas, chair of anthropology at Columbia University.

A German Jewish immigrant with a face full of scars — dating to sword duels during his college days — Boaz struggled to find regular employment well into his 40s. At Columbia, a few graduate students from Barnard trickled across Broadway to enroll in his classes. He wrote a colleague about a curious development: “All my best students are women.”

The spine of “Gods of the Upper Air” runs through Boaz. Hurston must wait 189 pages for her due; Deloria 232. King puts the protegees in orbit around a tireless, wild-haired genius who, retiring as Hitler invaded the Low Countries, declared, “I will try to clean up some of the nonsense being spread about race these days. Here also people are going crazy.”

Then, as now, Aryan-inflected German superiority looked to the United States for the rhetoric and theory to keep the mongrels out.  

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