Ruth Benedict died on September 17, 1948, of a coronary thrombosis, after a five day illness, just ten days after she had returned from a summer’s teaching and travelling in Europe. She was sixty-one, and had been an active professional anthropologist since 1923.
Her death brought to the world of social scientists, both to those who knew her personally and those who knew her only through her work, a poignant sense of how seldom such a combination of gifts is found in one single human being, how few there are who have the wisdom to bring integration into this transitional phase of our human history, how impoverished by her death is the small community of those who wish to press forward to deeper solutions.
She was born of old American farming stock, six of her ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War, both her mother’s and her father’s parents lived in Norwich, New York, and the homes of her grandparents remained a firm anchorage in her memory. Much of her writing was done on the old farm which she inherited. She remained one of the few anthropologists who could communicate easily with rural people, and her firm sense of her sturdy yeoman antecedents was a refuge, which she articulately recognized, from the uncertainties and incompatible learnings which accompany more recent migration or shifting urban backgrounds. Her father, who was a physician, graduate of New York Homeopathic Medical College, died before she was two, leaving her mother, an early graduate of Vassar, with two young children to support. During a rigorously frugal childhood, Ruth Benedict learned that material things were unimportant, above a certain minimum, but that that minimum was desperately important; this understanding stayed with her in all the years when the small amounts of money which she could find—oftener than they knew from her own resources—for students and young colleagues, were all that made it possible for them to go on being anthropologists at all. Throughout her life she maintained the attitude that money existed to be spent as an underpinning for work, as a way of freeing people to be and do what they could do best.
She graduated from Vassar in 1909, a Phi Beta Kappa, without the sense that her period offered her any intellectual or broad social role which had any meaning. A scholarship year in Europe with two classmates gave her her first cross-cultural experience, and she returned to teach in a secondary school. In 1914, she married Stanley Benedict, who at his death in 1936 was Professor of Biochemistry at Cornell Medical College. During the early years of her marriage, when she hoped for children, she continued to experiment very tentatively without any commitment, with what her culture had to offer—dancing, literature, social work, biography, and poetry. She lacked the concept of culture which was to provide her with an integrating idea, a rubric under which she could classify both the great achievements of the human spirit, and the intractability of that spirit which made some members of each society feel like strangers, with no words ready to their tongues.
Her first work in anthropology was with Elsie Clews Parsons at the New School for Social Research, where she also worked with Alexander Goldenweiser. She then entered the Columbia graduate school to work under Boas, taking the Ph.D. in 1923. During those early years, she began to work on American Indian religion, publishing The Vision in Plains Culture, and later her Ph.D. thesis, The Concept of the Guardian Spirit in North America. Her first field work was done in the summer of 1922, among the Serrano, under A. L. Kroeber’s introductory tutelage, which she always referred to with gratitude for the sensitivity of her initiation. Partially deaf from childhood, field work was never easy for her. She had to limit herself to interviews with English speaking informants or to the use of interpreters, and to the observation of ceremonies where the eye could replace the ear. She had learned lip reading, but was never able to learn new phonetic patterns, and the part of teaching which involved understanding questions or following discussion always remained an ordeal. Two of her characteristics which all those who worked closely with her will remember vividly were the smile which accepted the general position the details of which she had only half caught, and the rephrasing of a question which made the questioner out to be so much more intelligent than had the original question; both were connected with her deafness, combined with her willingness to trust to what she felt were the essential elements in other people and in problems. She had the rare gift of taking the half-articulate groping interest of a student and illuminating it with a warmth which was like an accolade.
Her first teaching appointment was as assistant to Franz Boas, in his undergraduate class at Barnard, in 1922-23. At that time, speaking as well as participating in discussion was still an ordeal, even completing single sentences in front of a group sometimes brought on extreme shyness, and she often wondered if she would ever be able to get through a lecture without miserable stumbling. The long battle to learn to focus attention, lose herself in what she had to say enough, but not too much, was sometimes reflected in recent years when she gave a lecture to an audience of hundreds, by an undercurrent of mischievous gaiety, a lightheartedness which would have seemed almost irresponsible against a different background. She had little rote memory, and a tendency to reduce material rapidly to its essence, to trenchant clear statements of meaning after which all elaboration and illustration seemed unnecessary. This made teaching always a chore, a matter of material to be looked up again and again, organized and reorganized in notes which had to be used in detail. In occasional lectures she achieved an elegance closer to poetry than to common speech. In the most halting lecture there would come, in a student’s phrase, “between the uh and the ah, a bombshell of light which changed everything.”
In 1924 she started teaching in the graduate school at Columbia University, simultaneously working on concordances of American folklore, under a grant from the Southwest Society, which was the institutional name under which Elsie Clews Parsons supplemented the very meager funds available for field work and research. “…between the uh and the ah, a bombshell of light which changed everything.” Ruth Benedict was just too old for any of the fellowships which were just opening up in the field. The anomalousness introduced in her position by her age, was one more factor which added to her feeling for those who by age or sex or temperament or accidents of life history were out of the main current of their culture, and needed special help. But her commitment to anthropology as a career was not yet very deep. She thought the approach was one which reduced a large amount of hitherto incomprehensible material to order, which made it possible to think as well as feel about the complexities of life, an approach which was appropriate for an age in which science was so largely replacing the arts and humanities as the principal path to meaning.
It was not until the medical evidence was definite that she would never have children, that she began to consider a greater commitment to anthropology; and not until her field trip to the Pima in 1927, when she suddenly saw the possibilities of viewing culture, not only as a condition within which personality developed, but as essentially like a personality writ large, that she assumed the responsibility of genuine contribution to anthropological thinking, rather than simply doing chores for anthropology in return for the rewards of using anthropological ways of thought in giving her a personal interpretation of life. The theory which underlay Patterns of Culture was worked out in the winter of 1927-28, and given as a paper at the XXIII Congress of Americanists in the summer of 1928. But it was not until 1931, after three more years of graduate teaching, that she decided to write Patterns of Culture. When Patterns of Culture was published in 1934, she had done eleven years of scholarly, anthropological work, all essentially within the framework of the Boas school, using diffusion data as material for the understanding of process.
Patterns of Culture, translated into five languages, used as text and reference book in hundreds of college courses, giving a first glimpse of what anthropology could mean to the psychological disciplines on the one hand, and to the humanities and an understanding of the arts on the other, remains one of the great books of the second quarter of the twentieth century, responsible for bringing students, scholars, and fellow scientists a sense of how an understanding of culture could increase an understanding of life.
The years between her appointment as assistant professor of anthropology, in 1930, in the Graduate Faculty of Philosophy, Anthropology, and Psychology, and her first sabbatical, in 1938-39—which she devoted to writing Race: Science and Politics—were busy years, covering Professor Boas’ retirement, She suddenly saw the possibilities of viewing culture … like a personality writ large the years when she was acting chairman of the department, the long struggle during the depression to find funds for field work, write-up money, positions for students. She was editor of the Journal of American Folklore, 1928-1939. She directed two summer field trips, one to the Apache, in 1930, and one to the Blackfoot in 1938. Two volumes of Zúni mythology, based on field work in 1924, 1925, and 1927, were published in 1935. She did an immense amount of reviewing, consulting, teaching, advising. Race: Science and Politics was part of the consistent service she rendered to those social movements designed to remove all handicaps based on race or sex, and to building a world in which each human being could act with dignity. The small pamphlet, Races of Mankind, which she wrote with Gene Weltfish, went into millions of copies, was translated into film, and film script and cartoon forms, and has proved perhaps the most important single translation into genuine popular education of the many years of careful research on race differences to which anthropologists have made a major contribution. She was never a crusader, but was rather in the tradition of a consistently religious ancestry who had identified service to mankind with service to God. She felt there were some things which, as an anthropologist, and a human being, one must say and must do, places where one could not keep silent, places where long hours of work on committees, or in revising drafts and manuscripts were essential.
These years of her major teaching activity were the years in which the word culture was becoming a familiar term in the social sciences, the years in which interrelationships between psychology and psychiatry and anthropology were developing. Ruth Benedict was a part of this interdisciplinary movement, and some of its leaders were her close friends. She sat on committees, advised students and older scientists from other fields, and patiently subjected imperfectly conceived research programs to analysis. One of her frequent questions to young psychologists used to be, “Do you want to find out something about the test, or about the people?” If it was about the test, she was not interested. She never considered either the specific methods and the working hypotheses of the social sciences as anything but tools; it was impossible to enlist her interest in teaching even methods of field work itself. The only method she recognized was a method which flowed from an understanding of culture, from a genuine surrender to what the data, derived from the observation of living people, or their words, could give. But as her impatience with what she felt to be a sterile approach was usually expressed by withdrawal rather than active opposition, it did not prevent her making a rich and continuing contribution to interdisciplinary thinking—to which her two papers, “Anthropology and the Abnormal,” and “Continuities and Discontinuities in Cultural Conditioning” are perhaps her two most outstanding theoretical contributions.
In psychology her work acted as a corrective for an approach which often stressed testing hypotheses more than looking for new material; in psychoanalysis her writing focused attention on the variety of ways in which other cultures could order human relationships, which early psychoanalytic theory did not take into account. But her own work remained essentially and almost rigorously anthropological in character, the conceptions which she used came from the philosophies of other cultures—as for example her use of the Dionysian and Apollonian contrast from Greek life—rather than from the hypotheses of contemporary science. More than any other contemporary anthropologist interested in personality and culture, except perhaps Malinowski, her work was dependent upon a comparison of cultural forms, rather than upon the insights and findings of the biological and psychological sciences. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946) was based on an intensive analysis of interview and literary material on themes in Japanese culture; childhood training, and the common items in man’s basic biological nature were drawn upon very slightly. The book has gone a long way to make the culture and personality approach acceptable in circles in which human behavior is more often referred to political and religious institutions than to biology.
Ruth Benedict’s interest in religion was another persistent theme, beginning with her earliest researches on the vision. In an age when religion has been almost completely neglected except in the formal terms in which every ethnologist must deal with it, she considered that the religious systems of primitive peoples were intrinsically interesting, and provided the best materials for comparison with the individual art products of more complex cultures. Her lack of preoccupation with dogma and orthodoxy left her free for a sympathetic study of all religious phenomena. Other occupations prevented her writing anything substantial in the field since the chapter in General Anthropology which was actually written in 1928. The chapter she had planned for a forthcoming volume on psychiatry which was to have been devoted to a discussion of religion is an irreplaceable loss. Perhaps in this area, even more than in her treatment of the varied ways in which relationships between persons were patterned in different cultures, she demonstrated the extent of her possession of one of the great requisites in a pioneer scientist-the willingness to accept the currently discounted or hitherto unknown. The war brought her an entirely new area of interest, the application of anthropological ways of thought to contemporary societies, a reversal of the process by which she had taken her knowledge of her own tradition as background for a deeper interpretation of primitive materials. After a few small consultative memoranda on aspects of Chinese culture relevant to the selection of personnel, on Norwegian attitudes which were essential to an understanding of relief, she accepted a research post in Washington, where she worked consecutively on Romania, Siam, Germany, Holland and to a lesser extent other western European occupied countries, and finally, near the end of the war, on Japan. Here, in addition to teaching in the outpost schools, consulting and writing immediate materials for a variety of purposes, she had an opportunity to develop a new form of application of the culture area approach to these higher cultures.
This war experience left her convinced that anthropology had a substantial contribution to make to understanding between contemporary civilizations, and she returned to Columbia in 1946, after finishing The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, to organize a seminar on European culture, and in the spring of 1947, to undertake a large research project, Research in Contemporary Cultures, under the Office of Naval Research, which combined the functions of research and training. In 1946 there had been a proposal for her to go to Germany to inaugurate and supervise cultural studies of German communities, but the military medical authorities refused to let her go on grounds of health. When in the summer of 1948, she was asked to lecture in a UNESCO summer school in Prague, no doctor’s approval was needed. During this last summer of her life, she visited five countries, Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, Belgium and Holland, whose cultures she had studied by the methods of interviewing used during the war, and had the intensely rewarding experience of finding that observations among the people themselves checked with the hypotheses which she had developed.
Ruth Benedict cared very little about matters of personal status and prestige, yet she realized the importance of such formal considerations in placing students, in getting support for field work, and opportunities to develop new approaches. It was in this sense that she valued the various academic honors and awards which came to her through the years:
She was a figure of transition, binding the broken sureties of a past age, to which she was a full heir, to the uncertainties which precede a new integration in human thinking. We shall not look upon her like again.
This obituary originally appeared in American Anthropologist July - September 1949, New Series 51(3):457-468.
Margaret Mead (1901–78) was an American anthropologist. She studied under Franz Boas, and was also strongly influenced by Ruth Benedict. (Benedict was Boas' teacher assistant when Mead was a student, and she convinced Mead to study anthropology arguing that “professor Boas and I have nothing to offer but an opportunity to do work that matters.”)
Mead had great success in popularizing cultural anthropology, and to the general public in the United States she is maybe the single best known practitioner in the field of ethnography (reflected, perhaps, in the fact that “Margaret Mead” is registered as a trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.)