Anthropologists and Novelists

Tim Watson’s Culture Writing surveys the border between anthropology and literature in the years following World War II. Watson provides illuminating ...

Tim Watson’s Culture Writing surveys the border between anthropology and literature in the years following World War II. Watson provides illuminating readings of British social anthropology in relation to novels by Barbara Pym, and of North American cultural anthropology in relation to novels by Ursula Le Guin and Saul Bellow. There are also chapters on Édouard Glissant and Michel Leiris, working in the French tradition (in which the border between literary and ethnographic writing was configured differently than it was in the Anglo-American tradition). While anthropologists will find much of value in Watson’s individual readings, they may find his broader sketch of their disciplinary history to be seriously askew, as I shall suggest in what follows.

The main characters of Culture Writing are literary authors who had close connections to anthropology, the fictional anthropologists those authors created, and anthropologists who wrote about their work in literary genres that were not professionally conventional for them at the time. Discussing fictional anthropologists created by novelists who knew a lot about anthropology—and relating those characters and the novels in which they appear to the state of professional anthropology of the time—is a genuinely creative critical move.

But this mixed cast of characters, who work well together in readings of individual texts, creates historiographical confusion, as Watson conflates academic disciplines (literary studies, anthropology) and literary genres (novels, memoirs, ethnographies). “Anthropology and literature have been engaged in a mutual dialogue for more than two hundred years,” he writes, referring to the “ethnographic” impulses of “the nineteenth-century novel.” Yet, anthropology as such did not exist 200 years ago, and historical connections between 19th-century writers who remain important to today’s literary scholars and anthropologists ought not to be confused with historical connections between two 20th-century disciplines: literary studies and anthropology.

Such distinctions matter because the “literary turn” of Anglo-American anthropology in the 1980s is central to the story Watson tells. That term refers to the brouhaha within anthropology caused by the 1986 publication of Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by James Clifford and George Marcus.1 Always caught between humanistic and scientific, or interpretive and objectivist, orientations to research and writing, anthropologists were used to questioning the epistemological status of the knowledge they created. But at the end of the 20th century, anthropology became an object of study for intellectual historians and literary critics. While some of us anthropologists found discussions of “anthropology and literature” and “the history of anthropology” to be intellectually productive, others saw them as a distraction from the work at hand.

Discussing fictional anthropologists created by novelists who knew a lot about anthropology is a genuinely creative critical move.

Watson’s Culture Writing stakes its claim, for better or worse, against Writing Culture. Watson focuses on “a relatively neglected period in the anthropology-literature exchange: the mid-20th-century period between the end of World War II and the mid-1960s, after the moment of high modernism and before the postmodern turn.” He proposes that Clifford and Marcus missed the fact that “the ‘literary turn’ in anthropology in fact began significantly earlier” than the 1980s, “with women writers and ethnographers like Laura Bohannan, Ursula Le Guin, and Barbara Pym in the 1950s.”

And yet, Watson is well aware that there had been an earlier literary turn, the high modernist moment, in which “literature and anthropology developed in tandem, with multiple borrowings, rapprochements, and dialogues.” Should we ask Watson, then, why the literary turn of the 1950s did not begin “earlier”—in the 1920s?

The answer to such an impertinent question might be that Watson needed an elder to overthrow, and he chose Clifford for the role. He picks a quarrel with Clifford over his treatment of Bohannan’s Return to Laughter.2 In Writing Culture, Clifford wrote that beginning in the 1960s, the conceit of the anthropologist as an objective observer and narrator began to break apart, as it dawned on anthropologists that an ethnography’s objectivity might be “textually constructed.” Bohannan, he argued, was working before such an idea could be entertained in the professional literature, and so she wrote her account of fieldwork not as a memoir (which would have required that she fess up to her lack of objectivity), but, using a pseudonym, as a novel.

Clifford makes what Watson thinks is a serious error, that is, enclosing novel in scare quotes: “Bohannan … had to disguise … her fieldwork narrative as a ‘novel.’”3 Watson pounces on those scare quotes to claim that they “indicate Clifford’s continued commitment to the truth claims of anthropology,” which most people who have read the body of Clifford’s work will find unlikely. After all, Clifford’s declaration that “ethnographic texts are orchestrations of multivocal exchanges occurring in politically charged situations,” to take but one example, hardly sounds as if it is coming from someone with a naïve “commitment to the truth claims of anthropology.”4


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So it would seem that such an interpretation is more about slaying the elder than grappling with his ideas, an impression confirmed by what follows from Watson: “Bohannan, I would emphasize, wrote a novel, not a ‘novel,’ and … I undertake one of the very first analyses of Return to Laughter that takes it seriously as fiction, rather than viewing it as a disguised report from the field.”

Without pursuing further the question of quotation marks, we can note that a claim to go where no one has gone before sounds vaguely imperialist—whether coming from an anthropologist or a literary critic—and too clever by half. Indeed, the title of Watson’s book is too clever by half. Clifford and Marcus’s edited volume, Writing Culture, became a canonical text so quickly that it was followed by Women Writing Culture, which took the ur-volume to task for leaving women out of the literary turn (a tack which, as we have seen, Watson takes); an encyclopedia entry entitled “Writing Culture” (along with “War,” the “Wild Yam Question” and “World-System Theory” among the Ws); and then by Writing Culture and the Life of Anthropology, which took the 25th anniversary of the first volume as an occasion to celebrate and historicize it5

So we should, I suppose, have been able to predict that something called Culture Writing would come along. But, alas, the title is not a happy one to use, at least in reference to one of the book’s main characters: the novelist Barbara Pym. For, as is well known, the British social anthropologists—whom Pym knew and wrote about—did not embrace the term “culture.”

I learned this firsthand from Meyer Fortes, one of the leading proponents of the British school, who was teaching at the University of Chicago during my first quarter (1973) as a graduate student there. He told me, politely but firmly, “I don’t like the term ‘culture,’ Richard. I prefer to speak of ‘custom.’” Indeed, Fortes and his colleagues didn’t place much theoretical stock in either term—“custom” or “culture”—since, for British social anthropology, social structures and institutions, the on-the-ground realities of human life, were of more interest than the “vague abstraction” they considered culture to be.6

Pym’s characters do speak occasionally of both culture and custom. But as we should expect of an author who spent decades working as an editor for the International Africa Institute in London, they place far more stock in social structure. For example, in Pym’s Less Than Angels, Alaric Lydgate, “a retired colonial administrator,” compensates for his inability to write up his own ethnographic material by writing nasty book reviews. In one scene, he excoriates an author for his ignorance “of some of the elementary facts underlying the social structure of these peoples”; but the narrator adds, snidely, that in Lydgate’s own long career, he “had produced nothing more than a few articles on such minor aspects of their culture as incised calabashes and enigmatic iron objects.” No wonder another character, Tom Mallow, a graduate student writing his thesis on a “tribe” that Lydgate, too, had worked with, dismissed the importance of the administrator’s field materials by pointing out, “these people [colonial administrators] are usually rather weak on social structure.”7 In short, Pym and her characters were far less interested in culture writing than they were in “social structure writing.”

The question is raised as to why anthropologists of the period did not recognize a literary turn in the discipline.

Does such a distinction matter? Well, yes, it still mattered when I was a student and was taught to ponder the differences between the terms “culture” and “social structure”; between the competing national anthropological traditions aligned with them (those of North America and Great Britain, respectively); and between the differing epistemological sources of each: German romanticism and idealism for culture, and British empiricism for social structure. To have been told at that moment that the great British social anthropologists we read were “culture writers” would have seemed almost nonsensical to us. To have been told that the recent past of our discipline—the postwar moment that Le Guin’s father, the distinguished anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, called Anthropology Today, in an important “encyclopedic inventory” he edited in 19528—experienced a “literary turn” would have seemed equally nonsensical.

And yet, Bohannan’s Return to Laughter was well enough known to us. We knew of Pym’s anthropologists. We knew that W. Lloyd Warner’s famous multivolume study of the social structure and rituals of a small New England city (Newburyport, MA) was reflected in the novelist John Marquand’s portrayal of the same place.9 And we knew that anthropology was not going to be able to practice business as usual in the wake of decolonization, the US Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War and, within our discipline, epistemological critiques of such key concepts as culture, social structure, ethnic group, and tribe. Landmark publications from the early 1960s onward spoke of the historical invention of such concepts and the consequent need to reinvent anthropology.

Thus, while we did not see our discipline making a literary turn (or recovering from one), there were more than enough prophets of other turns. There was not yet a glimmer of Watson’s alleged literary turn.

It is precisely the fact that we didn’t know what to make of the writers Watson discusses that will make his book valuable to anthropologists. Each of the five substantive chapters on individual authors, books, and traditions presents fascinating readings of the central authors (mentioned above) and various anthropological persons, texts, ideas, and institutions to which they were connected and responded.

In the chapter on Pym, for example, Watson refutes the image of Pym as a sort of postwar Jane Austen, narrowly focused on traditional patterns of kinship and marriage. Instead, he shows us that the social order in 1950s England depicted by Pym was a world that included “non-heteronormative ties,” which her anthropologically knowledgeable characters both observe and participate in. Moreover, Watson connects Pym’s social analysis to the emergence (especially in the work of her friend, Mary Douglas) of new ways of imagining and analyzing kinship, which were articulated at a moment when the functionalist paradigm in British social anthropology apparently reigned supreme in the discipline, but was destined for a fall. Finally, through Watson’s readings we can see that Pym had a sophisticated understanding of the modernity of Africa, of the politics of decolonization, of its effect on Great Britain at home, and of some of the ways that British people—including anthropologists—continued to imagine Africa and Africans in 19th-century terms.

Watson’s chapter on Saul Bellow provides an interesting contrast to the discussion of Pym, since Bellow was connected to North American cultural anthropology through his undergraduate and graduate studies under Melville Herskovits and Alexander Goldenweiser. The chapter focuses on Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King as a point of refraction for competing strands in both literary and anthropological culture writings, going all the way back to Matthew Arnold. In Watson’s reading, Bellow’s novel offers a sardonic commentary on the dominant culture theory of the 1950s: liberal relativism, as articulated most famously by Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict.

Watson points out a contradiction at the heart of that position, since the anthropologists’ egalitarianism was belied by their faith in the superiority of anthropological knowledge as an arbiter of all human knowledge systems. As Watson puts it, “a hierarchy of civilizations remains embedded … in anthropology’s assumptions,” and Bellow’s Henderson expresses both sides of the contradiction at various points in the novel.


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Watson’s readings of these and other authors do make a contribution to the history of the anthropology of the 1950s. Since, as he shows us, there were such interesting connections between people writing anthropology (of various theoretical orientations) and people writing in genres considered literary or fictional, the question is raised as to why anthropologists of the period did not recognize a literary turn in the discipline. And that question raises a further one, for historians of anthropology: why were a few texts by Clifford, Marcus, and their colleagues so electrifying to the discipline in the 1980s?

Answers to such questions, though, have more to do with a historically unique trajectory in the 20th-century research university—with the rise, triumph, and breaking apart of specific disciplines like anthropology and literary studies—than with a longer, continuous tradition of exchanges between social analysts writing in different genres.


This article was commissioned by Matthew Engelke. icon

  1. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by James Clifford and George Marcus (University of California Press, 1986).
  2. Laura Bohannan, Return to Laughter (Harper & Brothers, 1954); published under the pseudonym Elenor Smith Bowen.
  3. Clifford, “Introduction: Partial Truths,” in Clifford and Marcus, pp. 13–14.
  4. Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 10.
  5. Women Writing Culture, edited by Ruth Behar and Deborah A. Gordon (University of California Press, 1995); George Marcus, “Writing Culture,” Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology, edited by David Levinson and Melvin Ember, vol. 4 (Henry Holt, 1996), pp. 1384 –87; Writing Culture and the Life of Anthropology, edited by Orin Starn (Duke University Press, 2015).
  6. The term “vague abstraction” comes from A. R. Radcliffe Brown’s presidential address to the Royal Anthropological Institute, “On Social Structure,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 70, no. 1 (1940), p. 2.
  7. Pym, Less Than Angels (1955; Dutton, 1980), pp. 22, 58, 66.
  8. University of Chicago Press.
  9. Warner, American Life: Dream and Reality (University of Chicago Press, 1953); Marquand, Point of No Return (Little, Brown, 1947).
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