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A dazzling group portrait of Franz Boas, the founder of cultural anthropology, and his circle of women scientists, who upended American notions of race, gender, and sexuality in the 1920s and 1930s--a sweeping chronicle of how our society began to question the basic ways we understand other cultures and ourselves.
At the end of the 19th century, everyone knew that people were defined by their race and sex and were fated by birth and biology to be more or less intelligent, able, nurturing, or warlike. But one rogue researcher looked at the data and decided everyone was wrong. Franz Boas was the very image of a mad scientist: a wild-haired immigrant with a thick German accent. By the 1920s he was also the foundational thinker and public face of a new school of thought at Columbia University called cultural anthropology. He proposed that cultures did not exist on a continuum from primitive to advanced. Instead, every society solves the same basic problems--from childrearing to how to live well--with its own set of rules, beliefs, and taboos.
Boas's students were some of the century's intellectual stars: Margaret Mead, the outspoken field researcher whose Coming of Age in Samoa is one of the most widely read works of social science of all time; Ruth Benedict, the great love of Mead's life, whose research shaped post-Second World War Japan; Ella Deloria, the Dakota Sioux activist who preserved the traditions of Native Americans of the Great Plains; and Zora Neale Hurston, whose studies under Boas fed directly into her now-classic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Together, they mapped vanishing civilizations from the Arctic to the South Pacific and overturned the relationship between biology and behavior. Their work reshaped how we think of women and men, normalcy and deviance, and re-created our place in a world of many cultures and value systems.
Gods of the Upper Air is a page-turning narrative of radical ideas and adventurous lives, a history rich in scandal, romance, and rivalry, and a genesis story of the fluid conceptions of identity that define our present moment.
About the Author
CHARLES KING is the author of seven books, including Midnight at the Pera Palace and Odessa, winner of a National Jewish Book Award. His essays and articles have appeared in the The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, and The New Republic. He is a professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University.
“An intellectual adventure story of the best sort—elegantly written, thought-provoking, and full of biographical riches.”
—Sarah Bakewell, author of How to Live and At the Existentialist Cafe
“A masterful history of a group of maverick thinkers in the early 20th century who aimed to dethrone the eugenicists dominating racial thought. With eugenics ascendant again, King’s story is a vital book for our times.”
—Ibram X. Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, winner of the 2016 National Book Award
“Deeply thought-provoking and brilliantly written, Gods of the Upper Air is a walk in the shoes of giants. Charles King takes you on an unforgettable journey as daring anthropologists unravel the profound mysteries of culture and mankind, and discover that they, too, were only human.”
—David Hoffman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Dead Hand and The Billion Dollar Spy
“This exciting—even entrancing—story traces the birth of a new science in the early twentieth century, championed by a scrappy genius who trained a cadre of bold women for the work. Charles King writes with verve and authority as he follows the nation’s first cultural anthropologists to far-flung field sites that suggested antidotes to the racism and xenophobia of American society.”
—Dava Sobel, author of The Glass Universe and Longitude
“In any era, Gods of the Upper Air would be a scholarly masterpiece—an elegantly written, wickedly perceptive account of Franz Boas, the father of cultural anthropology, and his impact upon the key moral issues of his time and ours. Mentoring the likes of Margaret Mead and Zora Neale Hurston, Boas employed the skills of scientific observation to argue that all societies are part of a single, undivided humanity guided by circumstance and history, but none superior to another. In today’s deeply polarized world, Charles King’s stunning new book reminds us of the brilliance of these renegade anthropologists, and the work still to be done.”
—David Oshinsky, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Polio and Bellevue