What’s past is prologue — Shakespeare
I began this account of my personal history after I submitted the final version of The Bridge to Humanity to Oxford Press and am writing this preface after finishing the first six chapters; that is, during the first half of 2005, in my 93rd year. It has long been on my mind to write one, but never seemed to have merited priority and even now I have turned to it more as occupational therapy than out of a great urge. Yet I am getting caught in the challenge and the confrontations it raises. As I see Bridge as my culminating work, regarding it with great pride, euphoria, and the satisfaction of feeling that I have finally answered the question that has haunted me since childhood, I have lost the focus on the future that has always spurred me on and am willing to explore the past. I have come to feel that all my past was but prologue to that work.
While this is an autobiography and therefore contains all I remember that is amusing or revealing about my life and work, the subtext in it is what I find compelling and that I am pursuing. This subtext is to solve the central enigma about my life. It is this: How did I manage to parlay a mediocre education, a moderate IQ, lousy work habits and very little self-confidence into one of the most successful anthropological careers in the 20th century? I don’t mean merely successful in having had a good job, making a living and holding offices, things that have been gratifying and that others might reasonably envy, but in having had an impact on anthropological thought that has even extended beyond the narrow confines of my own profession. Now as I await public judgment of my book and if it proves that my own assessment is not mere hubris, which is that it will enter into the canon of social thought, then the enigma is a conundrum indeed.
The Biography of a Theory is an effort to show how my ideas grew out of my background and were gradually filled out over time. There was no Eureka! moment, no epiphany. It was a slow process not unlike evolution. As they appeared in my consciousness, each element seemed to have already been there. While most of it was in my thinking before I began teaching, the last elements were not conceptualized until well after I had retired. Much of it I credit with being part of my cultural heritage. I credit some to the intellectual openness that characterized my up-bringing; the absence of doctrine, whether holy writ or secular premise. I early came to realize that I had an advantage over most “free thinkers” because I did not have to fight my way out of any parental convictions. I have more recently broadened this to saying I never had to “learn to think outside the box” because I had never been in a box. And perhaps this is also why I have never attached myself to a guru, either in person or in the form of an ism. But all this is speculation.
Transforming my personal history into an essay in social causation is characteristic of my mental processes — the urge to see whatever is being looked at in terms of some broader epistemological framework. When I was editor of the American Anthropologist, I announced that I wanted only articles in which data were presented to demonstrate some broader theoretical principles or theoretical essays only if they were grounded in data. When I finished my essentially descriptive Nomlaki ethnography, I had a closing paragraph that tied it into the idea of cultural themes — anything to give me a sense of closure.
Though Bridge, as I will refer to my book here, is hardly a how-to book, it does try to show how humans come to behave as they do, and if this is the case, then it is reasonable to look at my history in the light of my theories. In this sense Biography of a Theory can be viewed as a case history and in the degree to how well it works, as a kind of validation, making it a kind of infinite regress – a biography to illustrate the theory it is biographizing.
This demand I have put on myself – a demand that I cannot disregard – in turn puts a demand upon me to be as accurate, as penetrating, as objective and as honest as I can be, even where I must reveal things about myself that I might rather leave buried. This is made easier by two facts; the first is that I am writing it so late in my life that there are none living who might be embarrassed by what I say and nothing so harmful that it would be hurtful to their progeny; the second is that, while my life has not been exemplary or without actions that others would regard as sinful or simply wrong, nothing I have to reveal is unlawful or so disreputable as to cause any ripples. In fact, my difficulty in writing this book is, rather, in feeling that there is insufficient excitement in it to hold an audience. The things that I would rather not reveal are those that tarnish my self-image – and it is self-image that is central to every person. In final analysis, however, this is your problem, for I am writing this for my own gratification. I have had diverse involvements in the course of my career and almost every one has resulted in publication, which means that the substance of these activities need not be discussed, but merely the personal side of these events of my life and, where relevant, on how they contributed to my theoretical outlook. In fact, it is this consistent ability to find something worthwhile to say, at least to the extent that it found its way directly into print, that has made me feel that the seeds of my theoretical outlook lay deep in my psyche long before they were articulated. The document that follows will give evidence of this.
What we will be looking at is how my cultural background set the stage for the outlook I developed, how my domestic life shaped the underpinnings of my developing view of the world as well as energizing me for the tasks I was to perform, and how my more formal education was free of coercion, if otherwise insufficiently demanding, to allow me to follow my own path through the thicket of knowledge. Then we will go to the more mature years, where there was a kind of interplay between developing theories and research experience. There will of necessity be many by-ways – some because they are essential to my life history and others merely because they amuse me to pursue.
One thing I can say with confidence: no-one who knew me when I was young would ever have guessed I would accomplish what I have managed to do – least of all, me. Certainly not my family, not even my mother whose love I never doubted, not my high school teachers nor anyone at the University of Texas from which I got two degrees, not even Jane, who loved me perhaps as no one else ever has. The one possible exception is my professor there, George Engerrand, who said I was lazy in a good way. Most would have agreed with my then brother-in-law, Kingsley Davis, who later had an eminent career in sociology, who advised, “don’t go on to graduate school, you don’t have the ability to make it,” though others might have found a gentler way to say it. I am certain that it was not in the spirit of defiance – of “I’ll show `em.” Rather, it was wanting to prove it to myself.
One might make a case for a teleological explanation; that “I was cut out for it” in popular parlance, or a “higher force,” but I will have none of it. To be sure, I once planned to start this work by noting that even before I was born, I managed to overcome two obstacles; one when half of me had to breach the barrier to the goal of finding the other half, the second shortly after they got together, a parental wish to do me in before I saw the light of day. When they went to get rid of my intrusion, the doctor, sensing my mother’s discomfort, said, “Gretchen, you don’t want to go through with this, do you?” Of course, this story would have given the same misdirection that Zoedora, the goddess I had postulated as a literary device and had to discard, would have had, so it was better hidden here. The story is important to me in that I was told of these events as a youth by a Victorian-age mother who could be open with me about intimate matters pertaining both to her and to myself. It is this no-bullshit quality that I think is significant. I will try to live up to it in what follows.