Coming of Age
nolead begins The Sexual Awakening of Margaret Mead nolead ends
nolead begins By Deborah Beatriz Blum
322 pp. $26.99
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nolead ends Before reading this book, I knew three things about Margaret Mead. She is America's best-known anthropologist. She studied the sex lives of adolescent tribal girls. And she was short.
Author Deborah Beatriz Blum, a graduate student when she met Mead in 1972, promises a tale of sexual discovery. The book takes Mead from being a 20-year-old student at Barnard College in 1921 to 1926, when she was a 25-year-old researcher in American Samoa.
Now, from Blum's poetic narrative, I know all about Mead's early romances, flings, and ambitions. I know when she lost her virginity and when she cheated on her husband and lovers, male and female. Turns out her trip to the South Pacific did little to change her beliefs about sex. Mead didn't take no for an answer, in life or in love.
Plenty of famous men and women achieve great things because of their single-minded focus, although Mead took it to another level. On her wedding night, she insisted her groom sleep in a separate room. "I have a seminar paper to write," she told him.
By the end of the book, I didn't much care for Mead as a person or as a scholar. It's surprising to read such a detailed biography without finding something to like about the subject. I got through it without finding a single real example of unselfishness or generosity. Mead, it seems, was brilliant, charismatic, and a spoiled brat.
And for all the sex, there's not much of the promised "awakening." Blum writes that Mead believed in polygamy but doesn't explain how a young woman from a seemingly conventional family developed that view. Nor does Blum tell us much about what Mead thought of her exploits. Did the earth move? Did her affairs change her sense of her own sexuality, or of women and men? Did it inform her research in the field? We don't know.
We learn some surprising things about her research in Samoa. And then the book . . . stops. Coming of Age in Samoa, published in 1928, was an academic miss (the British anthropologist A.C. Haddon dismissed Mead as a "lady novelist"). But it was a popular sensation for the "Flapper of the South Seas" and launched her career as a public intellectual, social critic, and feminist hero until her death in 1978.
Blum's book ends when Mead was just 25, so we don't learn how her views on love, marriage, and sex may have evolved over the years. Which is just fine - one book on Mead is enough to last a lifetime for me.
This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.