Excerpt: Franz Boas

The following is an excerpt from Franz Boas: The Emergence of the Anthropologist by Rosemary Lévy Zumwalt (November 2019).


Franz Boas was born in Minden, Westphalia, on July 9, 1858. He was directed on the path from his birthplace in Minden to his adult life in New York through the intellectual grounding provided by his family and by the German educational system. He was to become one of the central founders of anthropology in the United States. Franz came into his family as the only son, beloved by his parents, his sisters, and all his relatives. The intellectual components so crucial for his later successes emerged from his mother’s careful instruction in the Fröbel kindergarten that she had helped to found in Minden, and from the many months she devoted to homeschooling her son because of his ill health. In his youth Boas looked forward with anticipation to accomplishing great things—to studying, exploring, writing, living the life of the scientist who was always creating, always learning, and always breaking new ground. Just a few months before his seventeenth birthday on April 9, 1875, he wrote to his sister Antonie (affectionately called Toni), who had cautioned him against being “too ambitious,” that “I tell you, if I shall not become hugely famous later on, I would not know what I should do. It seems terrible to me to have to spend my life unknown and unnoticed by people. But I am afraid that none of these expectations will ever be fulfilled. I am scared myself of such thirst for glory, but I cannot help it.” This “thirst for glory”—elsewhere described by Franz in another letter to his sister as a need to “do something exceptional”—led the young boy to dream of traveling to Africa; and, later, as a teenager, of voyaging to the North Pole or the South Pole. His quest would find fulfillment when he departed with great fanfare from Germany for Baffin Land on board the Germania in 1883.

Franz Boas’s tenacious character would be crucial for the path he charted for himself toward excellence in physics, geography, ethnography, and then, more broadly, anthropology. Once taken with an idea, he would not give up in spite of all difficulties thrown in his path. Boas himself remarked on this singular personality trait, his “persistent will,” in a letter to his family, written while on board the Boskowitz during his 1888 fieldwork in the Pacific Northwest Coast,

Instinctively I think back to my own years between 20 and 30 and can say that I am rather satisfied with them, even if the ideas of those days did not always remain the same. But I can say that I am on the way to carrying out some of them and that some of them were replaced by new ones. Although there were many disappointments, I have seen many of my highest hopes fulfilled, and I have seen that a persistent will leads to its goal either one way of another. Ten years ago I was a young, dumb student, easily influenced by others, weak of character, yet with the best intentions and given to the influence of the moment. I hope that I have improved since.

Franz Boas had a singular goal as he moved into his adult years: to establish himself with professional flourish in a challenging world. In 1884–85, when he was not successful in finding a position in the United States, he returned to his family home with a bruised and chastened ego but also with a determination that would not be diminished. After time at home and then in Berlin, Boas earned his Habilitation in June 1886, a degree that would entitle him to teach at a German university. Departing in July 1886 for a visit to Marie in New York, Boas was never to return to his homeland again, save as a visitor. He found his way to the Northwest Coast to begin fieldwork among the American Indians—to collect languages, folktales, and myths and to make a collection of items to defray his travel expenses. He returned to New York, found employment as an assistant editor at Science magazine in 1887, and married his beloved Marie. From the time of their marriage in March 1887 through the next decade, Franz and Marie would start their young family and move from job to job. In 1889 they moved from their New York City apartment to a house in Worcester, Massachusetts, for Boas’s job as a docent in anthropology at the newly founded Clark University. From Worcester, they moved to Chicago in 1892–93, for Boas’s position as chief assistant in the department of anthropology at the World’s Columbian Exposition (WCE), and in 1894 as temporary chief curator of the Columbian Museum in Chicago. Boas returned in 1894 to Marie and the children, who had preceded him back to New York. They left behind their baby Hedwig, who had died in his arms in their Chicago apartment and lay buried in a cemetery that, for the rest of his life, Boas visited every time he passed through Chicago. When he returned home, Boas suffered a mental collapse from the years of strain and unrelenting work. His doctor, Abraham Jacobi, ordered him to rest. Boas complied by working for only six hours instead of all day long. Soon he was off to the Northwest Coast and to California for a series of jobs, supported by various sources of funding. Eventually, with Frederic Ward Putnam’s unceasing support, Boas found his way in 1896 to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) as assistant curator of ethnology and somatology. With boundless ambition and a wide ethnographic embrace, Boas crafted a plan for exploration of the Northwest Coast and Siberia. He and Putnam convinced the president of the AMNH, Morris K. Jesup, to finance the lavish undertaking, the Jesup North Pacific Expedition (JNPE).

Working from the AMNH, Franz Boas’s vision for anthropology was, as a professional discipline, grounded firmly in a museum with strong links to a university. While he had taught on a temporary basis at Columbia College, the undergraduate division of Columbia University, as a lecturer in physical anthropology in the faculty of pure sciences from 1896–98, Franz Boas desired to have a permanent base in the university and to retain his position at the AMNH. Boas envisioned teaching all the professional anthropologists in his classes at Columbia University and then having these anthropologists employed at the AMNH and elsewhere in the United States. In 1899 he was appointed to a full-time position at Columbia University as the chair in anthropology in the newly created department of psychology and anthropology. With the fortitude and sheer stubbornness born into him and imbued in him by the Herzensbildung—the cultivation of the heart—he attained his goal.

My work twines together the strands of the personal and the professional and reveals, through the palpably accessible prose of his letters and journals, his love for his fiancée and then wife, Marie Krackowizer, and for the field of anthropology as he shaped it. This is a love story that draws within its embrace the members of the Boas family, who served as an integral part of his professional development and as a sounding board for challenges in his research and the conflicts in his work life. The lives of colleagues and friends are also woven together with Boas’s as he moved through life’s struggles until he was able to obtain a position at the AMNH and finally at Columbia.

For Boas the heart of his life story lies in his unpublished letters, diaries, and field notes, made available when they came like a treasure to the American Philosophical Society in a gift from Boas’s daughter, Helene Boas Yampolsky, in 1961–62 and from his son-in-law, Dr. Cecil Yampolsky, in 1964. Here lies the richness of detail to fill the void that Alfred Louis Kroeber identified at the time of Boas’s death: “There is little on public record or floating in tradition regarding the youth of Boas. Without being secretive, he reminisced little . . . : the present and the future absorbed his interests.” By 1947 Robert Lowie had learned from Boas’s son-in-law that the early correspondence from Boas’s years as a student had been preserved “and that they reveal the nascent investigator’s ardor for research.” Lowie continued, “Publication of the correspondence would be a great boon, for it is likely to reveal intimate glimpses of the writer’s personality, such as are all too rarely vouchsafed by his monographs and books.” Precisely such an undertaking is underway with The Franz Boas Papers: Documentary Edition, headed by project director and general editor Regna Darnell.

I have written Franz Boas: The Emergence of the Anthropologist as a way to trace the stepping-stones that lead to the development of Boas’s vision for anthropology. I underline the tenacity of his efforts, the passions of his life, and the toll the struggle took on him. I begin then with the infant Franz and follow him up to his employment at the American Museum of Natural History and Columbia University. I desire to show how the loves of Franz Boas led him from his childhood to adulthood, to a shaping of American anthropology in deeply important channels, with the acuity of his mind and the sharpness of his vision.

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