Excerpt: A Maverick Boasian

Sergei Kan is a professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College. He is the author or editor of several books, including New Perspectives on Native North America: Cultures, Histories, and Representations (Nebraska, 2006), Sharing Our Knowledge: The Tlingit and Their Coastal Neighbors (Nebraska, 2015), and Lev Shternberg: Anthropologist, Russian Socialist, Jewish Activist (Nebraska, 2009). His newest book, A Maverick Boasian: The Life and Work of Alexander A. Goldenweiser (Nebraska, 2023), was published this month.

A Maverick Boasian explores the often contradictory life of Alexander Goldenweiser (1880–1940), a scholar considered by his contemporaries to be Franz Boas’s most brilliant and most favored student. The story of his life and scholarship is complex and exciting as well as frustrating. Although Goldenweiser came to the United States from Russia as a young man, he spent the next forty years thinking of himself as a European intellectual who never felt entirely at home.

The Russian Beginning and the Early American Years

The future American anthropologist Alexander Goldenweiser was born to Jewish parents on January 29 (January 17 Old Style), 1880, in the Ukrainian city of Kiev, a major commercial and cultural center of the Russian Empire and of Jewish life. Small groups of Jews had resided in the city since the Middle Ages, but their presence there was not fully formalized until the late eighteenth century, when the Kiev province was included into the so-called Pale of Settlement, which restricted Jewish residence in the empire to a number of western provinces. Due to a series of successful early nineteenth-century petitions sent to the government by Kiev’s Christian merchants, Jews were forced out of the city in 1827. However, after the ascension to the throne of a more liberal tsar, Alexander II, in 1855, Jews were readmitted to Kiev. Under his reforms some categories of Jews were permitted to settle outside the Pale, as well as in Kiev and other previously restricted cities. Kiev’s Jewish population then grew from about three thousand in 1863 to fourteen thousand in 1872. By 1897 it reached thirty-two thousand, representing 13 percent of the total population. Most of the city’s Jews engaged in trade, crafts, and carting and tended to settle in the two of Kiev’s poorest neighborhoods, although some Jews lived throughout the city. Some of the city’s wealthiest residents were Jewish merchants and industrialists. These men played a major role in municipal as well as Jewish communal and philanthropic life. The city’s St. Vladimir University and other institutions of higher learning were attended by a large number of Jews, many of whom settled in the city and formed a relatively small but significant Jewish middle class composed of lawyers, engineers, doctors, and other professionals (Meir 2008, 892; Meir 2010).

Alexander (referred to by his relatives with the informal diminutive “Shoora”) came from a family of well-to-do merchants and lawyers. His paternal great-grandfather was a man named Israel Goldenweiser. A watchmaker and the first person in the family to assume the last name “Goldenweiser,” he was born in Uman’, a medium-sized town located in the Kiev region, and became one of the founders of a Jewish agricultural colony in Bessarabia (today’s Moldova). His son Solomon (Khaim-Shlioma) Goldenweiser was born in 1815 (d. in 1881). In 1851 he was listed as a merchant residing in the town of Uman’. Sometime in the 1850s he advanced to the second merchant gild and moved to a much larger city of Ekaterinoslav (Dnipropetrovsk, Dnipro), another major center of Jewish life in both Ukraine and the Russian Empire as a whole. He was a wealthy man who also owned a two-story house in the city of Minsk (in later years, the capitol of Belarus). Solomon Goldenweiser, who died sometime in the 1870s, was married to Esther Eihenbaum (1820–86). Esther’s father, Iakov Eihenbaum (1796–1861) was a talented mathematician, poet, translator, and pedagogue. For the last decade of his life, he served as the official inspector of the rabbinical school in the city of Zhitomir.

Solomon and Esther Goldenweiser had five sons: Moisei (Moishe, 1837/1838–1903), Boris (Rudolph, Ruvim, 1839–1916), Vladimir (1853– 1919), Alexander (Israel, 1855–1915), and Iakov (1862–1931). With the exception of Vladimir, all of them became practicing lawyers. In addition these well-educated men pursued a variety of interests. For example, Moisei was a well-known bibliophile and a scholar of literature and history, who owned one of the largest private libraries and collections of rare books in Russia. Solomon and Esther also had three daughters: Dora, Sophia, and Elizabeth. According to Ellen Davies, Elizabeth was one of the first female doctors in Russia (Ellen Davies, personal communication, November 30, 2018). Boris’s son, Alexander (1875–1961), was a well-known Russian composer, pianist, and professor of the Moscow Conservatory. He was a friend of Tolstoy, for whom he frequently played piano, and his memoirs focus on his frequent encounters with one of Russia’s greatest writers (Alexander B. Goldenweiser 1923, 2009). Following Tolstoy’s death in 1910, Alexander Borisovich took part in preparing a special edition of his previously unpublished works (see Aleksandr B. Goldenweiser 2009; Gladkova 2016; Gritsenko 2016).

Alexander Solomonovich (1855–1915), Alexander’s father, was born in Ekaterinoslav and studied law at St. Petersburg University, graduating in 1876. For a while he worked in Moscow as an assistant to his bother Moisei. In 1877 a prominent Kiev lawyer and a family friend, Lev Abramovich Kupernik (1845–1905), convinced him to move to that city and join the bar there. Soon thereafter Alexander became the most prominent among Kiev’s lawyers and earned a reputation as one of the leading civil lawyers in the country. According to his son, “He won his early fame in criminal cases, but finding the human tragedies attending this practice unendurable, he soon abandoned it, devoting himself henceforth to civil law” (Goldenweiser 1931a, 693). A Jew living in a city known for the presence of strong anti-Semitic sentiments, Aleksandr Solomonovich attracted clients from all three of Kiev’s major ethnic groups: the Russians, the Poles, and the Jews.

In addition to extensive legal work, he also authored numerous works on civil and criminal law. Alexander Solomonovich was a liberal who admired Western European and American political and legal systems and was also a follower of Georg Hegel and Herbert Spencer. In fact one of his books, published in 1904, was titled The Ideas of Freedom and Law in Herbert Spencer’s Philosophical System. In addition he published major studies of the social legislature in Germany and Great Britain. He was the chairman of the executive committee of Kiev lawyers and also headed a society for assisting the persons released from incarceration. His articles on legal matters appeared in such prominent liberal Russian publications as Moskovskie Vedomosti, Severnyi Vestnik, Vestnik Evropy, Vestnik Prava, and others. In 1907 he met Leo Tolstoy through his nephew Aleksandr and became an adherent of Tolstoy’s philosophy of nonviolence. In fact, his best-known legal publication, Crime as Punishment and Punishment as Crime (1908/9), was based on Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection, at the center of which is a trial of an innocent down-and-out woman. Prefaced by Tolstoy himself, it was translated into several European languages. Tolstoy in turn thought very highly of Alexander Solomonovich, and there was a virtual cult of Tolstoy in the entire extended Goldenweiser family. Alexander Solomonovich participated in a number of political trials and was also well known in Kiev as a defender of the Jews persecuted by the authorities. He was a strong opponent of the death penalty and of the Siberian exile system. In his reminiscences about Alexander Solomonovich, Maksim Vinaver (1863–1926), another prominent Russian Jewish lawyer, called him a “positivist-dreamer” and characterized him as both a jurist-sociologist as well as “a thinker and writer as much as a lawyer,” for whom “the freedom of the individual was a matter of faith and any pressure upon the individual was felt by him almost as physical pain” (Vinaver 1926, 212, 215–16). All those who knew Alexander Solomonovich well commented on his great personal charm. As Vinaver also wrote in his memoirs:

There was a special quality in his entire life, his views, his relations with people, and even in the nobility and dignity of his bearing, which attracted everyone who came into contact with him. There are such people: they do not merge with the crowd, however huge and varied it might be. They seem to bear a stamp of the elect on their brows. And every gesture, every word reveals that everything about them is their own, individual, unique. (214)

A European, as far as his customs and sympathies were concerned, he viewed the cultural values and accomplishments of the West with a truly religious piety. . . On the wall of his office, there hung two documents: the original printed edition of the French “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen” and a photographic copy of the original American constitution. Everything that inspired him came from these two charters and from their development throughout an entire century of Western thought. And next to these charters, there hung two portraits: Herbert Spencer’s and Leo Tolstoy’s, a truly unusual combination. (215–16)

Like several of his brothers, Alexander Solomonovich was an avid book collector who owned a large personal library. His son Alexander clearly inherited his father’s strong concern with the rights of the individual as well as his combination of interests in sociology and high European culture. He also shared his father’s affection for Tolstoy as a writer and a humanist philosopher as well as his love of books.

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