A 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, and a chronicle of how our society began to question the basic ways we understand other cultures and ourselves.
The lives of Boas and his students make for riveting storytelling, and the author’s imaginative prose enlivens their discoveries, romantic exploits and professional jealousies ... King’s timely history reveals that Boas and his intellectual descendants spent their careers fighting for recognition of the basic humanity of those considered 'other' to the white men who ruled the country.
...thoughtful, deeply intelligent, and immensely readable and entertaining ... The romantic intrigue makes for irresistible reading, but it’s also central to the book’s argument ... The very word culture, and the idea that people in one culture can learn from people in others, is taken for granted now. But King shows how revolutionary those concepts were at a time when scientists classified people as savage, barbarian, or civilized, and three-quarters of American universities offered courses in eugenics.
[An] elegant and kaleidoscopic book ... King includes some of the more vexed aspects of this history, including Boas’s involvement in a sham funeral for an indigenous Greenlander whose cadaver had been secretly harvested in the name of scientific research ... This looks to be the perfect moment for King’s resolutely humane book, even if the United States of the early 20th century isn’t quite the perfect mirror. Boas and his circle confronted a bigotry that was scientifically endorsed at the time, and they dismantled it by showing it wasn’t scientific at all.