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Sidney Mintz & Lévi-Strauss

Sidney Mintz

Sidney Mintz

In recognition of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ accomplishments and his recent award from the Smithsonian, the AAA is launching a series of short posts by anthropologists whose lives have intersected with this theoretical giant. Best known for introducing structuralism into the discipline, Lévi-Strauss has contributed greatly to our understanding of non-Western cultures and remains a passionate defender of the humanity of all peoples. He is a prolific author and has published more than 20 books, including Tristes tropiques (1955), The Savage Mind (1962), Structural Anthropology (1958; trans. 1963), and Mythologiques I-IV (1961-1971).  We hope these posts offer a glimpse into how the life and work of Lévi-Strauss has influenced scholars today.

The first post in this series is by Sidney Mintz, the William L. Straus Jr. Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, and Research Professor, Department of Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University.

The James Smithson Bicentennial Medal awarded to Claude Lévi-Strauss is a much-deserved honor that appropriately recognizes his key contributions to the field of anthropology.

I came to know Professor Lévi-Strauss in the early 1970’s when I was affiliated with the Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Sociale, while teaching in the Sixième Section of the École des Hautes Études.

Then, one day in 1976, I was called to the office of the president of Johns Hopkins to be told, in that gentleman’s rather summary fashion, that the institution wanted to bestow an honorary doctorate upon Professor Lévi-Strauss; and asked whether – as the senior member of the neonatal Department of Anthropology — I could “get him.”

I told the president that since I knew Professor Lévi-Strauss, I thought I might persuade him to visit, but that there was a condition. I explained that he was a reluctant traveler, and would perhaps be easier to persuade, were I able to offer him travel on the Concorde. I can tell you that, quite frankly, it was to my utter amazement that the president did not hesitate to accept that condition. I had made it all up.

I was supplied with a chauffeured car to welcome Lévi-Strauss when he arrived at Dulles, and it turned out to be a spectacularly successful visit for the five of us in our tiny Department, founded just a year earlier. Our joy was doubled when the president, once introduced to his guest, took me aside and told me to “look after him” for the balance of his visit.

I was able to write the presentation speech that accompanied the awarding of his doctorate; to see to it that a daily bouquet of pansies stood by his bed; and to arrange a faculty dinner for him at home, composed of Maryland’s special culinary joys (starting with Chesapeake oysters and Maryland crab, and accompanied by some 1972 white Hermitage, selling at the time for a prohibitive $12 a bottle). Professor Lévi-Strauss pronounced our oysters superior to those in France. We were privileged to hear him on several occasions, not least when he very generously spoke to our graduate students, who will surely never forget that occasion, now more than three decades ago.

Jim Boon phoned me to arrange for an interview, to which Lévi-Strauss had already agreed. Jim wanted to hold it in the hours immediately preceding Lévi-Strauss‘ departure, and suggested the NPR offices in D.C. I told him that was impossible because getting from downtown Washington to Dulles in afternoon traffic, limousine or no, would not work, and that Lévi-Strauss did not like tight schedules. (I had not made that up.) I suggested the Air France first class lounge instead; I supposed that they could throw out everybody else, particularly since Marvin (Harris) had written that our guest was a French national treasure.

To my astonishment, it worked! They did throw everybody else out. I sat in the lounge with Professor Lévi-Strauss, telling him jokes to keep him entertained, while they got the cameras and microphones ready, and then after I offered my sincere thanks, we said goodbye. I need hardly add that I have never forgotten a minute of his visit.

4 Responses

  1. Following Mintz ‘ and Boon’s remembrance, I happily report on encounters with Levi-Strauss in 1951-52 at the Institute of Ethnology, Musem of Man. This was beflore his publication of Tristes Tropiques and global fame. Margaret Mead had sent a letter of introduction and Alfred Metraux, then at UNESCO, arranged for us to meet. I signed up for his seminar on North American mythology, having grown up in Oklahoma among Amerindians and eager for a French perspective. That was my baptism in the ideas of Marcel Mauss, especially “in the concrete is the whole.”
    His analysis of the Hopi Indian prayer feather was a revelation in how to move from a single object to extrapolations to the entire culture. I told him that in 1950 I had watched Don the Sun Chief perform a Green Corn ceremony at an Old Oraibi dawn. He said he was envious.
    Levi-Strauss was gracious and generous in staying on after the seminar to talk with students. I especially appreciated his detecting that I would prefer his use of English to my inflicting him with my French. In the same seminar was Rodolfo Stavenhagen of Mexico with whom I enjoyed post-seminar conversations about “theory and practice.”
    Originally, my Metraux-inspired fieldwork plan was to study a tribe near Meknes, Morocco as part of UNESCO’s technology and culture initiative. What happens when a camel is replaced by a tractor? I failed to find money and stayed on to take advantage of my access to a French rubber factory at Puteaux where numerous North Africans worked. Little did I know that my “infection” with Levi-Stauss’ embrace of Mauss'”Essay on the Gift” would produce eureka-type insights. The microcosm of a French factory swept up into the gift-exchange process of the Marshall Plan launched me into a 10-year process resulting in my 1961 Columbia dissertation. Some of the results are reported in “Gifts and Nations: The Obligations to Give, Receive and Repay.” Talcott Parsons wrote an introduction to the Mouton edition linking the subjectmatter to sociology and economics. A later Transaction edition of the book is dedicated to Levi-Strauss, Mead and Kroeber to whom I owe many intellectual gifts.
    During all those years in and out of France, I made calls on Levi-Strauss at the College de France and later at his anthropology lab. When I organized the international aspects of Margaret Mead’s centennial, Levi-Strauss happily agreed to chair the international committee.
    Thus,when Edgardo Krebs first proposed finding an appropriate Smithsonian homage for his centennial, I jumped at the chance to find a “return gift.” The process took seven months of applied anthropology to come up with the medal, a citation, and accompanying salutations, including a letter from Mary Catherine Bateson. Tonight, Krebs, Paul Taylor and I as nominators will deposit the honors in the hands of the French ambassador to start a dipomatic pouch journey to Le Maitre. We will celebrate with drinks and dinner with a witness to our ritual, Corin Lesnes, a columnist from Le Monde. To prepare her, Prof. Krebs has provided her with a rich reading list of writings by Mauss and Levi-Strauss and commentators by American scholars who have fallen under their influence.
    The French pouch will not wait for the possible arrival of a message from President Obama making references to his anthropologist mother.

  2. [...] Comments Wilton S. Dillon on Sidney Mintz & Lévi-S…Wednesday Round Up #… on AAA Photo Contest Now Ope…Bill Guinee on AAA & WCAA: [...]

  3. [...] @ AAA Blog, Sidney Mintz & Lévi Strauss Mintz reflects on the famed French anthropologist and his impact on the [...]

  4. A thoroughly delightful vignette by one of the best about one of the best.

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