Sidney Mintz & Lévi-Strauss

4 thoughts on “Sidney Mintz & Lévi-Strauss”

  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.

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