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 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.