Life in LesuHortense Powdermaker
(W. W. Norton)Dr. Powdermaker, according to a prefatory note which Dr. Clark Wissler contributes to her book, "was the first woman to live alone as an ethnologist among the natives of Melanesia." Her stay at Lesu, which is a village of 232 souls on the coast of New Ireland, in the Bismarck Archipelago, lasted from March, 1919, to February 1930, and she got on very well with the people, and learned enough of their language to hold palaver with them. When she ran short of it she resorted to pidgin English, which many of them understood.
They are a peaceable lot, and except for a certain looseness in the sexual department pretty respectable. There are missionaries on their flanks, but so far they have not suffered the ignominy of becoming Christians. In the old days the men used to go naked and the women wore only straw aprons, but both sexes, under white influence, now wear loincloths, and on great occasions the women put on blouses. Rotary, the Saturday Evening Post, the radio and the movies have yet to uplift and enchant them. They still use strings of shells for money. A drum brings one string, a spear two, a canoe from four to six, and a sow from five to ten.
Dr. Powdermaker's account of these innocent and kindly people is always interesting and often amusing. What she has to say is seldom downright new, for quite similar tribes have been reported on at length by Dr. Bronislaw Malinowski and others, but she is full of small details that give her story a great vividness. If, as the poet hath it, the proper study of mankind is man, then such books are valuable contributions to knowledge, and it is pleasant to note that the supply of them does not fall off. It is pleasant to note, also, that lady anthropologists have begun to go in for them, for there are areas of human behavior in which a woman's eyes are brighter than a man's, and kinds of information that she can unearth better than he can. A good part of the value of "Middletown," in all probability, is due to Mrs. Lynd's share in the family labors, and I half suspect that Robert Marshall's "Arctic Village" would have been even better than it is if Mr. Marshall had taken a couple of female Hearst reporters to the Koyukuk with him.
It is strange and lamentable that so many anthropologists seek their laboratory animals in the far places of the earth, and so few give any heed to the huge supply at home. I was in hopes, after "Middletown" came out, that it would be followed by studies of other American towns, East, West, North and South, but so far it has had no successor. If suggestions to the learned are in order I propose that one of the universities send an expedition to Waycross, Ga., to investigate human existence in what seems to be a typical Southern industrial town. I nominate Waycross simply because I happened to spend the better part of a day there some months ago, and found it very interesting to rove about the place and observe the inhabitants at their concerns.
The town looked to me to be heavily over-churched and considerably under-movie-parlored, but that may have been only the prejudice of a city slicker. What I carried away, chiefly, was a keen desire to know more about its people --- how they get their livings, how they occupy their leisure, who the mountebanks are that they admire, and what the prevailing view is among them on such questions as the war debts, necking, baptism by total immersion, the character and designs of the reigning Supreme Pontiff, and independence for the Philippines. I assume that most of them are Democrats, but on what ground? I judge by my observations that all of them go to church, and that large numbers of them must go to two or three churches, but I'd like to know more about their theology.
Waycross, to the casual eye, looks poor, and is certainly rather frowsy, but under the tatters and dust, I suppose, life goes on pretty much as it goes on everywhere else in America. Dr. Powdermaker has told us enough about Lesu to last us for a long while; why doesn't some young American Anthropologist of comparable shrewdness and industry turn to this somewhat forlorn but still apparently contented Southern community? It might be hazardous, of course, for a stranger to settle in it openly, as Dr. Powdermaker settled in Lesu, for small-town Americans are much less amiable than Melanesians, and if the general public of the place did not object to serving as guinea pigs, then there would certainly be protests from the Chamber of Commerce, the American Legion, and the Klan. But it should be easy for the young scientist to insert himself (or herself) into the communal life in the disguise of a chiropractor, a beerrunner, or a Bible colporteur, and so gain the confidence of the inhabitants, and learn how they live and have their being.
The sociology of such places has been very little studied. The savants of the University of North Carolina school have made some interesting reports on rural life, especially in the South, and there is an enormous literature on the goings-on in the larger cities. But save for "Middletown" there is no adequate study of the towns of the country, and even "Middletown" is incomplete, for it skirts around the phenomena of sex very gingerly. I guess without knowing that young blood bubbles in Waycross as elsewhere, and that the local pastors visualize a state of chastity appreciably above that which they actually observe. I guess too, again without knowing, that the town has its boomers and men of vision, its soaring Kiwanians and effervescent realtors, and that they have saddled it with the usual debt. That it is well outfitted with theologians I could see, but I'd like to know what they cost per annum, and what nuisances they commit to earn their tithes. Also, it would be interesting to hear something about the state of medical science in the town, and about the standards of professional honor prevailing among its jurisconsults. I saw a whole building full of lawyers' offices. Are their pickings easy, or do they have to scratch? The people of the United States, for all their lavish patronage of newspapers, news-reels and the radio, really know one another very little. Those who live in cities are always being shocked by the doings of those who live in smaller places, and the denizens of the farms and villages seem to know nothing about city life save that it is dominated by the machinations of the Beer Trust, Wall Street, the Devil, and the Pope. I issue a solemn call to the sociologists for more light. There is as good a book as Life in Lesu in every American village, and another "Middletown" in every one of the thousand rivals of Muncie, Ind. We have heard enough about the Melanesians to content us for a space; let us now have something about the Georgians, Iowans, Vermonters and Oklahomans --- all of them tribes that are rich in material for the attentive anthropologist.--- H. L. Mencken
From The American Mercury