The novel, Euphoria, by Lily King, published in 2014, became a national best-seller and won several major literary awards. Based loosely on a brief period in the life of Margaret Mead as she hesitated between Reo Fortune (to whom she was married) and Gregory Bateson (who the couple met while conducting research in New Guinea), the book brought wide attention to the iconic figure of 20th century American anthropology. How did the novel shape up as a piece of intellectual history?
I should say from the outset that I enjoyed Euphoria (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014). I read it in a week. At the literary level, it’s wonderfully written. I didn’t wince at awkward language or edit paragraphs in my head. I understood why the book became a national bestseller and won several literary prizes.
Nevertheless, a few days after having finished it, I found myself increasingly critical and disappointed.
Spoiler alert: The rest of this review is all about the book’s ending.
Sorry about that. But for me, as an anthropologist, the ending is what really stuck with me as the book lingered in my mind.
So here’s the basic storyline.
Margaret Mead (“Nell Stone”) and fellow anthropologist, the New Zealand-born Reo Fortune (“Sedgwick Fenwick,” nicknamed “Fen”), meet on a ship and fall in love. Margaret Mead and another fellow anthropologist, Ruth Benedict (“Helen”), have an affair. Reo Fortune gives Margaret Mead a choice of him or Benedict, and she chooses Fortune. Mead and Fortune marry (in 1928) and travel to New Guinea to conduct fieldwork with two ethnic groups (in 1931-33). Their marriage is problematic. The more we get to know Reo Fortune, the more odious he seems. It’s easy to imagine why Mead is looking for an excuse to leave him. Enter yet another anthropologist, the British-born Gregory Bateson (“Andrew Bankson”).
Bateson, Mead, and Fortune in Sydney, Australia (1933)
The rest of the book works out this steamy, jungle–based love triangle (sometimes morphing into a love quadrangle, with Ruth Benedict lingering like a shadow in the background, half a world away). The local New Guineans serve as exotic and useful backdrops, with cameo appearances and disappearances of individuals but, unfortunately, no well-sketched characters rounded out the way Mead, Benedict, and Fortune are.
The plot is basically Boy Meets Girl (interspersed from time to time with Girl Meets Girl), Second Boy Meets Girl, Girl Agonizes over which Boy to Choose, Girl Gets Pregnant by Boy #1, and . . . Girl Dies in Childbirth?!
Anyone who’s familiar with the four protagonists knows how this story ended in real life. Reo Fortune lost, Ruth Benedict lost, Gregory Bateson won (he and Mead married in 1936), and Catherine Bateson was the result (born in 1939), attesting to this love tri/quadrangle’s outcome. At least, that’s how things turned out until Bateson left Mead in 1947, later to be replaced by fellow anthropologist Rhoda Métraux as Mead’s partner from 1955 until Mead’s death in 1978 of pancreatic cancer.
Mead and Bateson among the Iatmul in New Guinea (1961)
But not in Lily King’s book.
In this alternate reality, before Margaret Mead has a chance to decide to leave Reo Fortune, she miscarries while on a ship to New York, and she dies at sea from hemorrhaging. Gregory Bateson learns of the tragedy while preparing to sail to New York to try once again to convince Margaret Mead to leave Reo Fortune and spend the rest of her life with him.
Well, Lily King is a fiction writer. By definition, she’s allowed to make stuff up. In fact, she could make everything up. That’s her stock in trade.
But she’s decided to craft a novel populated by characters based on actual people whose actual lives are actually documented. She’s taken pains to conduct meticulous research on the lives of Mead, Fortune, and Bateson while in New Guinea. Of course, the love scenes are imagined, but the basic contours of what they were doing, and where, hews closely in many ways to their known biographies. Up to the bizarre ending, King has painted an entirely plausible portrait of three people’s lives based on their documented experiences. But then she suddenly switches gears to imagine a substantially alternate reality for these real people who lived real lives in the public eye. If King had good reason for doing so, I could have remained a fan of the book. But she never clarifies, at least for me, why she suddenly fictionalized the basic facts into a drastically alternate scenario.
Had King’s fictional scenario come to pass, the history of anthropology in the 20th century would have looked different. If Margaret Mead’s life had been tragically cut short in the 1930s, as this fiction proposes, what might have been the result? After the years chronicled in the novel, the actual Margaret Mead became the only true public intellectual American anthropology has yet produced–with household name recognition, thanks to her monthly columns in the Ladies Home Journal. If Mead had died in the 1930s, the discipline might well have languished with far less funding, far less prestige, many fewer students taking courses, fewer departments in universities, and far fewer women entering anthropology (and maybe other social sciences as well). Mead not only publicized anthropology, she forged and publicized the possibility of a major female scholar gaining international attention.
Mead speaking on United Nations Radio about the Seminar on Mental Health and Infant Development sponsored by the World Federation of Mental Health (1952)
Mead on the steps of the US Capital with the staff that created her signature look in her later years (Jan. 1, 1973)
Of course, we can’t ever know, for sure, what the discipline of anthropology might have become without Mead’s last forty years —that’s the nature of counterfactual stories. But it would have been intriguing for King to speculate on this “What-if” scenario that she postulates. Instead, the story stops short at Mead’s untimely death, with only a brief postscript of sorts, decades later–recounting a brief scene with Gregory Bateson in the American Museum of Natural History in New York (where the real Margaret Mead in fact worked as a curator of ethnology for most of her career, as sexism kept her from a tenure-track or tenured position in any university).
Absent any speculation about how different anthropology would have looked without the giant figure of Margaret Mead, who publicized our discipline as no one, before or since, has ever done, the book’s ending thudded hard for me, with a crashing weight. Lily King hasn’t gifted us with her vision of how her counterfactual narrative might have played out. Right at the moment when the book promises to get insanely interesting, the story aborts.
And why did Lily King even imagine an untimely death of Margaret Mead, preventing her character from having the impact both on the discipline, and on American society, that she went on to have? Again, with that abrupt ending, that question is never answered.
Okay, fiction writers are allowed to pose questions they don’t answer. But, why this question for this character?
This reader was left frustrated.
Meanwhile, young women seeking professional role models could do far worse than to read the works of Margaret Mead, memoirs of her life (1901-78) by those who knew her, and Mead’s own early autobiography (Blackberry Winter) and her fascinating Letters from the Field. She was an amazing woman, ahead of her time on so many levels. King starts to show us how. I wish she’d finished the job.