Sunday, March 28, 2021

Elesha J. Coffman's "Margaret Mead"

Elesha J. Coffman is an associate professor of history at Baylor University. Her first book was The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline (2013).

Coffman applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Margaret Mead: A Twentieth-Century Faith, and reported the following:
All of the books in the Oxford “Spiritual Lives” series are compact, intended to introduce readers to the spirituality of figures who were famous for something other than being spiritual. Page 99 is almost exactly the midpoint of the book, and it finds Margaret Mead and the rest of the world at a crossroads.

The year is 1942. The United States has recently entered World War II, and the famous anthropologist has published And Keep Your Powder Dry, a book that she hoped would give Americans confidence to fight and help the British better understand the thousands of American servicemen arriving on their shores. Mead’s extended lecture tour of the UK that year kept her away from her third husband, Gregory Bateson, and their baby daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson. Referring to And Keep Your Powder Dry, page 99 notes,
The book is not remembered as one of Mead’s best, but its domestic focus and religiously tinged moral earnestness marked an inflection point in her life. Her years of traveling the world for new bits of information and developing her own personality through a rapid succession of relationships were mostly behind her. She was marshaling the resources of maturity, and she would need them all as the violent end of World War II birthed the challenges of the Atomic Age. Not everyone she was close to would accompany her through these transitions.
Page 99 represents the book in several ways. There’s a lot going on in just a few lines, as there had to be in a brisk biography of a woman who lived a very full life. The published bibliography of her work lists nearly 1,400 print publications, and her archive, with more than 530,000 items, is the largest in the Library of Congress. The pace of major events during her life span (1901-1978) was staggering as well.

While tensions were especially high in 1942, Mead was always trying to change the world while holding a few key relationships together. It was never easy. Lastly, although Mead insisted that she never lost her religion after choosing to be baptized into the Episcopal Church at age 11, for much of her career her faith was subsumed under moral earnestness. The missing half of the phrase in her book title exemplifies this hiddenness. Mead used the full quote only in the book’s last line: “Trust God—and keep your powder dry.”
Learn more about Margaret Mead: A Twentieth-Century Faith at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue