Gods of the Upper Air by Charles King

Gods of the Upper Air

A dazzling group portrait of Franz Boas, the founder of cultural anthropology, and his circle of women scientists, who upended American notions of race, gender, and sexuality in the 1920s and 1930s--a sweeping chronicle of how our society began to question the basic ways we understand other cultures and ourselves.At the end of the 19th century, everyone knew that people were defined by their race and sex and were fated by birth and biology to be ...

Details Gods of the Upper Air

TitleGods of the Upper Air
Release DateAug 6th, 2019
PublisherDoubleday Books
GenreNonfiction, History, Anthropology, Biography, Science, Sociology, Race

Reviews Gods of the Upper Air

  • Mehrsa
    A really fascinating history of Margaret Mead, Boaz, Hurston and others who challenged and upended (at least for a little while) some crazy backwards thinking on the essentiality of race. Cultural relativism has been attacked by the right for a while, but it's amazing to go back and remember that before it, the scientific thinking was so....well, so...primitive.
  • Marks54
    This is a collective biography of one of the principal groups behind the rise of cultural anthropology and the idea of cultural relativism. The key individuals of this group include Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead. There are other members of the group, of course, but Boas, Benedict, and Mead are the key actors. This group has proven extraordinarily influential and even well read and open minded readers may not appreciate their influe...
  • Ryan Boissonneault
    We should all be thankful that racism and eugenics are no longer part of the scientific mainstream, but how many of us are familiar with the story of how this happened? In this gripping intellectual history, Charles King shows how a group of twentieth-century cultural anthropologists battled against the “common-sense” notions of racial superiority and social hierarchies to show that “humanity is one undivided thing,” with variation and co...
  • Peter A
    This is a brilliantly told story of the lives of several important individuals; their collective story addressing with data and science issues of race, sex, and gender; the scientific and social context and history within which they worked; and their impact on the then nascent field of cultural anthropology and the impact that it has made on society. The story includes the turbulent lives of the protagonists, the struggle and conflict that new id...
  • Rose
    This is nonfiction written in novel form. It is a wonderful read for any fan of anthropology or anyone who wants tho learn about cultures. I highly enjoyed this book recommend it. I would like to thank netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a copy free of charge. This is my honest and unbiased opinion of it.
  • Steve
    Lovely book about the Columbia University anthropologists led by Franz Boas who developed important ideas about our common humanity. I learned a ton of history from the book. Was great to read after Daniel Okrent’s “The Guarded Gate” which was also a fine book covering the same time period. Charles King also wrote a very different book that I loved, about Istanbul and its history, called “Midnight at the Pera Palace” — highly recommen...
  • Mac Hendrickson
    Masterpiece. Recommended reading for every American
  • Peg (Marianna) DeMott
    Powerful! Recommended reading for people who wonder where we are in the world and just how we got here!
  • Stephanie G. Lewis
    Learned a lot. Want to read again.
  • Lisa
    I was an anthropology student in the '70s, and this enlightening, engrossing, beautifully written book reminded me why I was so passionate about it and how studying it fundamentally and forever changed my worldview . . . Want to better understand the reasons why racism, sexism, and bigotry of all kinds are utterly indefensible — and how a group of visionary adventuring scientists came to understand and teach that? Want to grow a deep love for ...
  • Donna Herrick
    The heroes of this book introduced the world to a new way to view humanity. Previous to them the prevailing attitude among white people was that we ( yes I am a white woman) were superior, either genetically or by good fortune or by god's mandate, to all other folks on the planet - meaning that we could exploit them for our own gain. With scientific advances this viewpoint led to eugenics, Jim Crow laws in the US and to Nazism in Germany.Our hero...
  • Brian
    Not a light, quick read, but very worthwhile and enjoyable. Mostly a biography of Franz Boaz and his students in the Columbia Anthropology department during the early years of the 20th Century (Margaret Mead being the most famous). The book describes how they helped change, almost single-handedly, the prevailing "scientific" views on race - that certain races were inherently inferior to others - and introduced the idea of "cultural relativity". A...
  • Alan
    Interesting. I read Malinowski, Benedict, Boas, Kroeber, Linton, Sapir, Mead, back in the 70s. Mead was then a hippie and feminist icon. I never knew much of their biographies, and wasn't at all familiar with Zora Hurston as an anthropologist.
  • Tom Griffiths
    I enjoyed this book more than the review would seem. My issue was the enormous level of detsil on the anthropologist love lives. I just dont care about that. The rest was grest.
  • Mark
    This is an involving and brilliant window into a small community of scientists. They attempted to show that there is one common humanity, even though vivid differences are what attracts the eye. This book also documents their opposition, which continues to insist on racial superiority for currently privelidged groups.The personal lives of these people serve as vivid threads that drive the narrative forward.
  • Eliz
    Fascinating look at the anthropologists who brought us the understanding that culture is relative. As someone whose ancestor is quoted at Ellis Island on the dangers of the melting pot, learning more about the academic and social understandings of this ancestor’s time is intriguing....and disturbing.
  • Vicki Skywark
    If I had read this book when a student of anthropology, I’d have been a better student. It’s not only revelatory in terms of the lives it sketches and their theories of culture, it illustrates how far America has come intellectually yet how backwards Americans continue to be.
  • Avid
    I was only able to get through the first 3 chapters, although i enjoyed what i read. It’s just too much information for a casual reader. Also, i was drawn to the book because of the part of the description which included women’s early contributions to the study and definition of anthropology, but after three chapters, all i got was franz boas - not a woman in sight. I can’t wait forever to get to the part for which i chose to invest in the ...
  • MisterLiberry Head
    Perhaps the strongest evidence that Franz Boas and his circle ultimately, as the book’s subtitle claims, “reinvented race, sex, and gender,” is to be found in the stage-setting parts of Charles King’s breath-taking group portrait. The prevailing attitudes about race and societies eventually overthrown by these cultural anthropologists seems, in retrospect, almost laughably wrong-headed, self-serving, jingoistic and ignorant. Although much...
  • Gwen
    "The most enduring prejudices are the comfortable ones, those hidden up close: seeing the world as it is, requires some distance, a view from the upper air". (Franz Boas)I appreciated the context this book provides for looking at why our current iteration of culture wars are so hotly felt. Important historical and cultural mirror for the nationalist tremors surfacing yet again.If only we could all heed this sound advice: "Work hard at distancing ...
  • Cybercrone
    This was a fascinating book, an in-depth look at how anthropology changed the way that we view each other. Or at least how we should view each other.There were some big surprises here for me, things I'd never considered before, such as that Hitler's Mein Kampf was directly inspired by the "scientific" research and applications going on in America in genetics, eugenics and anthropometry. And that Nazi scientists and policy wonks avidly studied thi...
  • Kathleen
    A meaty treatise about the beginning of Anthropology as a discipline in the US. As an Anthro major in college, I was attracted to Boas, Benedict, Mead, Malinowski as colorful people who weren’t afraid to leave this country and explore other cultures, and develop respect for people unlike them. With my strict parents, it was like a balm to embrace some of these ideas at a Christian college, and even feel a little naughty. I had no idea that Zora...
  • Sue Wakula
    A must-read for anyone that grew up hearing about Margaret Mead before her death in the 1970s. Mead is but one anthropologist of a group loosely under the tutelage of Franz Boas of Columbia University. For those of us who never felt like they quite "fit in" to American culture (as Mead also felt), the research of these "renegade" anthropologists is validation of our humanity. What struck me is how our current political situation is eerily similar...
  • Claudia
    A book about the anthropologist who trained Margaret Mead and Zora Neale Hurston...his work and theirs. Race, gender, sex. Culture and politics. I read this for an online book club that never happened, so I needed to clear it off my 'reading' shelf.So much of what we are facing right now are issues that have been percolating for years....unresolved conflicts and prejudice. It's like we don't learn anything. I loved reading about Hurston's anthrop...
  • Sylvia Johnson
    The ideas regarding the races in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were thought to be scientific which led to measurements with calipers and pigment color swatches and to sterilizations and institutionalization of those deigned to be subnormal. Franz Boas countered those ideas and mentored a group of anthropologists, mainly women, to truly be scientific, among them Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Zora Neale Hurston. Lots of aha moments her...
  • Stephen
    This is a neat little slice through an early 20th century intellectual circle. Mead, Boaz, Hurston, and others all knew each other and were swimming against a scientific tide of ethno-superior theories, themselves as scientists compiling data from far off places that showed that that which binds us is much, much. much more similar than that which divides us (racially, sexually). It's a good book to trace their intellectual journeys and a good boo...
  • Whitney
    I read this book after hearing the author interviewed on Fresh Air. Before this interview, I did not realize how much I needed a book on anthropology in my life. The Boas circle was a group of anthologists (mostly women) who championed a counter narrative to eugenics/cultural absolutism. This book mostly focuses on the time period between World War I and WWII. This book was so good—informative, readable, and a little gossipy. A reading note, I ...
  • Elisa
    Quite enjoyable, though left me wanting to know more about most subjects (except Franz Boas). Learned a lot new about Zora Neale Hurston's anthropological career, though coverage of Mead pretty conventional. Best part was background contextualization, especially the development and debunkment of race theory-- so relevant at this historical juncture. Terrifically depressing to realize how much of Nazi ideology and practice was taken from US Jim Cr...