New Books Network

Charles King

Gods of the Upper Air

How A Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century

Doubleday 2019

New Books in American StudiesNew Books in AnthropologyNew Books in Gender StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Intellectual HistoryNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books Network September 4, 2019 Alex Golub

American anthropologists consider Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead to be foundational figures, but outside the academy few people know the details of...

American anthropologists consider Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead to be foundational figures, but outside the academy few people know the details of their ideas. In this new volume, Charles King provides a carefully-researched and beautifully-written history of the Boas Circle that everyone will enjoy reading. King covers the period from Boas’s birth to the publication of Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, combining the personal and intellectual histories of authors such as Zora Neale Hurston, Ella Deloria, Edward Sapir, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and of course Boas himself. Above all, Gods of the Upper Air: How A Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century (Doubleday, 2019) is a reminder of the central ideas of Boasian anthropology: a recognition that gender roles and racial assumptions are cultural constructions and not biological facts, and that we must be willing to question our own comfortable assumptions while the same time recognising the validity of careful scientific work. In an America where racial intolerance is on the rise, it seems likely that the insights of the Boasians will be as relevant in 2020 as they were in 1920, which makes it all the more important to revisit these seminal figures.

In this episode of the podcast Charles talk to host Alex Golub about the romantic and professional drama of the Boasians, the need for a science that can be self-critical without abandoning self-confidence, the continuing legacy of race in the United States, and how and why Charles wrote such a wide-ranging history of anthropology.

Charles King is a professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University. He is the author of six previous books, including Midnight at the Pera Palace, which received the French Prix du livre de voyage; and Odessa, winner of a National Jewish Book Award.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. He is the author of the article “Welcoming the New Amateurs: A future (and past) for non-academic anthropologists” as well as other books and articles.