TO TELL THE STORY of the life of another is no small feat, requiring both small and large contexts. And it is not something anthropologists do, as biography is most often the province of historians and freelance writers. As a result, the lives of anthropologists such as James Mooney, Lewis Henry Morgan, Ruth Benedict, Sir Henry Maine, and Franz Boas were written by historians — or, in the case of A.L. Kroeber by his wife. Elsie Clews Parsons: Inventing Modern Life was authored by Desley Deacon, a professor of American Studies and Sociology, as part of the series “Woman in Culture and Society.” Cora Du Bois: Anthropologist, Diplomat, Agent, on the other hand, was written by ethnographer Susan Seymour, who was a student, advisee, friend, and admirer of Du Bois. Not surprisingly, Seymour’s methods include the best research techniques an ethnographer might muster: extensive interviews and a thorough exploration of the available data in the archives at Harvard University, the University of Chicago, the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, and the Smithsonian National Archives in Washington, DC, along with only recently declassified materials from the CIA, FBI records, and personal and family documents. Seymour even visited all of Du Bois’s childhood residences in the United States and Europe, and interviewed former Office of Strategic Services (OSS) colleagues. The result is a classic biography of a distinguished American.

Seymour’s story of this distinguished anthropologist and her international family — she was of American, French, Swiss, and German ancestry — is also a book about several important periods in American history: the Great Depression, the New Deal, World War II, the spy era as the OSS morphed into the CIA, the Cold War, the Red Scare, and the McCarthy trials. Senator McCarthy’s witch hunts had a great impact on higher education in the United States — and especially at Harvard and Columbia Universities, as well as the University of California, where a revised version of the loyalty act had been put in place by the UC Regents.

Cora Du Bois was a person of high intelligence, dignity, and American idealism, and Seymour tells her story in the context of 20th-century feminism (in which Du Bois did not take an active part), lesbian lives, and the breaking of the barriers of the Old Boys’ Club at Harvard and UC Berkeley. The “department of isolates” at Harvard was where I met professor Du Bois, for whom I was a teaching assistant in her introductory class on sociocultural anthropology — a class in which Harvard students, not accustomed to a woman professor, both booed and then clapped when she retorted: “What’s the matter, can’t take it?”

Seymour’s book reads like a detective novel in parts, a history in others, as she follows the adventurous life of a “distant observer of mankind.” During her last year as a history major at Barnard College, Du Bois took an anthropology class at Columbia University with Franz Boas (sometimes dubbed the father of American anthropology) and Ruth Benedict of Patterns of Culture (1934) fame, a class in which Margaret Mead was a teaching assistant. Boas had also trained A.L. Kroeber and Robert Lowie, who were to become Du Bois’s mentors when she became a graduate student at Berkeley in January 1929. Du Bois, taking the train across the country to join the department, wrote a poem expressing her emotional state upon leaving the eastern side of the continent for her new adventures out West — poetry was something she tended to write when making a major transition in her life.

Du Bois’s training as a graduate student began under the tutelage of Kroeber, the founder of the UC Berkeley anthropology department, and Lowie. A number of her fellow graduate students were women; others included the illustrious Max Radin and his unemployed brother Paul, who had already published two important books. Graduate life was truly an adventurous change from life in the East, and Berkeley anthropology was very sociable at that time — although Kroeber was mostly formal, Lowie, a bachelor until he reached his mid-50s, was very gregarious. He often invited his students to dine with him in the evening in San Francisco, something almost unimaginable today. Learning was mixed with fun times in spite of — or maybe because of — difficult economic times.

Fieldwork was central to the broad training at Berkeley, and Du Bois began hers with the Native American Wintu on Mt. Shasta, where she spent three and a half months in summer 1929 along with a fellow student (Dorothy Demetracopolou, later Dorothy D. Lee) whose interests were in Wintu shamans and linguistics. As Du Bois studied Wintu myths, she became especially interested in psychiatry — what was normal and what was not, a direction later encouraged by her mentor.

After completion of her PhD in 1932, Du Bois could not find employment; it did not help that she was a woman, and that, in the middle of the Great Depression, she did not have a family to support. So — jobless — she stayed on in Berkeley, and with the help of small grants that her mentors found for her, she began research on the Ghost Dance religion, which spread from the northern Paiute of California to Nevada and Oregon, and further east. The Ghost Dancers believed that their dead relatives would return, and that they who had suffered so much with the invasion of the white peoples would once again enjoy peace and prosperity.

Her interest in religious movements and native peoples changed in 1935 when she received a National Research Council fellowship, bringing with it an opportunity to move back East to work on issues of the individual and culture, known to most as personality and culture studies. She received training at the Boston Psychopathic Hospital and as well as working with Henry Murray’s seminar on “Explorations in Personality” at Harvard. Then, in New York, she eventually led a seminar with psychiatrist Abram Kardiner on the individual, culture, and society, training psychoanalysts, psychologists, and other social scientists. Du Bois’s specialty was cross-cultural personality variability. She also taught part time at Sarah Lawrence College.

In 1937, Du Bois journeyed by ship to a remote island off the coast of Indonesia, an archipelago that was part of the Dutch East Indies, to carry out research on the individual and culture. There she spent 18 months among a group of former headhunters. She built a house and became a resident dispenser of medical care to those in need while collecting materials for her major ethnography later published as The People of Alor: A Social Psychological Study of an East Indian Island (1944). Upon returning home, Du Bois was once again in transition, and once again found that writing poetry helped: “Something is coming to an end / And nothing else has started,” she wrote. But not for long.

When World War II began, along with many others, she offered her services to her government and loyally served in the OSS, which took her on a month’s journey by ship to Ceylon and India. Du Bois at the age of 40 had exceptional organizing capacity, and she became the only woman to head one of OSS’s branch offices, working with Lord Louis Mountbatten, Britain’s commander in Southeast Asia. Most of her colleagues were men, although amongst the women was one Julia McWilliams, later to become Julia Child. During that time, she also met her life partner Jeanne Taylor, and as well as renewing her friendship with Gregory Bateson. Du Bois was charged with preparing intelligence reports on Burma, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Indo-China, all areas where anti-Japanese military operations were being contemplated. Her notes indicate her concern with the lack of any long-term vision from Washington with regards to the breakup of the colonial system in Southeast Asia, and she commented on the Eurocentric nature of the Truman administration, a problem that still besets the United States right into the 21st century.

When the war ended, she returned to Washington, DC, where she received the Executive Service Award. Her 1946 Exceptional Civilian Award read in part that Du Bois “contributed in a determining degree to the success of 18 major clandestine military operations directed against the enemy [… That she is] the only woman to whom a position of similar responsibility has been entrusted by the OSS is a clear indication of the high quality and value of her work.” Du Bois became a major player at the State Department, and in her attempts to educate her colleagues, she was forever an idealist, and, as she later admitted, politically naive. After receiving her award from the US Army, she was also awarded recognition by the Thai government for her work in the Free Thai Movement.

Throughout this time, her friendships with Lowie and Kroeber continued, through extensive correspondence as well as intermittent visits. When she was doing her postdoctoral work, Lowie wrote:

Kroeber tells me that you are somewhat perplexed by the observations you are making in the clinic. However, both Kroeber and Cy [Lowie’s wife] agree that you need not worry about this. The main point now is for you to see as many cases in the flesh as possible. Ultimately you will be able to bring some order into the chaos.

Lowie also expressed amusement at her accounts of interactions with Margaret Mead and went on to criticize Mead’s book Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935), objecting to Mead’s broad generalizations about men’s and women’s attitudes with so little data. Empirical data was what both mentors stressed as essential in fieldwork.

They became even more concerned about her wellbeing with the onset of anti-communist hysteria. While Du Bois was at the State Department, her longtime partner Jeanne was accused by Senator McCarthy’s committee of being a member of the Communist Party. Du Bois herself was later investigated by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI for being a radical, which at that time might have simply meant being overtly lesbian. The United States had become a major world power, and not coincidentally area studies programs proliferated. In 1948, while Kroeber, who had retired from Berkeley, was teaching at Columbia University, he visited Du Bois in Washington, DC, and concluded that she was about finished with her work at the State Department. As she put it, she was “more than a little distressed by the stench of fear which pervades the bureaucracy.” She could see what was going to happen in Vietnam. The situation was increasingly demoralizing, and Du Bois felt increasingly ineffective. Kroeber suggested to his colleagues that Berkeley ought to offer her a full, tenured professorship. As Lowie was preparing to retire, they agreed. In 1949, President Sproul himself visited her in Washington, DC, and offered her the position. She accepted to begin in 1951.

Du Bois was the first woman to be offered a position in the anthropology department at UC Berkeley. Meanwhile, the UC Regents had instituted a new loyalty oath in which there was a communist party clause. Du Bois wanted that part of the oath deleted, and when that request was refused, she declined to take the Berkeley position. She would not sign the loyalty oath, which she thought stifled “free and fearless inquiry.” Her loyalty was to the founding fathers. The FBI investigation of her, which lasted from 1953 to 1960, was generated in part because she had not signed the UC loyalty oath. The anticommunist hysteria was real, but not the only example of such manufactured hysteria, which comes and goes in our country, and Du Bois found herself again transient. The teaching offers that did come forward were not tantalizing. Then, in 1953, Clyde Kluckhohn called from Harvard about the Harvard-Radcliffe Zemurray Professorship. Du Bois accepted the offer and became the first woman faculty member at Harvard University. She had come full circle.

It was at Harvard that Du Bois began a long-range study of “high civilizational culture” — quite a change from studying nonliterate peoples — at Bhubaneswar, India, which housed the new capital after independence from Britain. Her India project produced quality publications by her graduate students, but Du Bois in the meantime had begun to realize the misconceptions of “development studies” and the juxtaposing of “traditional” with “modernization.” As she put it, “Modernization is again one of those superficial blanket terms that means little more than a contemporary effort to cope with new situations.” Once again, perhaps, disillusionment set in, and she did not complete her own work on the project. She was however an inspired and inspiring teacher for generations of students.

This book, ­Cora Du Bois: Anthropologist, Diplomat, Agent, deserves wide readership, and not only among anthropologists and historians (especially those interested in gay and lesbian histories and those interested in the history of ideas relating to political causes). It should be read by young adults, as well, who get too little history in school. The book speaks to the present war on terror, the hysteria around Islamophobia, and the revelatory whistleblowers who address governmental overreach. Susan Seymour makes clear the irony of a woman with principle — a patriotic American who attempted to see beyond the present — being first rewarded by her country and then defamed by its intelligence agencies for doing so. There are important contemporary lessons here. If we don’t know where we have come from, we can’t see where our country is heading, for good or for worse, as is made clear in this totally absorbing book.

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Laura Nader is a professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her book, What the Rest Think of the West Since 600 AD, is forthcoming from UC Press.