The Concept of the Guardian Spirit in North America, 1923
Tales of the Cochiti Indians, 1931
Patterns of Culture, 1934
Zuni Mythology, 1935
Race: Science and Politics, 1940 (with Gene Weltfish)
The Races of Mankind, 1943
The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture, 1946
Rumanian Culture and Behavior, 1946
Thai Culture and Behavior, 1946
An Anthropologist at Work: Writings of Ruth Benedict, 1959 (Margaret Mead, editor)
The death of her father when she was twenty-one months old affected forever how Ruth Fulton Benedict would view society. Frederick Fulton had finished medical school two years before her birth. Her mother, Beatrice Shattuck Fulton, graduated from Vassar College five years earlier. Because Frederick Fulton suffered from fevers and a wasting disease, the family moved to Norwich in central New York State when Ruth was a baby. Beatrice bore another child, Margery, on December 26, 1888, three months before her husband’s death. Benedict retained throughout her life the memory of her hysterical mother holding her over the serene and peaceful body of Frederick Fulton as he lay in his coffin. For the frightened child, death represented serenity and repose, whereas her mother’s hysterics represented chaos and confusion.
During her childhood, Benedict had measles, which left her partially deaf. This condition made her shy and socially withdrawn. She was, nevertheless, bright and industrious, succeeding well enough in her studies at St. Margaret’s Academy in Buffalo, where her mother had moved to take work as a librarian, to win the scholarship that made possible her attending Vassar. She was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa and graduated in 1909.
For the next five years, Benedict did social work in Buffalo and taught school in Los Angeles, where she lived with her sister, then married. In 1914, she married biochemist Stanley Benedict, admitting that she embarked upon the marriage to control a vague restlessness that surged within her. During the early years of her marriage, she planned to write biographical studies of three feminists but completed only the work on Mary Wollstonecraft, for which she was unable to find a publisher.
Her marriage, which remained childless, did little to assuage the restlessness that still plagued Benedict. This restlessness led her to write poetry, which she published under the pseudonym Anne Singleton.
In 1919, she enrolled in the New School for Social Research, where she took anthropology courses with Alexander Goldenweiser and Elsie Clews Parsons. Parsons insisted that Benedict meet Franz Boas, the famed Columbia University anthropologist and, in 1921, arranged the introduction that the self-effacing Benedict approached with fear and uncertainty.
Benedict was soon admitted to Columbia’s doctoral program in anthropology, where, in 1923, she completed her dissertation, The Concept of the Guardian Spirit in North America. In this early work, Benedict applied principles of modern psychology to the understanding of a culture in an attempt to glean its patterns. The overarching concern in most of Benedict’s subsequent writing had to do with detecting dominant cultural patterns in the societies she was studying.
Benedict taught on an ad hoc basis at Columbia from 1922 until 1930, the year in which she left her husband. At that time, Boas appointed her assistant professor of anthropology, and the depression with which she had lived for over a decade began to fade. She produced her study of the Cochiti Indians in 1931 and was already at work on what was to become her landmark book, Patterns of Culture.
In Patterns of Culture, Benedict drew on her field experience among the Zuñi Indians of New Mexico, upon Boas’s studies of the Kwakiutl Indians of Vancouver Island, and upon Reo Fortune’s studies of the Dobu of Melanesia. Edward Sapir had spurred Benedict on by encouraging her to explore the relationship between the creativity of individuals and the patterns of their culture.
Her examination of the three groups represented in Patterns of Culture led her to label the Zuñi as a moderate, sober, and self-possessed people. The Kwakiutl, on the other hand, were a frenzied group with paranoid delusions of grandeur that led them to self-destructive behaviors. She characterized the Dobu as schizophrenic, a group fearing their environment, ever suspicious of others. She concluded that abnormality has to do with individual deviations from the norms of the culture to which one belongs. She shunned the idea of judging cultures on an ethical basis, preferring to judge them on the relativity of the principles that define them.
This concept was particularly cogent in a world witnessing the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy and its accompanying genocide in all the territory that Germany commanded. As the situation in Europe worsened, Benedict, whose two-volume study of Zuñi mythology had recently been published, turned her attention to the question of race. Her book Race: Science and Politics appeared a year after the invasion of Poland by Adolf Hitler’s Germany triggered World War II. The Races of Mankind, an extension of this study, sold more than a million copies.
Benedict’s work in Washington, D.C., with the Office of War Information from 1943 to 1945 involved her study of three cultures–Rumanian, Japanese, and Thai–resulting in the publication of a book on each culture. The most celebrated of these was The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, which had a profound effect upon the rebuilding of Japan during the American occupation after World War II.
Despite her international reputation and obvious scholarly superiority, Benedict was not promoted to full professor at Columbia until 1948. Shortly thereafter, on September 17, she succumbed to a heart attack.