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Gods of the Upper Air

How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century
Narrated by: January LaVoy
Length: 13 hrs and 32 mins
Categories: History, American
4.5 out of 5 stars (40 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

“Elegant and kaleidoscopic.... This looks to be the perfect moment for King’s resolutely humane book.” (Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times)

“Captivating." (NPR.org)

From an award-winning historian comes a dazzling history of the birth of cultural anthropology and the adventurous scientists who pioneered it - a sweeping chronicle of discovery and the fascinating origin story of our multicultural world.

A century ago, everyone knew that people were fated by their race, sex, and nationality to be more or less intelligent, nurturing, or warlike. But Columbia University professor Franz Boas looked at the data and decided everyone was wrong. Racial categories, he insisted, were biological fictions. Cultures did not come in neat packages labeled "primitive" or "advanced". What counted as a family, a good meal, or even common sense was a product of history and circumstance, not of nature. In Gods of the Upper Air, a masterful narrative history of radical ideas and passionate lives, Charles King shows how these intuitions led to a fundamental reimagining of human diversity.     

Boas' students were some of the century's most colorful figures and unsung visionaries: Margaret Mead, the outspoken field researcher whose Coming of Age in Samoa is among the most widely read works of social science of all time; Ruth Benedict, the great love of Mead's life, whose research shaped post-Second World War Japan; Ella Deloria, the Dakota Sioux activist who preserved the traditions of Native Americans on the Great Plains; and Zora Neale Hurston, whose studies under Boas fed directly into her now classic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Together, they mapped civilizations from the American South to the South Pacific and from Caribbean islands to Manhattan's city streets, and unearthed an essential fact buried by centuries of prejudice: that humanity is an undivided whole. Their revolutionary findings would go on to inspire the fluid conceptions of identity we know today.       

Rich in drama, conflict, friendship, and love, Gods of the Upper Air is a brilliant and groundbreaking history of American progress and the opening of the modern mind. 

©2019 Charles King (P)2019 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

“An intellectual adventure story of the best sort - elegantly written, thought-provoking, and full of biographical riches.” (Sarah Bakewell, author of How to Live and At the Existentialist Cafe)

“A masterful history of a group of maverick thinkers in the early 20th century who aimed to dethrone the eugenicists dominating racial thought. With eugenics ascendant again, King’s story is a vital book for our times.” (Ibram X. Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, winner of the 2016 National Book Award)

“Deeply thought-provoking and brilliantly written, Gods of the Upper Air is a walk in the shoes of giants. Charles King takes you on an unforgettable journey as daring anthropologists unravel the profound mysteries of culture and mankind, and discover that they, too, were only human.” (David Hoffman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Dead Hand and The Billion Dollar Spy)

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Great Book, Much Needed despite poor performance

This is one of those books that everyone should read. It lays out the history of cultural relativism and how a group of groundbreaking scholars developed the field of anthropology. As Americans, we have since our inception been consumed with how to understand people who are different from us, whether they come from another country, society or race. And our record for understanding, accepting and appreciating "the other" has been miserable, from slavery, to the eugenics movement, to immigration. This book provides both the history of our cultural blindness and intolerance and the scholars who opened our eyes to the importance and value of the rest of the world.

One dreadful fact that has been buried in our sense of exceptionalism is that Adolf Hitler saw The United States as a model of racial theory and practice for creating the Master Race.

Unfortunately, the reader of this audiobook didn't take the time to learn how to pronounce many foreign names and words. I can understand her not having access to the correct pronunciation of Samoan, but German and French coaches are easily available.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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A must read

This is a very special book. The intellectual courage of Boas and his students and their research questions are as important as they were 100 years ago. A great read for understanding a bit better modern racism.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Fascinating Look at Early Anthropologists and Their Legacy

I came to this book knowing about Margaret Meade and Zora Neale Hurston, but not that they had worked for the same mentor (Franz Boaz), and not that the work they did directly confronted home-grown racist assumptions promoted by other early anthropologists. King's writing is engaging and accessible, following the lives of Boaz, Meade, Hurston, and a representative group of colleagues while also exploring the ways that American Jim Crow laws and American supporters of the eugenics movement were cited by the Nazis to further their own program. Readers who pay even minimal attention to current events will find chilling parallels in our daily news. Highly recommended. January LaVoy is an excellent reader.

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FASCINATING

A lot I did not know. A lot we are living today.
What wonders the world must have lost when cultural development was arrested by european presence. Would we have all fallen prey to market capitalism and violence borne of possession?

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eye opening

this his/her story is as relevant today as it was in the days of Boas and company. An important read.