PARTICIPANT OBSERVER: Memoir of a Transatlantic life
E. O. Wilson
“thoughtful and adventurous”
“smiter of chicanery”
Richard de Mille
“independent and original”
“fascinating and funny”
Lord Smith of Clifton
“complex and responsible”
New York Sun
“elegant and amusing”
“witty and informative”
Transaction Publishers 2004
Cloth: 575 pp. $44.95/₤28.95 ISBN: 0-7658-0133-7
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“I listened, jaw-sagging, as a brilliant young anthropologist, Robin Fox, lectured on the intricacies of kinship systems.”
David Attenborough, Life on Air: Memoir of a Broadcaster (2002)
Participant Observer is the story of how Robin Fox, now one of the most prominent anthropologists of our time, born in England 'on the dole' in the Great Depression, managed against the odds to get to the point described by David Attenborough: at the London School of Economics in the mid-sixties. It goes on to tell how he went on from there to become a pioneer of what Robert Ardrey called “the revolution in the social sciences” - the revolution that, after a hundred years, took Darwin seriously in the study of behavior.
In the autobiographical tradition of Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, but crossed with a good dose of Angela’s Ashes, Fox, acting as the independent narrator of his own life, takes us on an exuberant romp through the thirties to the seventies of last century, over several continents but mainly Europe and America. It is a personal, historical and intellectual journey, which is at once intriguing, hilarious and moving. Without ever mentioning his own name, or any dates, he looks for all the impingements that caused the protean shifts in this sprawling mini-saga of the adventures of a child of the meritocracy.
From the proverbial humble beginnings, in a family whose income (the dole) was “a shilling a week less than Frank McCourt’s” he became one of those at the center of the great debate of the century: the contention about the nature of human nature in a world that had learned, or failed to learn, from Darwin. But it was a long road, peppered with strange events, brain-bending ideas, odd adventures, dangers and sorrows, loves and losses, and a spectacular cast of lively – often very strange – characters. From Bertrand Russell and Noam Chomsky, to Margaret Mead and Konrad Lorenz, via William Fulbright, Kingsley Amis, and Lionel Tiger, among many, many others. Throughout all this he floats, like Christopher Isherwood’s camera, at once observant and baffled, interested and amazed, sympathetic and cynical, but eternally curious.
He feels he has been the observer of a series of endings: the last gasps of now extinct ways of life. He saw the last of the old steam-powered northern-English wool towns of the industrial revolution and the moorland sheep-herding life that still surrounded them; of the pre-industrial farm-and-village Thomas Hardy countryside of southern England; of the ancient Grammar Schools before their destruction by doctrinaire socialism; of the old London School of Economics when it was still an international family, not just a big college; of the brave but failed experiment that was Talcott Parsons’ Social Relations Department at Harvard; of the innocent but troubled America of the fifties; of the last gasp of traditional Indian life in New Mexico and the Southwest; of “genteel Jane Austen England” in Devon; of peasant-crofter-fishing life in the Gaelic-speaking Irish islands; of the old American rah-rah men’s college at Rutgers and Princeton; of the amateur bullfight in provincial South America; of the intimate and eccentric world of anthropology before its rapid expansion in the seventies; and of the whole “deferential society” wounded in the sixties and seventies, and beginning to be erased by political correctness and egalitarian dumbing down in a world changed utterly by the baby boom, the pill and Vietnam.
There is no index since many of the characters appear with only first names or epithets (“The Dean” – “The Vicar”) especially in the early chapters where they approach mythological status. The following are some of the better-known people he encountered, in academia, politics, literature, entertainment and media, making (sometimes consequential, sometimes fleeting) appearances in Participant Observer:
…Billie Whitelaw, Harold Macmillan, H.R.H King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, Glenn Miller, Raymond Firth, T. H. Marshall, Maurice Freedman, Isaac Schapera, Lucy Mair, Morris Ginsberg, Max Gluckman, Lonnie Donegan, Karl Popper, Ernest Gellner, A. J. Ayer, Lucien Freud, Michael Oakeshott, Enoch Powell, Bertrand Russell, Peter O’Toole, Julian Pitt-Rivers, John Barnes, Daryll Forde, Prince Peter of Greece, Mary Douglas, Kenneth Oakley, Michael Chance, Leonard Williams, John Williams, Evon Vogt, Clyde Kluckhohn, Douglas Oliver, The Aga Khan, B. F. Skinner, Noam Chomsky, James Watson, Paul Friedrich, William Howells, Talcott Parsons, Robert Bales, B. F. Skinner, George Homans, Dell Hymes, John F. Kennedy, John Whiting, Laura Nader, Kurt Vonnegut, Roy D’Andrade, Francis Fergusson, Fidel Castro, Archibald MacLeish, Fred Eggan, Esther Goldfrank, D. J. O’Connor, John Bowlby, Derek Hill, Peter Watkins, David Glass, Joan Bakewell, Keith Hopkins, John Griffith, John Hajnal, Dominic Behan, Lord Raglan, Burton Benedict, William Golding, Lionel Tiger, John Napier, Les Hiatt, Julian Huxley, Cybill Shepherd, Ernst Caspari, Joanne Woodward, Barbara Walters, Niko Tinbergen, Nathaniel Tarn, Lord Smith of Clifton, William Fulbright, Anthony Forge, Francis Huxley, Frederick Turner, Jacques Monod, Claude Levi-Strauss, Alex Comfort, David Attenborough, Milton Eisenhower, Desmond Morris, Jane Goodall, Louis Malle, Robert Ardrey, Ashley Montagu, Margaret Mead, Derek Freeman, Alan Lomax, David Schneider, Lord Longford, Rodney Needham, Kingsley Amis, Noel (Lord) Annan, Godfrey Lienhardt, Iris Murdoch, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, The Prince of Liège, Richard Lee, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Pierre Boulez, Jane Lancaster, Yehudi Cohen, Massimo Piateli-Palmarini, Merv Griffin, Irven DeVore, Richard de Mille, Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Stuart Hampshire, Konrad Lorenz, William Golding, Erving Goffman, Jean Martinon, Saul Bellow, Countess of Hardwicke, Peter Vayda, Omar Shariff, Napoleon Chagnon, Maurice Girodias, Prince Poniatowski, Conrad Arensberg, Irving Kristol, Bill Kristol, Richard Poirier, Mason Gross, Charles Lindberg, Harry Guggenhem, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Marvin Harris, Daniel Bell, Richard Rorty, Tom Khun, Clifford Geertz, Joyce Carol Oates, Francis Fukuyama, Joe Namath, Alfonso Ortiz, Joe Alsop, David Hamburg, Iraneus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Baronessa Ricasoli, Karl Pribram, Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, Sherwood Washburn, Jilly Cooper, Edmund Leach, A, L Rowse, Meyer Fortes, Leonard Cohen, Howard Bloom, Antony Jay, Isaiah Berlin, Jimmy Doolittle, James Gavin, W. V. Quine, Jack Goody, Reo Fortune, Alister Hardy, Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, Barnaby Conrad, William Hamilton, Richard Dawkins, Robert Trivers, Maurice Bowra, Phyllis Chesler, Helen Fisher, Mary-Beth Whitehead and "Baby M", E. O. Wilson…
Comments On: Participant Observer:
“Robin Fox has had a fascinating, adventurous and funny life. It would make a great movie.” Peter Cattaneo, director of Academy Award nominee for Best Picture, The Full Monty.
“Participant Observer is so well written, so high-table picaresque, so obsessively learned (as can only be the product of a British education), so slant, so provocative and skitterish. Who is this remarkable third-person writer pirouetting all around me? An important work stylistically and an important account of a chapter in intellectual history, by a scholar who strides science and the humanities, and who records here the richness of his travels around the borderlands.” E. O. Wilson (Harvard University.) Sociobiology: The New Synthesis; On Human Nature; Naturalist; Consilience; Genes, Mind and Culture; The Diversity of Life; The Bio-Philia Hypothesis, etc.
“A whirlwind ride through the formative years of modern anthropology. Robin Fox has never failed to entertain me.” Desmond Morris. The Naked Ape; The Human Zoo; Manwatching: A Field Guide to Human Behavior; The Human Animal, etc.
“An unexpectedly charming, eminently literary and often quite hilarious account and exposé of the intellectual life. Academic departmental insanities, egos run amok, brilliant theories, sexual and romantic (mis)alliances, adventure, ambition, illusion, childhood griefs, all jostle for our attention. If you want to know about some of the greatest ideas of twentieth century social science, and about the culture and era that produced them, this is the book for you. Fox names names; he’s met them all, and he exposes both their genius and their frailties. It is painstakingly recreated, refreshingly scandalous, and a must read for all those who want to understand the ideas that have shaped our world and our perception of it. He turns the thinking life into the grand adventure that it is.” Phyllis Chesler. Women and Madness; Patriarchy; Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman; The New Anti-Semitism etc.
“A courageous man lives a hundred lives, because he fears none of the branches that the path of life opens up to us. Robin Fox is one of the most courageous men of our times, not in one way, as is usual, but in three: his courage is physical, emotional and intellectual. He is a great adventurer, a traveler in the tradition of Sir Richard Burton, Merriweather Lewis, and T. E. Lawrence, and his life reads like the best sort of adventure story. He is also a great experiencer – his loves, friendships and personal vicissitudes run the gamut from the tragic, through the richly comic, to the revelatory, seen here with an honesty unusual in a memoirist. Most of all he is one of the intellectual champions of our era. There is scarcely a single major issue in the human sciences in which he has not been embroiled, never taking the politic path, always representing the unpopular side, and uncomfortably right, as it proved, most of the time. Participant Observer, is a romp at blazing speed and with unfailing wit and verve through the great period of anthropology as it developed from an obscure and marginal field into one of the most influential disciplines in the world. It is full of brilliant portraits of the great actors of that drama, and indeed of many of the leading figures of the last several decades in politics, show business, the arts and the sciences in general. It represents a worldview that we need now more than ever: one that loves the human race in all its self-ignorance, its tragic contradictions, and its foolish hopes.”Frederick Turner (U. of Texas – Dallas.) Genesis: An Epic Poem; The New World; Hadean Eclogues; Natural Classicism; Beauty: The Value of Values; Shakespeare’s Twenty-first-Century Economics; The Culture of Hope; Tempest, Flute and Oz, etc.
“Robin Fox, once young rebel, now eminent explainer of social origins, smiter of chicanery and academic pap, is also a literary man, linguist, poet, singer, artist and adventurer. Friend and precept find him loyal. Fools he suffers suffer from him. He wears emblematic names, and you recognize him. Hideous shapes dance with beauty. Fear pursues glory. Buy it, steal it, keep it safe between the cinnamon and the ginger.” Richard de Mille.My Secret Mother, Lorna Moon; Castaneda’s Journey; The Don Juan Papers; Nail Your Mother to the Ceiling, etc
“Robin Fox writes with great charm, directness and wit. His thinking is always independent and original. The unusual idea of combining a history of anthropology with the anthropologist’s personal memoirs opens unexpected emotional and intellectual depths.” Mary Douglas. Purity and Dange; Natural Symbols; Leviticus as Literature; Implicit Meanings; The World of Goods, etc.
“Robin Fox was an influential pioneer of what many consider the most important intellectual revolution of our time: the recognition of the inherited parameters of human behavior. He has now written a memoir that deftly blends the nascence of this tectonic shift in the way humans perceive themselves with the way one human sees his own fascinating life. The result is a witty, artfully written autobiography, that is both important in the history of ideas and a joy to read.” William Wright. Lillian Hellman: The Image, The Woman; Pavarotti: My World; The Washington Game; The Von Bulow Affair; Born That Way: Genes, Behavior, Personality, etc.
“Robin Fox has written a spirited, poetic, amusing and erudite account of his journey through life and science. As his thoughtful and adventurous narrative unfolds, you come to understand the major 20th century ideas and events that have revolutionized the social sciences and are setting the intellectual trends today. It’s a grand read: learned and an awful lot of fun.” Helen Fisher. Why We Love; The First Sex; The Anatomy of Love; The Sex Contract.
“Participant Observer describes a fascinating intellectual odyssey that occurred over the second half of the twentieth century. It is both a commentary on a career, from precocious schoolboy to distinguished academician and, equally, an interpretation of the significant changes in the development of the social sciences during the period. He evokes forceful memories of English university life as it was poised to be transformed from an elite to a mass system of tertiary education. This is contrasted with the USA and Harvard and Rutgers, where he spent most of his career. It is a celebration of the interconnectedness between thought and action.” Lord Smith of Clifton, former Vice-chancellor, The University of Ulster.
“Robin Fox, citing Hume, says that the very idea of ‘self’ is a colossal act of faith. This faith is amply justified in Fox’s case. His account of his long, rich life is gracefully crafted, consistently interesting, frequently funny, and all in all a pleasure to read. Since it has been a life of the mind, it is also a lively history of the ideas and events of the mid-to-late twentieth century. It will interest anyone who wants to understand the modern transformation of the social sciences by biology.” Melvin Konner (Emory University).The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit; Becoming a Doctor; Why the Reckless Survive, and Other Secrets of Human Nature; The Paleolithic Prescription.
"This book is dedicated to all those who appear in it, including the apparently undeserving. Thank you all for an interesting life."
Part One: Stages in a Life
Ch. 1. The Child: Dancing for the Woolworth Ladies
Ch. 2. The Boy: Making it to the Next Foxhole
Ch. 3. The Youth: Coming in on Roller Skates
Ch. 4. The Student: Putting on the Masks
Ch. 5. The Novice: Mixing with the Yeast Enzymes
Ch. 6. The Initiate: Journeying Through Wonderland
Ch. 7. The Apprentice: Letting the Soul Catch Up
Ch. 8. The Idea: Challenging the Dominant Males
Ch. 9. The Career: Telling God Your Plans
Ch 10. The Book: Engaging the Living Fossils
Part Two: Scenes from a Life
Ch. 11 The Dances: Communing with Strange Gods
Ch. 12 The Man: Outwitting the British
Ch. 13 The Hetaerae: Surviving Sex in the Seventies
Ch. 14 The Bulls: Managing a Magus in Colombia
Ch. 15 The Meals: Eating Well while Thinking Big
Part Three: Reflections on a Life
Ch. 16 The Point: Connecting with the Teenage Murderer
There is no heavy hand of ‘research’ here; the story is told as it unfolds in his memory, which is capacious and detailed, but pointed and accurate, if a little hazy on chronology. Every page raises a laugh, provokes a thought, or taps the emotions. It is always human, sometimes sad, sometimes ridiculous, sometimes hilarious, but never less than interesting.
It is a kind of Cook’s Tour through the ideas and intellectual movements of mid-century, when the world changed and the foundations of the twenty-first century were set. It is the history of an education by a narrator in love with learning. Anyone who has had an education will be entranced, for the process has never been described like this before. To go on the author’s personal roller coaster ride (which he describes as ‘fact loosely based on fiction’) through this turbulent time is to understand better what we came from and where we are heading, but never in the process to be preached at. One reader described it as ‘the thinking man’s Angela’s Ashes’ – except that it is a lot more believable, a lot more informative, and a lot funnier.
Robin Fox has received many accolades for his previous writing (nineteen books to date.) The New Yorker praised Encounter with Anthropology for its “sympathy, wit, learning and acumen.” The New York Times Book Review said his essays in The Challenge of Anthropology were “erudite, witty, irreverent, creative, cryptic at times, challenging all the time, and free of academic cant.” The Chicago Sun-Times praised his writing in The Red Lamp of Incest for its “effortless elegance and charm.” Iris Murdoch called The Violent Imagination, “A free, wild book… a beautiful, strange work.” Ashley Montagu praised the same work for its “wit, humor, learning and insight.” The Saturday Review said The Imperial Animal was “one of the most creative contributions to the social science literature. It is also superlative writing… an impressive tour de force.” Napoleon Chagnon said Fox was “rapidly becoming the conscience of anthropology.” The poet and critic Fred Turner said The Passionate Mind was “A book bursting with wit, courage, panache, brilliance and defiant originality.” The American Anthropologist praised his essays as “witty, sarcastic, large minded, philosophically informed, inventive.” John Mella, the editor of Light, said his poetry “recalls Auden at his best.” Kurt Vonnegut said: “You write like an angel.” His first book, Kinship and Marriage, is still in print in more than half a dozen languages, fifty years after publication, and remains one of the most widely read anthropology texts in the world.