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Nancy Lutkehaus Fascinates with New Book

Margaret Mead: The Making of an American Icon

By Susan Andrews
February 18, 2009

USC College Professor of Anthropology Nancy Lutkehaus reads from her new book, Margaret Mead: The Making of an American Icon

USC College Professor of Anthropology Nancy Lutkehaus reads from her new book, Margaret Mead: The Making of an American Icon

In her latest book, Margaret Mead: The Making of an American Icon, USC College Professor of Anthropology Nancy Lutkehaus expertly researches and draws upon scholarly papers, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, photographs, films and television to tell an intriguing and powerful story.

Mead (1901–78), an American cultural icon, prolific writer and anthropologist popularized anthropology in the media. She first entered the public scene with her book Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), which brought instant fame while causing much debate. Mead's book is considered by many to be one of the century’s most influential academic works.

But why did Lutkehaus choose to write a book about Mead when there are so many already? In her introductory chapter, Lutkehaus offers readers an explanation after stating that her book is neither a biography nor a hagiography.

“There are a couple of things that make my book different from others about Mead,” Lutkehaus explained. “Mine is the first to be written about her by an anthropologist. Rather than a biography, however, I have chosen to look at her as an anthropologist might look at a culture hero in another society, asking the question: Why did an anthropologist in particular become so famous? What was it about her work, her life, and her messages that intrigued American society about their own country during the 20th century?”

Lutkehaus identifies Mead as the New Woman, the Anthropologist/Adventurer, the Scientist and the Public Intellectual. She writes that the book is a study of the various images of Mead that have circulated in popular culture during the 20th century and the meanings ascribed to the different social selves individuals have attributed to her.

Mead, according to Lutkehaus, was adamant about the fact that anthropology could also be practiced “at home” in one’s own society.

“As she said, ‘Everything is anthropology!’ In the second half of her career she wrote more about American society than she did about non-Western societies,” Lutkehaus said. “What she became famous for was her ability to use insights that she gained from other societies to reflect upon ways in which American society could change for the better.”

Lutkehaus was both a student of and an assistant to Mead, who worked at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City for 50 years. While employed at the museum, Lutkehaus was inspired by Mead to complete her dissertation research in Papua New Guinea.

Lutkehaus’ fifth book was officially launched on Nov. 13 at the American Museum of Natural History. The kickoff for Anthropology Now, a new popular magazine published to inform people about current issues in anthropology, was part of the event. Mead’s daughter and granddaughter also participated.

The Chronicle of Higher Education highlighted Lutkehaus book in their Nov. 28 issue, and the Times Higher Education Supplement recently featured Lutkehaus’ book as its “Book of the Week” citing it as intriguing and thought-provoking a biography as one could wish for.

To read the entire book description or introduction, visit press.princeton.edu.