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Summer Reading Projects or How to Become Levi-Strauss

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This post is part of the series Excavating Archaeology, which features selections from, and research on, the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology & History of the Early Americas and related collections, housed in the Geography and Map Division and in the Rare Book & Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress.

Writing is a strange invention. One might suppose that its emergence could not fail to bring profound changes in the conditions of human existence. –Claude Levi-Strauss

Black and white photo of elderly man sitting with crossed legs in an office.
Claude Levi-Strauss. Image Courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

We are talking about anthropology here, not blue jeans. Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-2009), who died in 2009 at the age of 100, was by any measure, one of the most important and original anthropologists of the last century. He was prolific in his writing and controversial for a whole host of reasons. His masterpiece, Tristes Tropiques, published in France in 1955, is an account of his fieldwork amongst the Caduveo, Bororo, Nambikwara and Tupi-Kawahib peoples, located in the Amazon basin and upland jungles of Brazil, and was so influential that the cultural critic Susan Sontag called it one of the most important books of the twentieth century.

The style of the book is at times playful and it rejects all of the norms that one usually associates with academic anthropological writing, as Levi-Strauss reflects on the nature of culture and the difficulties of fieldwork in the jungles of the Amazon. He begins in an ironic tone,

I hate traveling and explorers. Yet here I am proposing to tell the story of my expeditions. But how long it has taken me to make up my mind to do so!

After taking us on his adventures through the Amazon and discussing everything from the elementary structures of kinship (another of his great contributions to anthropology in Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté), to the power of writing, he ends with a reflective note. Summarizing what all his work with other cultures taught him about what it is to be human, he explains that our true essence comes through when we just see and experience things as,

…in the contemplation of a mineral more beautiful than all our creations; in the scent that can be smelt at the heart of a lily and is more imbued with more learning than all our books; or in the brief glance heavy with patience, serenity and mutual forgiveness, that through some involuntary understanding, one can sometimes have with a cat.

It is a book I return to again and again.

In 1941, Levi-Strauss escaped from occupied France and was offered a position at the New School for Social Research in New York City. It is in New York City where our story, and my summer reading project begins, as it is where the great anthropologist came across a series of volumes in a bookstore.

Levi Strauss writes of the experience in an article published in the journal Nature, on January 1, 1966, called, Anthropology: It’s Achievements and Future:

Among the many cherished recollections that I have retained of the years I spent in the United States, one remains outstanding because it is associated with what due to my inexperience, appeared to me as something of a discovery. Indeed, it embodies for me to this day the unfathomable wealth and mystery of the city of New York.

What Levi-Strauss is writing about is his discovery of the Annual Reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology, — massive volumes whose publication history begins in 1879. Part of the Jay I. Kislak Collection, the set is composed of 48 volumes in near perfect condition, having been collected over many years.

Photograph of the annual reports on a shelf in the Kislak storage area.
Collection of the Annual Reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology in the Kislak Collection storage vaults at the Library of Congress. Photograph by author.

Levi-Strauss writes that this discovery took place on lower Broadway, when he stumbled on a bookstore which specialized in second-hand “government publications” ( they are all printed by the US Government Printing Office) and where each of the reports could be purchased for two or three dollars.

I can scarcely describe my emotion at this find. That these sacrosanct volumes, in their original green and gold bindings, […] could actually be bought and privately owned was something I had never dreamed of.

Indeed these are truly amazing volumes and document the cultures of the First Nations of the Americas. Although by no means free of the biases and pejoratives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the contents of these volumes, in many cases, represent all that will be known of peoples, customs, and languages, long disappeared.

Page from the 1881-1882 Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology showing the reconstructions of textile patterns based on those found on early ceramics. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Library of Congress.

Richly illustrated and textually dense, Levi-Strauss began collecting each of the reports, explaining that he had “scant resources” and the purchase of a volume sometimes represented all he had to spend on food for several days. It was from these volumes however, that he learned most of the mythology of the First Nations of the Americas, which he would put to use in his four volume Mythologiques.

And so this spring and into the summer, starting in late April, I began my quest to read the thousands of pages in these Annual Reports to get a sense of what they document, and to try to understand what has been lost. It has been a long and difficult road. Starting with the 1879 volume and ending 48 volumes later, I have gone through more than 35,000 pages of text and histories that even as a curator of the archaeology and history of the early Americas, I never knew existed.

Section of the Table of Contents for Volume 35 of the Annual Report showing part of the recipe list and the transcription of the recipe for Fresh Salmon Heads. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Library of Congress.

The most compelling parts of the reports are certainly the long ethnographies that focus on particular cultures, like for example, one written by another great anthropologist of the last century, Franz Boas (1858-1942), who coincidently died on December 21, 1942 while having dinner at the faculty house of Columbia University, collapsing into the arms of Levi-Strauss. Boas’ more than 700 page monograph in Volume 35 from 1913 on the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw, who live in the Pacific Northwest, treats everything from ethnobotany and the arts, to recipes, which are phonetically transcribed from the Kwakʼwala language. The recipe in the figure above for Fresh Salmon Heads is typical, as it begins not with the actual preparation, but by explaining that this dish is never eaten in the morning and that it is a favorite of older people. We are told that salmon heads are eaten very fresh and simply laid out on a food mat, but because of the oil one must wash ones hands afterwards.

I have learned much in my readings and have at times gotten lost in beauty of these languages, in the mythology of the people who now speak, or who once spoke them, and in their use of the resources found in the diverse landscapes they live in, the details of which are spread out on the Reports’ thousands of pages. There is much to contemplate today in these books about our shared history and how it might have all been different. And so, as I continue my exploration of these remarkable volumes, without an end in sight, I can only think of Claude Levi-Strauss’ words,

…the collection of texts and observations contained in the 48 major reports is so impressive that despite the use they have been put to for nearly a century, it is safe to say that only the surface has been scratched.


The complete set of the Annual Reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology is available in digital form from the Smithsonian Institution, so unlike Claude Levi-Strauss, if you want to read them, you will not have to miss today’s lunch.

For those interested in finding more about Claude Levi-Strauss and his work there are two recent biographies: Claude Levi-Strauss: the poet in the laboratory, by Patrick Wilcken, from 2010, and Levi-Strauss: a Biography by Emmanuelle Loyer, from 2018.


Comments (3)

  1. Thank you, Mr. Hessler for sharing your reading project and the background on Levi-Strauss.

    More books to add to my reading list.

  2. Many thanks for this stimulating commentary. Just one question: isn’t the quote that starts “Among the many cherished recollections…” from Levi-Strauss’s article ‘The Disappearance of Man’ in the New York Review of Books (July 28, 1966), not ‘Nature’?

    • Michael, Thank you for your comment. Levi-Strauss published this same article in a number of places including Nature and Current Anthropology. It was a public talk given in Washington, DC, at the Bicentennial Celebration held on September 16-18, commemorating the birth of James Smithson. You can find it here

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