23 OCTOBER, 2013
By: Maria Popova
“The thought of you now makes me a little unbearably happy.”
Margaret Mead endures as the world’s best-known and most influential cultural anthropologist, who not only popularized anthropology itself but also laid the foundation for the sexual revolution of the 1960s with her studies of attitudes towards sex. In addition to broadening cultural conventions through her work, she also embodied the revolution in her personal life. Married three times to men, she dearly loved her third husband, the renowned British anthropologist Gregory Bateson, with whom she had a daughter. But the most intense and enduring relationship of her life was with a woman — the anthropologist and folklorist Ruth Benedict, Mead’s mentor at Columbia university, fourteen years her senior. The two shared a bond of uncommon magnitude and passion, which stretched across a quarter century until the end of Benedict’s life.
Margaret’s love letters to Ruth, posthumously gathered in To Cherish the Life of the World: Selected Letters of Margaret Mead (public library) with the permission of Mead’s daughter, are a thing of absolute, soul-stirring beauty, on par with such famed epistolary romances as those between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas.
In August of 1925, 24-year-old Mead sailed to Samoa, beginning the journey that would produce her enormously influential treatise Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation. (Mead, who believed that “one can love several people and that demonstrative affection has its place in different types of relationship,” was married at the time to her first husband and they had an unconventional arrangement that both allowed her to do field work away from him for extended periods of time and accommodated her feelings for Ruth.) On her fourth day at sea, she writes Benedict with equal parts devotion and urgency:
Ruth, dear heart,
. . . The mail which I got just before leaving Honolulu and in my steamer mail could not have been better chosen. Five letters from you — and, oh, I hope you may often feel me near you as you did — resting so softly and sweetly in your arms. Whenever I am weary and sick with longing for you I can always go back and recapture that afternoon out at Bedford Hills this spring, when your kisses were rained down on my face, and that memory ends always in peace, beloved.
A few days later:
Ruth, I was never more earthborn in my life — and yet never more conscious of the strength your love gives me. You have convinced me of the one thing in life which made living worthwhile.
You have no greater gift, darling. And every memory of your face, every cadence of your voice is joy whereon I shall feed hungrily in these coming months.
In another letter:
[I wonder] whether I could manage to go on living, to want to go on living if you did not care.
Does Honolulu need your phantom presence? Oh, my darling — without it, I could not live here at all. Your lips bring blessings — my beloved.
Letter from Margaret Mead to Ruth Benedict, October 1925 (Library of Congress)
By December, her urgency for union with Ruth grows:
Ruth, what have I done that is wrong? What have I done? It is very truth that your love is keeping me alive. I could only face life for you, now. I love you, always.
Ruth, Ruth, you’ll never doubt that I love you, love you, love you? Soon I’ll make you believe it.
Later that month, Mead was offered a position as assistant curator at the American Museum of Natural History, where she would go on to spend the rest of her career. She excitedly accepted, in large part so that she could at last be closer to Benedict, and moved to New York with her husband, Luther Cressman, firmly believing that the two relationships would neither harm nor contradict one another. As soon as the decision was made, she wrote to Benedict on January 7, 1926:
Your trust in my decision has been my mainstay, darling, otherwise I just couldn’t have managed. And all this love which you have poured out to me is very bread and wine to my direct need. Always, always I am coming back to you.
I kiss your hair, sweetheart.
Letter from Margaret Mead to Ruth Benedict, January 1926 (Library of Congress)
Four days later, Mead sends Benedict a poignant letter, reflecting on her two relationships and how love crystallizes of its own volition:
In one way this solitary existence is particularly revealing — in the way I can twist and change in my attitudes towards people with absolutely no stimulus at all except such as springs from within me. I’ll awaken some morning just loving you frightfully much in some quite new way and I may not have sufficiently rubbed the sleep from my eyes to have even looked at your picture. It gives me a strange, almost uncanny feeling of autonomy. And it is true that we have had this loveliness “near” together for I never feel you too far away to whisper to, and your dear hair is always just slipping through my fingers.
She then goes on to assuage Ruth’s anxieties about losing her love:
Risk my love — Sweetheart, sweetheart, what nonsense you do talk — and will the birds forget to come north in the spring to the land of their desire? When I do good work it is always always for you — That’s my wishing. What do you care, really, whether I devise elaborate color tests for the Samoans? … But none the less it’s all for you. And a day like today when I’ve worked from dawn to dusk without stopping, I feel very peaceful and it is such joy to go to sleep loving you, loving you — and waken so. I’ve a hundred details I should be writing about, but if I were there I’d kick all the mss. and proofs under the table and bury my face in your breast — and the thought of you now makes me a little unbearably happy.
Five weeks later, in mid-February, Mead and Benedict begin planning a three-week getaway together, which proves, thanks to their husbands’ schedules, to be more complicated than the two originally thought. Exasperated over all the planning, Margaret writes Ruth:
I’ll be so blinded by looking at you, I think now it won’t matter — but the lovely thing about our love is that it will. We aren’t like those lovers of Edward’s “now they are sleeping cheek to cheek” etc. who forgot all the things their love had taught them to love —
Precious, precious. I kiss your hair.
By mid-March, Mead is once again firmly rooted in her love for Benedict:
I feel immensely freed and sustained, the dark months of doubt washed away, and that I can look you gladly in the eyes as you take me in your arms. My beloved! My beautiful one. I thank God you do not try to fence me off, but trust me to take life as it comes and make something of it. With that trust of yours I can do anything — and come out with something precious saved.
Sweet, I kiss your hands.
As the summer comes, Mead finds herself as in love with Benedict as when they first met six years prior, writing in a letter dated August 26, 1926:
I am very happy and an enormous number of cobwebs seem to have been blown away in Paris. I was so miserable that last day, I came nearer doubting than ever before the essentially impregnable character of our affection for each other. And now I feel at peace with the whole world. You may think it is tempting the gods to say so, but I take all this as high guarantee of what I’ve always temperamentally doubted — the permanence of passion — and the mere turn of your head, a chance inflection of your voice have just as much power to make the day over now as they did four years ago. And so just as you give me zest for growing older rather than dread, so also you give me a faith I never thought to win in the lastingness of passion.
I love you, Ruth.
Margaret Mead standing between two Samoan girls, 1926. (Library of Congress)
In 1928, Mead’s marriage to Crossman expired, but her love for Benedict, while complicated, remains ablaze. She closes a letter to Ruth with the sort of restless exhale one would expect of new lovers:
Oh, sweetheart I’m lonely for your arms.
That summer, Mead met and decided to marry her second husband, the New Zealand anthropologist Reo Fortune. Traveling by train for their marriage in September, she sends Ruth a bittersweet letter reflecting on the relationships:
Perhaps only one person can make a sufficiently fundamental impression on me to hold me to unswerving fidelity. Perhaps the capacity and attention which I have left for other people beside you is somewhere a little off center and incapable of rising to such heights. The psychoanalysts could fix that up to suit themselves but still I think that it might be explained in terms of a basic orientation of the personality, the only orientation which that personality was capable of. And maybe what I give any man is less than half.
This whole thing is much harder for me to understand than anything which has happened yet. Schematizing my life, there has been you and you steadfastly since you came into it. Nothing has ever threatened that fact.
My feeble attempts to go on with my marriage once I had rejected it don’t count in my sense of having willed what I wanted. But I didn’t will this. I have a sense of very definitely not willing it, of having felt no place for any other important relationship in my life, and of having quite clearly done what I could to avoid it.
She continues with a poetic meditation on the nature of her relationship to Ruth and its fundamental difference from any of her marriages:
Our relationship and any relationship to a man are as separate and incomparable as they seem, operating on different sets of wheels. . . . It would make a fascinating study to work out just in what respects two people could gradually come to depend upon a common mind, selecting one function from one mind and one from the other, counting one person’s experience to explain one set of points, drawing on the other’s memory to clear up others, etc. We come awfully near to doing that in everything from science to love. I wonder if you’ll feel as mentally amputated as I do. I have just one definite urge and that is to write to you, write to you, write to you.
The great pieces of space, the steadily falling hours of time which are passing without being woven closely in the net of our common knowledge, terrify me. It’s as if in a long, woven strip suddenly blank spaces were to appear where before all had been rainbowed and patterned. Something has happened to the weft, it runs brown and gray, gray and brown through my hurrying fingers. I weave desperately fast, but under my window pass fields gold and lovely with flowers which you will never see and my elbow is sore and irritated from a bad cut which you didn’t know I’d gotten by falling down on the Museum steps. Brown and gray and only every twenty or thirty threads can I slip in a colorful one and regain one note in the pattern which winds woven and beautiful all about me, woven by our four hands in the last six years.
The next day, in another letter, Mead explodes with reawakened gratitude and love:
Darling, you will never know what a priceless and so undeserved gift you have given me in giving me a perfect love no least inch of which I need ever repudiate — Oh — I love you, my beautiful. I kiss your eyes.
A day later, on September 5, another bittersweet letter to Ruth leaves us speculating about what might have been different had the legal luxuries of modern love been a reality in Mead’s day, making it possible for her and Ruth to marry and formalize their steadfast union under the law:
I’ve slept mostly today trying to get rid of this cold and not to look at the country which I saw first from your arms.
Mostly, I think I’m a fool to marry anyone. I’ll probably just make a man and myself unhappy. Right now most of my daydreams are concerned with not getting married at all. I wonder if wanting to marry isn’t just another identification with you, and a false one. For I couldn’t have taken you away from Stanley and you could take me away from [Reo] — there’s no blinking that.
Beside the strength and permanence and all enduring feeling which I have for you, everything else is shifting sand. Do you mind terribly when I say these things? You mustn’t mind — ever — anything in the most perfect gift God has given me. The center of my life is a beautiful walled place, if the edges are a little weedy and ragged — well, it’s the center which counts — My sweetheart, my beautiful, my lovely one.
By 1933, despite the liberal arrangements of her marriage, Mead felt that it forcibly squeezed out of her the love she had for Benedict. In a letter to Ruth from April 9, she reflects on those dynamics and gasps at the relief of choosing to break free of those constraints and being once again free to love fully:
Having laid aside so much of myself, in response to what I mistakenly believed was the necessity of my marriage I had no room for emotional development. … Ah, my darling, it is so good to really be all myself to love you again. . . . The moon is full and the lake lies still and lovely — this place is like Heaven — and I am in love with life. Goodnight, darling.
Over the years that followed, both Margaret and Ruth explored the boundaries of their other relationships, through more marriages and domestic partnerships, but their love for each other only continued to grow. In 1938, Mead captured it beautifully by writing of “the permanence of [their] companionship.” Mead and her last husband, Gregory Bateson, named Benedict the guardian of their daughter. The two women shared their singular bond until Benedict’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1948. In one of her final letters, Mead wrote:
Always I love you and realize what a desert life might have been without you.
To Cherish the Life of the World features more of their tender correspondence. Complement it with Edna St. Vincent Millay’s love letters to Edith Wynne Matthison and Virginia Woolf’s short and stirring epistle to Vita Sackville-West.
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