Benedict, Ruth (Fulton)

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BENEDICT, Ruth (Fulton)

Born 5 June 1887, New York, New York; died 17 September 1948, New York, New York

Wrote under: Ruth Benedict, Anne Singleton

Daughter of Frederick Samuel and Beatrice J. Shattuck Fulton; married Stanley Rossiter Benedict, 1914

Ruth Benedict's father, a surgeon and cancer researcher, died before she was two, leaving her mother to bring up Benedict and her younger sister on their maternal grandparents' farm in central New York. An attack of measles when she was a child left Benedict partially deaf, an infirmity from which she suffered personally and professionally throughout her life. Her father's premature death and her mother's fits of weeping traumatized her childhood, so that her mother came to personify fear and confusion, while the memory of her father's translucent dead face became a symbol of calmness and beauty. Thus she yearned for the serenity of the world of death. As a child, she often played at being dead in a grave she built herself in the hay. This conflict of having to live in one world, while longing for the other, made her fabricate a world in which she kept to herself everything that mattered most.

An outstanding student, Benedict won a scholarship to Vassar College, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1909. After graduation, she worked for charities and taught in girls' schools. When she married, she discovered a woman's power in her love for her husband and her desire to bear children, and she lived with a new "zest for life"; but she soon became disillusioned, especially when the longed-for children never came. Her sense of loneliness and meaninglessness returned, and when her desire for a job of her own met with her husband's discouragement, she slowly withdrew from him. In 1919 Benedict enrolled in the New School for Social Research where she studied anthropology under Elsie Clews Parsons and Alexander Goldenweiser. From there she went to Columbia and received her doctorate under Franz Boas in 1923, a time when cultural traits and their diffusion, rather than individuals, were the interest of anthropological study.

Benedict started her teaching career in 1922 as an assistant to Boas in his undergraduate class at Barnard and began teaching at Columbia the following year. Her first anthropological interest was in American Indian religion, and her dissertation, The Concept of the Guardian Spirit in North America, was published in 1923. In it, Benedict deals with the variety of disparate cultural elements that are found juxtaposed within one culture—already forecasting her later concern with the integrating principles of the "rags and tatters" that make up culture. Her first fieldwork, done in 1922, was among the Serrano Indians of southern California. During the summers of 1924 and 1925, she collected folklore among the Pueblo Indians of Zuni and Cochiti, and the following summer among their neighbors, the Pima. Her partial deafness and extreme shyness made teaching an ordeal for her, and while doing fieldwork, she had to rely entirely on English-speaking informants and interpreters.

Throughout these early years of anthropological apprentice-ship, Benedict remained a sensitive and solitary person, expressing her inner battles with loneliness and the painful relationship with her husband in verse, some of which she published in Poetry and Nation under the pseudonym of Anne Singleton. In 1930 she and husband Stanley separated, and at that time Boas appointed her assistant professor at Columbia. Soon thereafter, her depressions lifted, the need for Anne Singleton faded, and slowly the separate lives she led became fused together in her work.

In 1934 Patterns of Culture, her most famous book, was published. It has since been translated into 14 languages and is still regarded as one of the best introductions to anthropology. Combining problems of psychology and the individual with those of anthropology and culture, she evolved a theory stating that culture was not only the condition within which personality developed, but was itself a "personality writ large." All culture, she postulated, is structured into patterns which impose a harmony upon the disparate components of life; for any one culture there is a dominant pattern, an overriding cultural temperament. Influenced by her reading of Nietzsche, and taking her data from her own work and that done by Boas and Reo Fortune, she compared three cultures and applied psychological terms to them. The Zuni of New Mexico she labeled as Apollonian in their sobriety, moderation, and self-possession. The Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island she saw as Dionysian in their commitment to a life of intoxicated frenzy and self-annihilation. They had paranoid delusions of grandeur, whereas the Dobu of Melanesia had a schizophrenic fear of their environment and a morbid suspicion of one another. Benedict's comparison of cultures and her application of clinical terms to them results in her realization that abnormality in any culture is simply an individual deviation from that culture's norms. Thus cultures cannot be compared on an ethical basis but only on the relativity of their integrating principles.

In 1935, Benedict published two volumes of Zuni Mythology, a collection of her most massive fieldwork. It includes texts gathered by her and earlier fieldworkers, as well as a careful comparison of these texts. She concerns herself with themes in Zuni folklore, the relationship of these themes to the culture, and the literary problems of the Zuni narrator.

The war years brought a shift in her interests away from American Indians to one in humanism. In 1940 Benedict published Race: Science and Politics, a popular, relatively unacademic book, in which she presents theories and philosophies of race along with her own point of view on the subject of racism. She feels racism is a form of crude provincialism, and in order to understand it, one must first understand persecution as a whole, with all its economic and social causes. The Races of Mankind, written with Gene Weltfish, was published in 1943 and sold millions of copies. Translated into film and cartoon forms, it has proved to be one of the most popular educational materials on racial differences based on anthropological data.

From 1943 to 1945, Benedict worked in Washington in the Office of War Information, concentrating on Romania, Thailand, and Japan. This led to her pioneering work with literate informants from urban centers and a new shift in anthropology to the analysis of complex modern societies. Benedict's most gracefully and cogently written book is The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946). It expresses the final harmony of her two selves, the anthropologist concerned with the integrity of pattern, and the humanist who knows the suffering of the human spirit when it is trapped and limited. Based on an intensive analysis of interviews and literary material, it concerns itself with themes in Japanese culture, stressing primarily those that have to do with reciprocal relations between people. She deals with the hierarchical organization of Japanese life, portrays the structure of obligations to emperor, family, and self, and examines the strong sense of shame so dominant in the culture. The underlying humanist message of the book is that the only way Japan could be reintegrated into the world is by using the favorable Japanese patterns of culture as the building blocks rather than by imposing European values from without. The book had a tremendous impact in the U.S. In 1947, following its great success, the Office of Naval Research gave Columbia University an extensive grant to establish under Benedict's direction a program of "Research in Contemporary Cultures," the most ambitious program of anthropological research the U.S. had yet seen.

In 1948, when she was 61, Columbia finally named Benedict a full professor. In the fall of that year she died of a coronary thrombosis. After Boas's death, six years prior to her own, Benedict was the leading American anthropologist as well as the first American woman to become a prominent social scientist and leader in her profession. Her great contribution was her integration of the idea of patterns, which she slowly pieced together in her own life and applied to her work. In so doing, she gave her profession a theoretical orientation at a time when science for the first time was trying to deal with total cultures. Benedict's critics accuse her of never having written a full ethnography and of having done fieldwork, either among people living in disintegrating cultures, or among literate informants from cultures far away. Some have criticized her patterns as overly simplistic. However, her deafness, shyness, and childhood traumas that cut her personal life off from others were probably not only responsible for her anthropological weaknesses, but are possibly what gave her both the ability to view cultures at a distance and the tolerance for deviance that led to her very great contributions.

Other Works:

Tales of the Cochiti Indians (1931). Rumanian Culture and Behavior (1946). Thai Culture and Behavior (1946). An Anthropologist at Work: Writings of Ruth Benedict (edited by M. Mead, 1959).


Mead, M., ed., An Anthropologist at Work: Writings of Ruth Benedict (1959). Mead, M., Ruth Benedict (1974). Modell, J. S., A Biographical Study of Ruth Fulton Benedict (dissertation, 1980).

Reference Works:

National Cyclopedia of American Biography (1892 et seq.). NAW 1607-1950 (1971).

Other reference:

AA (1949, 1957). Minzokugaku Kenkyu (Japanese Journal of Ethnology, 1949). Ruth Fulton Benedict: A Memorial (Viking Fund, 1949).


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Benedict, Ruth (Fulton)

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