Life History

When it is suggested to me that I review my past for sociological purposes this past seems very remote to me. The changes in ways of life have recently been so great as to separate all of us from our early years profoundly, and in my case this separation seems to be the more profound because I was born in an isolated region of old Virginia, 20 miles from the railroad, in a social environment resembling that of the 18th century, and I consequently feel that I have lived in three centuries, migrating gradually toward the higher cultural areas. The fact that I reached civilization at all is evidently due to some obscure decision on the part of my father to attend an institution of learning—Emory and Henry College, Virginia. In this decision he provoked a certain amount of resentment from his own father, a Pennsylvania Dutchman, rich in land but with peasant attitudes. My father's patrimony was consequently diminished, and he found himself in a less desirable geographical situation. Nevertheless, disturbed by the fact that his seven children had no adequate educational opportunities, he moved with his family to Knoxville, Tennessee, the seat of the state university. My own childhood was of a strictly manual, perceptual-motor type, taking the direction of rifle shooting, which was the sport of the mountain people. My zeal for this was fanatical. I reckon that I passed not less than seven years of my youth in the woods alone with a rifle without a dog, shooting at a mark, regretting the disappearance of large game and the passing of the Indian and of pioneer life.

Cultural ideals established themselves in me slowly. For the first two years in the so-called university I was indifferent to learning, but at the end of the second year I had come under two decided influences—two definitions of the situation—one in terms of Greek culture and the other in terms of natural history, as it was then called. Eben Alexander, professor of Greek, a Yale man, afterward Minister to Greece, and whose communications with the Greek government were always in the modern Greek language, and who was later president of the University of North Carolina, made a profound impression upon me as a representative of culture and scholarship. Professor Nicholson, teaching zoology, geology, and the other natural sciences, was a disciple of Charles Darwin, and at the time

( 247) the teaching of evolution was not noticed in Tennessee because no one appreciated its dangers.

I recall that on a hot August day in the summer vacation, between the sophomore and the junior years, I had a conversion. After some—for that period—profound reflection I determined that I would go in for scholarship. I consequently immediately made a visit to Professor Alexander and unfolded my life plan. I do not know whether at that time I had read a volume entitled German Universities by Professor Hart, but I remember that shortly after my conversion I planned to go to Germany. Going to Germany remained something rather vague at the time, but to my friends who enquired as to my plans for a future career I always replied: "I am going to Germany."

I am rather surprised also when I reflect that at this time I was a subscriber to the Nation and that I ordered as many books, particularly German books, from a New York importer as I have since ordered at any period of my life. This was due to the influence of Alexander, who was doing precisely that. Also the character of my visits to the Cumberland and Smoky Mountains changed. Formerly they had been hunting and shooting expeditions, but now I collected a list of about 300 "Chaucerian" and "Shakespearean" words surviving in the speech of the mountaineers, which I gave later, in Berlin, to the American dialectologist, George Hempel.

After graduation I taught, in this university, Greek, Latin, French, German and English—how inadequately may be judged by the fact that when I reached Berlin I could understand hardly the simplest German sentence. I had been taught German and French without conversation, precisely as Latin and Greek were taught at that time. The influence of Nicholson was not at that time as much felt. I evidently had "recognition" largely in mind, and the Greek culture appeared to me of more worth than the biological sciences. In Berlin and Göttingen, however, I gave myself over to the study of old English, old French, and old German under Zupitza, Brandi, and Tolman, with lectures in Greek under Wilamowitz.

From Germany I returned to Oberlin College as professor of English, but gradually developed my work along the line of comparative literature. At the University of Tennessee I had read some of the reports of the Bureau of Ethnology. At Oberlin I first read Herbert Spencer's Principles of Sociology attentively, and perhaps the Nicholsonian definition of the situation began at this point to come to the front. This was confirmed, as I remember it, by the reading of Spencer and indicated at that time in my tendency to make my teaching of literature comparative. The three years of my teaching at Oberlin were, retrospectively, among the most satisfactory of my life. I was not at that time sufficiently irreligious to be completely out of place and yet a sufficient innovation to be a novelty. Nevertheless, with the establishment of the University of Chicago, the

( 248)  announcement of attractive courses in sociology and anthropology, and driven certainly by the desire for new experience, I went to Chicago to take up a new line of work. The distinctive feature of my choice of work in Chicago was that I selected what may be called "marginal" courses to sociology—biology, physiology (with Loeb), brain anatomy (with Adolf Meyer, who was then as far from his present position as I was from mine), with no idea of habit formation and preponderant attention to brain structure.

In reflecting on my life at this time, I can think of what I regard as four merits: (1)I never became influenced by philosophy as offering an explanation of reality. (2) I kept notes of reading and classified and reclassified materials so that I eventually had at hand, with exact references, all that interested me in the literature. (3) I read largely and in marginal subjects —biology, psychology, ethnology—and acquired a habit of rapid reading. I recognize that this was more curiosity than deliberate method. (4) I explored the city. This was also largely curiosity. I remember that Professor Henderson, of sainted memory, requested me to get him a bit of information from the saloons. He said that he had never himself entered a saloon or tasted beer.

On the other hand, I did not write regularly or systematically, and my teaching was unsystematic and negligent. Reverting to the matter of reading, I was about 40 years old before I assumed a critical attitude toward books and opinions. I may magnify the incident, but at one time I collected all the available German theses on a certain point and after reading them I concluded that they were so extremely banal as to have no merit except the fact that they were in a foreign language. Extending this observation, I concluded that a great deal of literature has no claim to merit except that it appears in print and that we are too much impressed by the printed page. It was in this connection that I developed the habit of inspecting rather than reading, but inspecting a great amount, all the related fields—anthropology, biology, Egyptology, Assyriology, literature, history, biography—with pauses in the oases. I have no doubt that this also was a gratification of the desire for new experience, but I think it is true that no book deserves a complete reading. It is possible to acquire a technique for separating the wheat from the chaff which will enable the student to be sufficiently attentive to what is going on in the fields marginal to his own. It is, in fact, in this marginal region, where sciences meet and integrate, that productive ideas are most likely to arise.

In 1896, immediately after receiving the doctor's degree, I made a trip to Europe, out of curiosity. I wanted to see more people in different groups, and I went as far as the Volga. At this time my mind was visited by the idea of a comparative study of European nationalities, but I was

( 249) not mature enough to elaborate a method nor resourceful enough to seek support.

Up to about 1909 I was not, as I remember it, a "thoughtful" person. I was exploratory, but by this time I had matured somewhat and returned to the idea of a study of European backgrounds. I then made a representation of this kind to a friend, secured funds, and went to Europe for the purpose of studying peasant backgrounds with reference to the problem of immigration. This venture was also exploratory, a wanderlust at first, but the engagement to get results, the problems arising, and the control of the whole situation contributed to make me more "thoughtful."

I do not feel that I have been greatly influenced by any of my teachers of sociology. My interests, as I have indicated, were in the marginal fields and not in sociology as it was organized at the time, that is, the historical and methodological approach of Professor Small and the remedial and the correctional interests of Professor Henderson. But about the year 1910 I received a letter from Booker Washington which resulted in an important influence. Mr. Washington wrote inviting me to participate in a conference where Negroes from 21 countries were to be present. He further went into an analysis of my printed works, disclosing the fact that he had read everything I had written and offering some criticisms and appreciations. As a result I attended the conference at Tuskegee and discovered that this letter was not written by Mr. Washington at all but by a white man, Robert E. Park. This was the beginning of a very long and profitable association. Park was not only ruminating all of the time but imposing his ruminations on me, with eventual great profit to myself.

Another important companionate relation was the one established with the brilliant Polish philosopher, now sociologist, Florian Znaniecki, in our association for five years in the work on The Polish Peasant. Both of these men brought very different standpoints and interests which certainly left a residuum in my own thinking. I was also influenced by Cooley, the work of Watson and the animal psychologists, and by the writings of Franz Boas. I have now lived to the point where my most stimulating contacts are with the younger sociologists, such as Bernard, Burgess, Thrasher, Zorbaugh, and Shaw, some of whom have been my pupils.

It is certainly a misapprehension of the truth, however, to trace influence predominantly to personalities or "masters." This represented the truth more completely at the time when primary group norms prevailed in society, when outstanding personalities assembled disciples and followers and created cults and schools. But at present the influences are as diverse as the "great society" is diverse in its models and attitudes. We tend to be more influenced by trends of thought and method than by particular persons, and we tend to be influenced by dissent from, as much as acquies-

( 250) -cence in, the systems of other persons. We may be influenced by a person and at the same time reject his conclusions. For example, I was influenced by Spencer, by his evolutionary and anthropological view of the development of institutions, but I was never a "Spencerian." His view of the medicine man as the source of all the professions always seemed to me grotesque. His suppression of inconvenient data and selection of convenient data was little less than dishonest. One of my early studies was a checkup of his generalizations in his Principles of Sociology and the data in his Descriptive Sociology, on the basis of which he prepared the former work. It turned out that he had ignored all the data which did not confirm his theories. Again, I was influenced by Loeb, but I agreed with Jennings. I was influenced by Watson but never accepted behaviorism as he formulated it. I was greatly influenced by anthropologists but in my formative period I believe it is true that the majority of anthropologists in the United States held very dogmatically to the view that religion was the source of all or many of the institutions of mankind (art and tribal organization, etc.), and this I never believed for a minute. This is representative of the remark of Bacon that the statement of error is the most stimulating thing that happens in the progress of thought. In my own case, except at the most immature period, when I tended to be a "disciple," I feel that I was more influenced by currents of thought than by personalities. With the multiplication of personalities "the individual withers and the race is more and more."

It was, I believe, in connection with The Polish Peasant that I became identified with the "life history" and the method of documentation. Here again I may be oversimplifying, but I trace the origin of my interest in the document to a long letter picked up on a rainy day in the alley behind my house, a letter from a girl who was taking a training course in a hospital, to her father concerning family relationships and discords. It occurred to me at the time that one would learn a great deal if one had a great many letters of this kind.

On the whole, with reference to my sociological history, I feel that my dominant interest has been new experience of concrete types. I feel that I am an extrovert leading an introvert life. The thinking or autistic region seems to be in retirement, functioning occasionally in crises or on the accumulation of the data resulting from exploratory excursions. This retired portion of the structure was originally comparable to the parlor or reception room, not so much frequented. With gradual maturation and habituation and the invasion of various problems, this parlor has, however, tended to be gradually converted into the dwelling-room. If I have had any conflicts in life, they have been between the extrovert and introvert tendencies.


No Notes

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2