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Elsie Clews Parsons’ loveshack

That a patrician New Yorker was in an open marriage during the early 20th century is an attention grabber, ergo the title of my post. But that is not even among the half dozen most impressive facts of Elsie Clews Parsons’ life, about which more below.

Last spring I had the opportunity to visit her Gilded Age cottage in Lenox, Massachusetts, where she and her husband Herbert Parsons summered. One of the most enjoyable parts of my afternoon was my walk up to the cabin above the cottage. The cabin was designed for Elsie by her paramour C. Grant LaFarge, one of the architects responsible for the design of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. As I checked out the cabin’s interior, I imagined Elsie sweating through the soupy Southern New England days over the pages she had filled in the desert Southwest.

C. Grant LaFarge
The Lenox, Massachusetts, cabin where Elsie Clews Parsons spent her summers writing up her field notes.

As mentioned above, while Elsie’s marital arrangement may be exceptional vis-à-vis the general population, it is far from the most notable fact about her life, viz.,

  • 1919 Participated in the opening session of the New School, an act related to her opposition to U.S. participation in WWI and to militarism more generally.
  • 1920 Employed Esther Schiff (later Goldfrank) as her field assistant on the research trip to Laguna Pueblo with Franz Boas during which Schiff coined the nickname “Papa Franz” for Boas. Boas had previously been met with terms of address more befitting a Prussian drill sergeant.
  • 1922 Edited the collection American Indian life, a foundational work in the genre of oral history.
  • 1923 Received the bequest of her father upon his passing, and began using it to further anthropological research. Recipients of her financial support included Melville Herskovits and Leslie White.
  • 1939 Published her magnum opus Pueblo Indian religion.
  • 1941 Served as the first female head of a major U.S. scientific association during her presidency of the AAA.
C. Grant LaFarge
Elsie Clews Parsons spent many a humid Western Massachusetts day here working on her big book, ‘Pueblo Indian religion.’

There are two excellent biographies of ECP. One is authored by Rosemary Zumwalt, one of the teachers who helped introduce me to the world of anthropology. Both books are rewarding reads on multiple levels.

Bibliography

Deacon, Desley. 1997. Elsie Clews Parsons: inventing modern life. Women in Culture and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Parsons, Elsie Worthington Clews, ed. 1922. American Indian life. By several of its students. Illustrated by C. Grant Lafarge. New York: B. W. Huebsch.

Parsons, Elsie Worthington Clews. 1939. Pueblo Indian religion. University of Chicago Publications in Anthropology. Ethnological Series.

Zumwalt, Rosemary Lévy. 1992. Wealth and rebellion: Elsie Clews Parsons, anthropologist and folklorist. Publications of the American Folklore Society, n.s. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

3 thoughts on “Elsie Clews Parsons’ loveshack

  1. Those interested can consult American Indian Life in the Internet Archive or in Hathi Trust Digital Library (free full text). Matthew frames it as oral history, but I would stress its tremendous relevance to the project of using fiction as a means of ethnographic representation. The leading ethnographers of the day wrote literary, character-centered accounts of life in the societies that they knew through their ethnographic research. The book was a radical innovation when it was published and it still seemed that way when I was trained at the tail of the writing culture debates in the 1990s. Boas is in there, Kroeber wrote an introduction to the project.

  2. It is an awfully neat collection. Several of Boas’ first crop of students make an appearance, including Sapir, who I understand did not enjoy a warm relationship with ECP. Alfred Tozzer has a very romantic contribution that I think could fairly be called historical fiction.

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