Jack Goody (1919-2015): an oral history

[The following is an invited post by Keith Hart, Centennial Professor of Economic Anthropology in the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics and International Director of the Human Economy Program in the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship at the University of Pretoria.]

It impressed me that in one version of the [myth of the] Bagre God and the spirits had organized life. Another version was about how the water-spirits, the fairies had helped mankind to invent culture. And in a third version man himself had gone out and invented how to build a house and the rest. All these were within the same myth, theological and humanistic versions together. It gave me a different idea about human beings, that the LoDagaa were always thinking “Was it god or was it mankind that invented this?”

It was very important to me that some of my friends could become university lecturers, having been brought up in a small, oral village and now learn everything from books. Certainly they lost a lot on the way, they lost the Bagre because Goody’s written version was the real one, done with old men whom they hadn’t known. I had to explain to them that my version was chance, I could have written down a hundred other versions if I had the time, the money and the energy. The written version was only one of many (J. Goody 1972, The Myth of the Bagre, Cambridge).1

So what follows is mostly based on oral memory. I have published four essays on Jack Goody’s writings and this one is something else.2

Professor Sir John Rankine Goody, FBA (aka Jack) was born in July 1919. He died just before his 96th birthday. His grandmother was a Scottish lady from Aberdeen who married a Londoner; Jack’s middle name came from her. She and her son (Jack’s father, eventually a telephones engineer like mine) were deserted when her partner decamped and may or may not have spawned a family of gangsters in Fulham, one of whom masterminded a famous hi-jack, the Great Train Robbery of 1963. Jack went to St Alban’s School in the London suburbs. After school he read English at St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he came under the spell of Hugh Sykes Davies, a surrealist poet, novelist and communist. Everyone was a communist at Cambridge before the war and Jack was probably no exception. There is a carefree photo of him riding with friends in an open car on the Champs Elysées in 1939. He had not completed his degree when the war broke out.

Jack joined the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment (Sherwood Foresters, shades of Robin Hood, also miners, as he reminded us in his last book on metals) and was commissioned. He then embarked on an adventure that shaped the rest of his life. He was struck by the originality of North Africa’s Islamic civilization. He was captured, then locked up in prisoner-of-war camps from which he escaped several times, including some months on the run in Italy’s Abruzzo.

He returned to Cambridge in 1946 to complete his degree and then took a diploma in anthropology. He became an education officer in Leicestershire, married and had three children. He then took up anthropology at Oxford and completed a Cambridge PhD with Meyer Fortes in 1954 based on fieldwork in Northwest Ghana. Fortes subsequently hired him as an assistant lecturer. His marriage did not survive the prolonged absences. Jack spent much time teaching in the department and his college, but only received a fellowship at St. John’s in 1961, when Fortes put pressure on the colleges to appoint his lecturers — Jack, Edmund Leach and G.I. Jones. He married Esther Newcomb, his American doctoral student, in this period and they had two daughters. Jack and Esther Goody became a team in the following decades, frequently spending time in Ghana and publishing together and separately.

I recall vividly the primal scene when I joined Jack and Esther briefly at the beginning of my own doctoral fieldwork. I had travelled North overnight by bus from Accra. The driver had a girlfriend somewhere and we were all eaten alive by mosquitos until he chose to continue in the morning. I arrived in Bole at 2pm when it was really hot and eventually found the house where they were staying. Completely silent. I looked around and found them all – Jack, Esther and the two little girls – asleep naked in shallow water in the shower/bathroom.

Jack fully embraced the anti-colonial revolution after the war and the Gold Coast was its epicentre in Africa. He joined Kwame Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party during his first fieldwork. He soon saw that an independent West Africa would need histories of the precolonial past in order to chart a postcolonial future. He then switched his focus to the precolonial history of West African kingdoms. In the process he led the move from ethnography to history that marked African anthropology then and African Studies in general today.

This was also when he completed the book of his PhD thesis, Death, Property and the Ancestors (1962). Although Jack has published some forty books, the majority of them since his retirement three decades ago, I consider this one to be his masterpiece. The three words of his main title say it all. What does humanity care most about? Our mortality. What can we do to transcend our fate? We can try to live on through the real estate we bestow on our descendants or we can become an ancestor. Jack practised both assiduously. He managed to acquire a huge pile in a posh area of Cambridge from his college and did his best to ensure that all his children had a house. But his real money was on being an ancestor and how can an intellectual achieve immortality if not through writing books? I once asked him why he published so much and he replied, “Because I was behind (Leach) and had to catch up”.

This book is grounded in meticulous ethnography, but it is also a wide-ranging compendium of social theory, featuring the tradition of comparative jurisprudence on which social anthropology was founded (Maine, Maitland etc). In the 1960s Jack proposed, in popular magazines and the press, that his discipline should be renamed comparative sociology. He insisted that his graduate students should study modern social life in Africa: teachers, local government, migrant entrepreneurs. He envisaged a new synthesis of sociology, politics and anthropology, much to the dismay of Meyer Fortes who had built up Cambridge social anthropology as a world leader more or less from scratch. By now, however, a bruising dialogue between Fortes and Leach in the 1950s had given way to the more peaceful moiety system of Leach in King’s, Goody in St. Johns and their respective students.

Jack Goody duly succeeded Fortes as head of department in 1973. He did not try to merge social anthropology with sociology and politics. But soon after he launched his series of books on world history, at first contrasting Africa with Eurasia and later Europe with Asia. He also developed his interest in the significance of literacy in the 70s. His collaboration on literacy with the critic, historian and professor of English, Ian Watt, began in 1963. In Technology, Tradition and the State (1971), he confronted head on the reasons for the divergence of African states from Western feudalism. Now, with Production and Reproduction: A comparative study of the domestic domain (1976), he projected his comparisons onto the (old) world stage; and then he took on Lévi-Strauss in The Domestication of the Savage Mind (1977).

Meyer Fortes had been something of a trade unionist manqué and a very good one (he also worked for MI6 during and after the war, honourably I would say). Jack was in many ways the opposite, bringing to his belated position of leadership the spirit of his own research and writing. He had no respect for disciplinary boundaries, telling us “You must find a question and follow it wherever it takes you”. As a result, Cambridge social anthropology when he was head became an assemblage of solipsists, where PhD students often pursued topics unknown to their supervisors. This was exciting and contrasted vividly with LSE, for example, where a sense of collective tradition was more onerous. The new Cambridge laissez faire model was open and dynamic, but fragmented and it didn’t do much for intellectual reproduction. Jack Goody himself never left behind a coherent school of followers.

Jack was, however, extremely gregarious and he entertained large crowds in his Cambridge home, treating them to cheap red wine and delicious pasta cooked by devoted clients, one of whom was Italian. At some stage his second marriage to Esther broke down; she has always been a stalwart supporter for me. He then married Juliet Mitchell, the eminent feminist psychoanalyst and writer, in 2000. Her devotion to him was remarkable. Near the end, Jack fell down at home and was admitted to a geriatric ward in Addenbrookes Hospital. Having to endure the night cries of demented old people and being treated like one of them was intolerable and he signed himself out. I asked him if he broke anything when he fell and he replied, “Only my spirit”.

‘Jack’ and its derivatives has the most separate meanings (seventeen at the last count) in English, a residue of the language’s pre-Indo-European phase: lift a car, hold up to steal, masturbate, increase, iris, flag, knave, a lad’s name, money, objects in a game and so on. The root meaning is erect penis.

  1. From a video interview with Sophie Chevalier and Grégoir Mayor in Cambridge, 2008 (transcribed into French). 
  2. Keith Hart 1985, The social anthropology of West Africa, Annual Review of Anthropology14: 243-273; 2006, Agrarian civilization and world society, in David Olson and Michael Cole (eds) Technology, Literacy and the Evolution of Society: Implications of the work of Jack Goody, Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah NJ, 29-48; 2012. Jack Goody’s Vision of World History and African Development Today. 2014. Jack Goody: The anthropology of unequal society. Reviews in Anthropology 43(3): 199-220. 

One thought on “Jack Goody (1919-2015): an oral history

  1. Jack Goody has also made a considerable contribution to the study of marriage and family in Europe that has led to a better understanding of the development of Western society (1983, 2000). Goody indicates that the Western European marriage pattern began to diverge from the Mediterranean pattern by the end of the Roman Empire in the 6th century A.D. The Mediterranean and Roman pattern of marriage was strongly patrilineal and usually involved cross-cousin marriage. Women were not allowed to own property or participate in the public sphere, with strong gender segregation. In contrast, the Western European pattern became more bilateral; cousin marriage was banned, exogamy was promoted, and women had greater rights to property. Goody notes that this shift was a result of Roman Catholic Church policies that opposed to cousin marriage, levirate marriages, the adoption of children, and divorce. Goody suggests that the material interests of the Church led to these policies. Cousin marriage, patrilineal descent inheritance, adoption, the levirate, and divorce ensured that property would be retained with families and households. The banning of cousin marriage and patrilineal inheritance practices would redirect wealth and property that widows and other relatives would donate to the Church. As a result of these changes in Church policy, Goody suggests that the social structure of Western Europe was dramatically transformed and influenced the economic and political developments of the Western world (2000).

    Goody, J.1983. The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Goody, J.2000. The European Family: A Historico-Anthropological Essay. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

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