Paul Friedrich, Dennis Tedlock, and Generational Change in Anthropology

(update: I incorrectly spelled  ‘Tedlock’ in the title of this post when it first went lived. This has now been corrected. Apologies.) 

It seems like I’ve been writing a lot of obituaries lately. Between Elizabeth Colson, Edie Turner, and Anthony Wallace and Raymond Smith, I’ve spent a lot of my time thinking about the past. Now, in close succession, we have also lost Paul Friedrich and Dennis Tedlock. It’s sad to record these passings, but I take some consolation in the fact that the people we remember have been so productive and matter so much to the people who mourn them — the world is richer for them having been in it. But in remembering these two today, I also want to talk briefly about how our discipline is changing, and what these demographic shifts might signal for anthropology’s future.

Paul Friedrich was… a polymath. He was present at the origin of linguistic anthropology, but also an important historical anthropologist… but also central to ethnopoetics… but also in some way a postmodernist, if his eclectic approach preceded and, in some sense, surpassed postmodernism before it even got off the ground… and he was also a specialist in comparative literature, reading Walden against the Bhagavad Gita and through the Odyssey, and via his fieldwork in Mexico. And he also wrote poetry. A professor at Chicago in anthropology as well as UofC’s unique and high-flying Committee on Social Thought, Friedrich created a unique and idiosyncratic brand of anthropology that few others have followed up on — possibly because no one but him was well-read enough to do it. But in other ways, Friedrich quickly slipped the bonds of disciplinarily early in his career and never looked back. He should be better-remembered than he is probably going to be.

Dennis Tedlock also passed away  recently. As an intellectual and a writer, Tedlock contained multitudes. On the one hand, he served as the editor of American Anthropologist in the late 1990s, thus making him the very definition of ‘institutionally central’. And yet he was hardly that. Tedlock and his wife Barbara (with whom he co-‘d so much, including AA) introduced several changes in the journal that many found scandalous, including it’s size (as in the physical size of the paper journal — there was only a paper journal back then) and, iirc, adding photos on the cover, which a few more conservative critics thought signaled the end of anthropology as a legitimate scientific discipline. Tedlock was a Mayanist with a deep connection to Mayan people and culture, a translator and student of the people who he learned from. Coming of age academically in the late 1960s, his interest in poetry and humanistic anthropology perhaps had more in common with Edie Turner (and Carlos Casteñeda) than the trio of Clifford, Marcus, and Fischer. By the mid- to late-1980s he was part of the ‘dialogical moment’ that used anthropology, psychoanalysis, and poetics to understand the interpersonal relationships in the field out of which ethnography was made. By the late 1980s he had moved, institutionally at least, out of anthropology altogether, to English. I suspect he will be far more remembered for his translation of the Popol Vuh than he will be for his Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation — a sign of his commitment to poetry and to the Mayan community, a commitment that was greater than any desire to produce theories about poetry and the Mayan community, as far as I can tell.

Both of these men deserve more space than I have given them here. But I wanted to end this already-depressing piece on an even more depressing note: I will doubtless be writing more of these memorial pieces in the future. We are, sadly, watching the passing of what some would call the ‘silent generation’ — scholars born between the two world wars. There were not many anthropologists who come from this generation because back in those days, there just weren’t very many anthropologists. Although it’s hard to generalize, many of these scholars received the bounty of Cold War funding as early-career professors, training up a baby-boom generation who was close to them in age.

It was really after the end of World War II that anthropology as a discipline exploded, the way many disciplines exploded: New departments, more money, more Ph.D.s, and so forth. These memorials on SM will probably also end up tracking the discipline’s growth: We will end up reading more and more memorials since more and more anthropologists were produced during this period.

I’ve often wondered what sort of respectful, positive meaning we can take when we consider the passing of these scholars. One of the reasons I write these pieces is because I think moments like these give us a sense how important these people really were, how much we care about the discipline, and what they contributed. They are a way of helping us understand where we came from, and how we have been shaped by history (for both good and ill, I’m sure). In doing so, we can begin to understand what we value about the past and what we don’t: What we want to persevere, and what we wish there had been more of.

In this way, these passings become not just endings, but way marks – chances for us to orient ourselves as we move into the future, and as our students, friends, and colleagues take the discipline forward (or backward) make progress (or unravel it), enrich (or trouble) our existing understandings, and continue the work of authors such as Paul Friedrich and Dennis Tedlock. Vale.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

3 thoughts on “Paul Friedrich, Dennis Tedlock, and Generational Change in Anthropology

  1. Said brightly and with beauty. Say I, stealing a phrase from the science-fiction classic, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.

  2. In Paul Friedrich, we lost someone who guided research on the language-culture nexus. To my mind his work on P’urhepecha phonology and ‘body part’ spatial locatives, along with Mary Lecron foster’s work, remains the foundational must-read research on this Mesoamerican language isolate from Michoacan, Mexico. This is a point I have shared with my P’urhepecha brethren whom have taken up formal linguistic training. I bid farewell to this man who for a short period of time lived among my people and studied our ancestral tongue (éskatsï sési nitamakurini jaka jiniani awantarhu ísï chaari yóntki anapwecha jinkoni ‘May you be fine in heaven with your ancestors’).

  3. thank you, rex. i was one of PF’s students. most of us who worked with him would tell you that he was very “sink or swim” (to borrow the title of his daughter su’s film) in his approach; and yet, what i learned from him in the context of chicago still colours my work, notably because he never felt the need to be constrained by regional or disciplinary identities. indeed, he once said to a group of us that he most feared anthropology would become an archipelago of regional / ethnic studies and thus encouraged work that wasn’t exactly comparative, but that employed different poetics as lenses to look out on a common world. his example encourages me to write about houses as being hopeful, think about what the employment of terms for the body in ‘amis song lyrics might tell us about subjective experiences of longing, and what my experience of discalibrated gaydar might tell me about uxorilocal residence and masculinity. these are anthropological topics, but require a certain quirkiness and reflexivity that PF practiced well before a politically strident version of it became fashionable. PF was not a sino-anthropologist, but nearly all of us who worked on taiwan or china had him on our committee. i think that if you looked at the list of his students you would find that we are quite the eclectic bunch. hopefully some of his voice remains embedded in our work–even if we are the kind of scholars that don’t regularly feel compelled to cite him

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