“Nor are we big enough to have a place for you as a cameo carver”: Kroeber on why Berkeley wasn’t good enough for Sapir

In my past few walks down the history of anthropology, I’ve tended to focus on white guys being cruel to each other. I thought I’d try to widen my remit a bit in this entry, and look at white guys flattering each other — which involves, in this case, Alfred Kroeber being cruel to himself.

The open access source for this entry is the massive, 400+ page PDF of the Sapir-Kroeber correspondence. It’s a massive source of information about the two authors, especially if you are interested in American Indian linguistics. Kroeber comes off as informal and, to my ear, played by Rassilon-era Timothy Dalton, full of “by Jove”s and “look here old man”s. Sapir, on the other hand, is much more distant and meticulous in a wonky kind of way typical of the linguist or, perhaps, an accountant. For instance, In 1913 Sapir mentions the birth of his first child to Kroeber in a postscript to a letter on phonetics thus: “P.S. Note following addition to anthropometric material on hand:- March 14th, 8lbs. 1 oz. of infant humanity (male) presented to me by Mrs. Sapir.”

At one point in his career, Sapir was angling for a faculty position at Berkeley which didn’t come through. Kroeber, who had much to do with the hire, sent a very diplomatic note buttering Kroeber up and dressing Berkeley down. I did not pass you over lightly,” Kroeber begins:

“You would not want the job as it is. You work with etcher’s tools, and the wide-sweep frescoes we do would irritate you. Every time you took the three-inch brush in hand you would resent it, and each time our mob remained indifferent to one of your subtle nuances, it would disgust you. Nor are we big enough to have a place for you as a cameo carver. There are 600 high school students to be fed every semester and 100 so-called upper-division ones. Whatever of this work the other man doesn’t shoulder, falls on me.

You should realize, also, that pleasant as it is to live here, you would probably be discontent at having to student following of any quality. There just isn’t any clientele of people of highly refined and purely intellectual interests. We turn out some good chemists, etc., to be sure, but that is because their laboratory problems have a certain kinship with industrial problems. As to the man that wants to be a pure scholar, he doesn’t grow here, except for half-baked individuals not even capable of recognizing their own incapacity. You offer a rare and precious commodity, and the place to sell it is where rarities of the spirit are sufficiently gathered to establish a market. Harvard, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, perhaps Chicago — that is where you would build a school.

Still, if you’re really willing to forego, and Berkeley looks good to you, I’d like to see you here, and I’ll do what I can in that direction.”

Sapir never did end up at Berkeley, and their correspondence continued. I bet a lot of emails on this topic and with this tone are still sent today. Although they probably have more emoticons.


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 rex@savageminds.org