Remembering Irving Goldman

Irving Goldman

The following was written by Jody Shenn with contributions by Judith Schwartzstein

Irving Goldman, an anthropologist whose preoccupation with understanding systems of thought from the viewpoints of the peoples who produced them yielded some of the field's most influential insights into religion and status, passed away after a period of declining health on Sunday, April 7th. He was 90.

For a man who claimed the first book he ever drew from a New York public library on a children's card was about the famous 19th century explorer David Livingston, it was a life fittingly filled with adventures, both physical and intellectual, among primitive peoples during perhaps the last period before outside influences left their native cultures forever unrecognizable.

Many of Goldman's ethnographic studies -- stemming from his fieldwork in British Columbia, Oregon, Mexico and among the Cubeo Indians of the Northwest Amazon as well his reinterpretations of earlier anthropological works -- are now considered classics. Among the most widely-known are "The Cubeo: Indians of the Northwest Amazon," his extremely detailed account of the nuances of the tribe's life and religion, "The Mouth of Heaven," his inventive reinterpretation of the mountains of existing texts concerning the potlatches of the Kwakiutl of British Columbia, and "Ancient Polynesian Society," his ground-breaking analysis of the region's status systems.

Stephen Hugh-Jones, a noted anthropologist at the University of Cambridge said of Goldman that his "ability to talk about, understand, and portray through an analysis that reveals but never compromises the life, thought, reality and emotional tenor of the people he was writing about….is why The Cubeo remains the very best of all the books on the Vaupés."

"Irving Goldman believed that one could build theory out of the questions posed by ethnography itself - in other words the basis of all anthropology was paying close attention to others' points of view," said Enid Shildkrout, chair and curator of the division of anthropology at The Museum of Natural History in New York.

Goldman's life path was the paradigm of a successful career in academia in the 20th century. After graduating from Brooklyn College as an unenthusiastic pre-med student, he went on to study under Franz Boas, the seminal figure in American anthropology, at Columbia University, where he was one of Boas' final Ph.D. students in the early 1930s. Goldman's works, based upon the same belief that specific aspects of native cultures can only be understood as part of a whole, carried on the giant's legacy and helped to cement his importance to the field.

Among his early work before striking out on his own in the field, Goldman contributed four chapters to a 1937 book, Cooperation and Competition Among Primitive Peoples, by Margaret Mead, a world-renowned colleague who eventually ceded to Goldman, with the publication of his ground-breaking book on Polynesian status systems which she reviewed, a preeminence on the region.

After a brief stint as an assistant professor at Columbia and the publication of his thesis on the Alkatcho Carrier Indians of British Columbia, Goldman entered Nelson Rockefeller's Bureau of Latin American Research as an analyst during World War II. When drafted after the U.S. joined the war, he was assigned to do intelligence work at the Office of Strategic Services as an expert on Latin America, where the U.S. feared Nazism could spread.

Like many other scholars, his work for the U.S. continued for a short time after the war's end, until Ruth Benedict, a well-known anthropologist at Columbia, "rescued" him from a position within the State Department, as he later said, and helped him get a teaching position at Sarah Lawrence College, a progressive liberal arts college in Yonkers, New York.

Goldman taught at Sarah Lawrence from 1947 until 1981 - serving on the Board of Trustees as well as on numerous faculty committees that helped shape the college's direction as it grew from an undergraduate college of some 250 women to the coeducational institution of about 1,000 undergraduates and 300 graduate students that it is today-and at the New School for Social Research in New York City from 1980 to 1987.

At Sarah Lawrence his teaching focused on the development of a fresh perspective on problems of modern society through a comparative study of human cultures, and an anthropological approach to understanding political, social, economic and cultural problems in some of the world's underdeveloped areas. Many of his students, including Enid Schildkrout, who, in addition to her role at the American Museum of Natural History, teaches at Columbia University and CUNY, would later make their own contributions to the field. "I would never have been an anthropologist without Irving's encouragement and inspiration" she said.

As the only anthropologist on the faculty at the time, Goldman provided the animating vision for anthropology at Sarah Lawrence said Dean of the College Barbara Kaplan. He was central in expanding the College's offerings, in choosing new faculty members, and in building the library collection. A master teacher, he understood the college deeply, she said.

Sarah Lawrence College Mathematics professor Joseph Woolfson, a long time friend and colleague, said of Goldman. "To his colleagues, Goldman represented the most rigorous standard of scholarship in Anthropology. However, his interests went far beyond that and in the highest humanistic tradition were truly inter-disciplinary. Although he was responsible for inspiring a generation of anthropologists, what he valued the most was his contribution to the liberal arts education of all of his students."

Goldman spoke at the College on a number of important occasions including the 1965 inauguration of President Esther Raushenbush. Calling on the wisdom of his words, current president Michele Tolela Myers quoted him at her own inauguration in 1998 on the importance of inaugurations and their relevance to learning "…strengthening and renewing the old and discovering the new…"

Because of his past work for the government and his membership in the American branch of the communist party from 1936 to 1942 -- before he became disillusioned with communism after the Soviet Union's brief coziness with Nazi Germany -- Goldman was forced to testify before a Senate committee which "investigated" the ties of many academics to communism during the height of McCarthyism and its communist witch hunts.

He admitted to being a member of the party, but refused to name the names of others who he knew had also been members. Instead of taking his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination, he invoked his First Amendment rights to free speech, a riskier tactic only a few brought before the Jenner committee tried. However, his righteous stubbornness prevailed, and he suffered no negative results from the episode.

As an ethnographer concerned with describing cultures from a native understanding, Goldman often relied on long interviews and friendly talking sessions with the people whose cultures he studied, especially during his fieldwork among the Cubeo along the Vaupes in Columbia.

This produced several unexpected outcomes. One was his unintentionally motivating a young Cubeo boy, Orlando Rodriguez, to study anthropology years later because of Goldman's exchanges with his grandparents. Another was the surprising resurgence in the late 1970s of certain aspects of Cubeo culture - such as the performance of mourning rites - that had disappeared since the end of his original visit with the tribe in 1940.

Goldman's further discussions about them with his former, and now aged, informants, became the subject of his soon-to-be-published final book. Referring to the forthcoming book, Cambridge's Hugh-Jones remarked about Goldman that "no one else has managed to present Amerindian religion so well," that Goldman's last book is "a superb South American companion to his North American The Mouth of Heaven."

Saddened by his death, Hugh-Jones noted that "Anthropology has lost one of its really original researchers, writers and thinkers; we Vaupésologists have lost our eldest brother and head of our sib; the Cubeo have lost someone who had become one of their own."

Goldman was born September 2, 1911 in a small apartment over a butcher's shop in Brooklyn to Louis Goldman, a carpenter born in Russia, and his wife Golda, who died before he was six-years-old. He had three brothers who died in a plague epidemic in Russia before the family came to America, and a sister, Bess. His wife of more than fifty years, Hannah, passed away in 1986. He is survived by three nieces and Sonya Shenn, his partner for the last decade of his life.