Ruth Benedict…

sometimes writes hilariously questionable things:

Our hobo population is constantly fed by those to whom an accumulation of property is not a sufficient motivation. In case these individual ally themselves with the hoboes, public opinion regards them as potentially vicious, as indeed because of the asocial situation into which they are thrust they readily become. In case, however, these men compensate by emphasizing their artistic temperament and become members of expatriated groups of petty artists, opinion regards them not as vicious but as silly. (260)

Oh, those silly artisty types! Caring for the hobos like they do.

Most of the time, I think Benedict is trying to express ways of reading class, sexuality, gender, and race that refuse to automatically privilege the wealthy, the heterosexual, the masculine, and the (white) British; she just doesn’t seem to possess a language to discuss these things comfortably or adequately. But she’s an incisive reader of her environment — and often prescient:

we are faced with the fact that the group of people who carried out to the greatest extreme and in the fullest honour the cultural doctrine of the moment are by the slightly altered standards of our generation the victims of intolerable aberrations. From the point of view of comparative psychiatry they fall in the category of the abnormal … In terms of the suffering and frustration they spread about them there is probably no comparison. There is very possibly at least as great a degree of mental warping. Yet they are entrusted with positions of great influence and importance and are as a rule fathers of families. … Nevertheless, a future psychiatry may well ransack our novels and letters and public records for illumination upon a type of abnormality to which it would not otherwise give credence. (277)

Pursuing a cultural ideal or value to an extreme, in a way that causes violent “suffering and frustration” in those that fail to meet the ideal?

Of course, she’s writing these thoughts in 1934.


Anyways, I like Patterns of Culture. A little more than most modernist texts I’ve read. And a lot more than the Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot we read alongside Benedict this week.

Still: “hoboes”.

19 January 2011 ~ Hamilton

Works Cited.

Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture. Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.



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