This month, the world lost two anthropologists: William H. Hinton and Evon Z. Vogt. Both will be mourned but there is an odd asymmetry in their influence on anthropology and the world.
Hinton was the author of a book called Fanshen: A documentary of revolution in a Chinese village. Those of you who went to college in the 1960s will remember this book as required reading in the liberal arts. Fanshen, published first in 1966, is still in print. It was reissued in 1997.
Vogt was the author of a book called Homesteaders: the life of a twentieth century frontier community. This wonderful little book, published in 1955, is not in print. Indeed, I have been able to find only a single used copy on line.
Vogt was a specialist in the study of the indigenous people of southern Mexico and Guatemala and I dont know the circumstances that prompted him to study a little town in Texas (popular 374), except it must somehow have been connected to his work for the Comparative Study of Values at Harvards Laboratory of Social Relations. (Vogt taught at Harvard for 32 years.)
But the results were spectacular.
Vogts book gives us a chance to see the operation of the frontier impulse described here by Frederick Jackson Turner:
…each frontier did indeed furnish a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past; and freshness, and confidence, and scorn of older society, impatience of its restraints and ideas, and indifference to its lessons, have accompanied the frontier.
Or to put this in the rather more modernist language of a homesteader, as recorded by Vogt:
Why, Id say we live in the future. Were always looking forward to the future. Once in a while some of us gets together uptown and talks about the past, but everybody is for the future. Whats done past, I dont care a thing about that. (p. 93)
Vogt says that while Homesteaders were very hard workers, they were also deeply committed to a practice called “loafing. Men loafed more than women, and they did so at local stores where whittling, chewing tobacco, and ‘tall stories were the order of the day. This proved a test for the investigator and produced what might be the funniest line of the book.
To an urban observer the time spent in these loafing groups seems almost endless. The writer has many times attempted to sit through one of these loafing bull sessions, but found it almost impossible to do so. (p. 115).
I cant help wondering what would happened if the required reading of the 1960s was Vogts exquisite little study of one aspect of the American condition, instead of a worthy but in some ways merely fashionable study of a small village in China. We must also ask why this little book is not in print, even as Fanshen continues to flourish. Is it any surprise that, for anthropological purposes, we are more knowledgeable about Chinese villagers than ourselves?
Hinton, William. 1997. Fanshen: A documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Turner, Frederick Jackson. 1920/1976. The Frontier in American History. Huntington, New York: Robert E. Krieger Publishing, p. 38.
Vogt, Evon Zartman. 1955. Modern homesteaders: the life of a twentieth century frontier community. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.