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In 2008, just prior to his hundredth birthday, an immortality of sorts was conferred on the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss when his Oeuvres were published—leather-bound, gold-embossed, on Bible paper—in Gallimard's Pléiade collection. He died the following year and we are now beginning to see, for the first time, assessments of his achievement—including the two volumes under review—in a world without Lévi-Strauss. Patrick Wilcken's stylishly written biography is considerably shorter than Denis Bertholet's French biography of 2003, but is nonetheless the first in a position to take in the entire arc of the anthropologist's career—from his nineteenth-century-style expeditions to the Brazilian interior in the 1930s, via his wartime exile in New York, where the twin influences of the linguist Roman Jakobson and assorted surrealists led to the writing of a groundbreaking thesis, to the vanguard structuralist project, the international celebrity, the eventual disillusionment with modernism, the unexpected late references to Gobineau (from an antiracist ideologue), and the final years, when he claimed to feel like a “shattered hologram” and received the visit of a notoriously philistine president of France on his hundredth birthday. Wilcken steers his biography skillfully between the pitfalls of reverence and dismissiveness. It is useful, for instance, to be reminded by a skeptical John Updike that “with such a hunting license granted, parallels and homologies are easy to bag—child's play for a brain as agile as M. Lévi-Strauss” (quoted at 299). But it is equally good to learn of the frequency with which what Wilcken calls Lévi-Strauss's “hit-and-run tactics” would pay off, generating fresh perspectives (75).

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Modern Intellectual History
  • ISSN: 1479-2443
  • EISSN: 1479-2451
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-intellectual-history
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