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In the Arms of Africa: The Life of Colin M. Turnbull Hardcover – August 17, 2000

4.5 out of 5 stars 19 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Colin Turnbull (1924-94) made his reputation with two bestselling works of popular anthropology that tell diametrically opposed tales. The Forest People (1962) holds up the central African Pygmies as examples of the human capacity for communal goodness and love, while The Mountain People (1973) argues that Uganda's Ik tribe, threatened by a killing famine, had cast aside those qualities in favor of soulless individualism. Turnbull's life was as controversial and rife with contradictions as his books, fellow anthropologist Roy Richard Grinker reveals in this absorbing biography. Born in England, Turnbull roamed the world and eventually made his home in America. Product of a conventional, privileged upbringing, he saw himself as a champion for the world's oppressed. He infused anthropology with a passion some deemed unscientific but general readers found electrifying. He was openly homosexual despite the threat this posed to his academic career, which was never his top priority. The love of Turnbull's life was an African American man; he proclaimed Joe Towles's brilliance but was ambivalent about his lover gaining financial independence, and their 29-year relationship was marred by violence and infidelities. Nonetheless, Joe's 1988 death devastated Turnbull, who also succumbed to AIDS six years later. Grinker displays both discernment and critical sympathy in this gripping chronicle of a tumultuous life.

From Publishers Weekly

Cultural anthropologist Colin Turnbull (1924-1994) earned his reputation with bestsellers like The Forest People, his classic study of African Pygmies. In this groundbreaking biography, Grinker sheds much light on Turnbull's largely hidden private life. The London-born son of a possessive Irish mother and a stern Scottish father, Turnbull rebelled against his privileged background, identifying with non-Westernized peoples whom he saw as oppressed or marginalized. After graduating from Oxford, he went to India in 1949 and lived in the ashram of his female guru, Sri Anandamayi Ma. Grinker, who holds Turnbull's former chair as anthropology professor at George Washington University, suggests that this experience later inspired Turnbull consciously to try to join the people he studied. On the more intimate side, Grinker also chronicles Turnbull's 30-year love with Joseph Towles, a young African-American actor with whom he lived openly as a gay, interracial couple in a conservative rural Virginia town. Though Turnbull idealized the relationship, Grinker reveals that it was marked by violent fights, plus Towles's abuse of drugs and alcohol; he also portrays Turnbull as a domineering partner who pushed Towles into an anthropology career. Among the other little-known facets of Turnbull's life and work that Grinker illuminates in this fair-minded, superb biography is his advocacy on behalf of death row inmates. Yet Grinker does little to enhance Turnbull's stature as an anthropologist; he contends that Turnbull, who greatly exaggerated the amount of time he spent living among the Pygmies, often simplistically used noble "primitive" societies merely as a foil to condemn Western civilization. Photos. (Aug.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press (August 17, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312229461
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312229467
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.5 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,505,381 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This was the best read I've had in years. The story of Turnbull's life, as Grinker tells it, is a page-turner but also leaves you with much to contemplate. It was, for me, a window into worlds I've always wanted to travel to but know I'm not likely to visit.
Turnbull, born in England to a life of privilege, was passionate and iconoclastic as both a man and an anthropologist. He lived among the Mbuti Pygmies of the African rain forest, whom he romanticized, as well as the starving and aggressive mountain people of Uganda known as the Ik, whom he reviled. The African parts of the story would be reason enough to read this book but there's so much more - Turnbull's early experiences in the world of the English boarding school, with its sometimes brutal homosexuality; his life in a Hindu ashram in India under the tutelage of a famous female guru; museum politics and academic infighting in America; the theatre world of Peter Brooks, who dramatized Turnbull's book on the Ik; redneck homophobic Virginia, where Turnbull and his long-term companion made their home; anti-death penalty advocacy; ordination as a Buddhist monk by the Dalai Lama; and death by AIDS. Perhaps most important, Turnbull was also a gay man totally devoted to - in fact obsessed with - his partner of thirty years, Joseph Towles, whom he sought to protect and mentor and whom he idealized in the same way he idealized the Pygmies.
What makes the book hang together is the cohesive psychological portrait of Turnbull. Reacting to the cold isolation of his advantaged childhood, Turnbull was a seeker of goodness and beauty with an overwhelming need to find those qualities among the disenfranchised or less privileged and then to become one with them.
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Format: Hardcover
What a fascinating and eye-opening book! I vaguely remember Colin Turnbull from my freshman anthropology class, but Grinker's book brings to life just what motivates people to fall in love with other cultures. As it turns out, it's not so different from love affairs in general -- and just as heartbreaking -- and this is the lesson gleaned from this chronicle of one extraordinarily brave British anthropologist. While I did learn alot about African traditions, this book reads like a novel, not an academic treatise. Grinker is a fluent and imaginative writer whose prose swept me along from the very first page. I suggest this book for people who enjoy reading psychologically astute biographies as well as gripping love stories -- it's probably the most affecting biography of the season.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a terrific biography about a fascinating 20th century mind: Colin Turnbull. What a life Turnbull had from academia to ashrams, Africian culture to the African queen, homoerotic british school boys to the emergence of the gay bar scene in 1960's New York, the devastation of WW II to the devastation of HIV, and above all a profound love story. Richard Grinker does a marvelous job of recreating the personal life of one of the centuries great intellects. This is a fascinating work on so many levels. It traces the development of an important new contribution ot the study of man while keeping the reader step by step in touch with the man who added a humanistic and compassionate insight to the field of Anthropology. Mr. Grinker lends his considerable psychological and anthropological insight to helping the reader understand who and what this great man was. I strongly recommend this book to any reader who wants a gripping read about an extraordinary 20th century intellect who ultimately transcends all of his great achievements through love. Five stars to Mr. Grinker.
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By A Customer on December 14, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I was gratified that Dr. Grinker wrote this book because Colin Turnbull was my cousin, and I knew almost nothing about him. I echo the postive comments by the other reviewers, but what made the book special for me were the references to his family and his relations with them. Dr. Grinker does a wonderful job of not bringing his personal feelings about Colin's work, his homosexuality, or his relationship with Joe Towles into the book. Grinker does, however, give a wonderful sense of Colin and Colin's take on life. One doesn't have to be interested in either anthropology or homosexuality to like this book; it is, simply put, an excellent study of an all-too-human man.
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Format: Hardcover
Quite naturally biographers are frequently drawn to understand some famous person's contribution to history or the world of ideas and letters. Such stories inevitably involve that famous person rubbing shoulders with some other famous person and we lucky readers gain insights into a world we thought we had already known. Grinker's biography of Colin Turnbull takes an entirely different tack. He tells the story of an apparently second rate anthropologist -- if he was an anthropologist at all -- but a character of the first order. And through his incredibly rich life, we are introduced to, among other things, English boarding school, Indian ashrams, the world of the Pygmies and other African peoples, death row, academic intrigue, and a bizarre relationship with his true love. Grinker spins the tale deftly and is a delightful tour guide through the life of a man who had an uncommon zest for adventure and a passion for the world.
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