HAR is pleased to announce one of the latest releases from BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology: an article, in English, portraying Eric Wolf’s humanist scholarship and activism in the1950s.
Hantman, Jeffrey L., 2023. “Scholar, Activist, Humanist: A Portrait of Eric Wolf (the Charlottesville Years 1955-1958)”, in BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.
Eric R. Wolf (1923–1999) was a leading figure in American anthropology throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Born in Austria, Wolf escaped Nazi-occupied Europe and moved with his family to New York City in 1939. He earned his Ph.D. in 1951 at Columbia University. He was a leader among those who sought to restore historically and regionally situated understandings of power relations to anthropological study. Wolf conducted ethnographic research in Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Southern Italy. He is best known for his book, Europe and the People Without History (1982), and is remembered as well for organizing academic responses to American wars in Southeast Asia in the 1960s. This article focuses on a little-known chapter of Eric Wolf’s career as an activist when he was a young professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia in the 1950s. Wolf spoke out against racism through an anthropological lens while working in the white supremacist environment of Virginia’s flagship state university and state government. Always mindful of the value of interdisciplinarity, he joined with the few other faculty across the university who took the then dangerous step of lecturing publicly on race and inequality in the South. Wolf’s early exposure to Southern U.S. regional tensions, rooted in class and race-based inequality, and his discussion of anthropology’s apparent retreat from activism provide context for his actions in Charlottesville over a three-year span.
Hantman draws on Wolf’s brief references to his time in Charlottesville in published interviews, but especially from the correspondence he maintained with his close friend, Sidney Mintz. The article is thus a biography of Wolf, a comment on anthropological activism in the 1950s, and an account of his unique efforts in Virginia that foretold his well-known political engagement while teaching later at the University of Michigan and Lehman College (CUNY) in New York City.