Coming of Age in Samoa

Published before the war

Published in March 1928, Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa set off a wildfire in American sociological circles. It launched its author, then twenty-four, on her fifty-year career as a driven, celebrated communicator of anthropological principles. The book became a best seller, which was unusual for a formal scientific work on the lives of peoples in small communities on faraway South Pacific islands.

What propelled Mead’s publication to such popularity? Certainly not her writing style. At best, it’s quite descriptive, but it can be “thick,” especially when she drifts into the contemporary implications of her studies. There’s no doubt that she expertly chronicled the unique way of life of the Manu’a Islanders of American Samoa. She was good at describing simple observations of daily life, asking questions and writing everything down. Her notes show that 44 percent of the young women she studied had sexual relations within an average of two years of reaching puberty. I believe that this statistic, however humdrum it seems today, proved to be the catalyst that thrust her into the whirlwind of popular culture.

“Add more about what this means to Americans”

When Mead took Coming of Age in Samoa to William Morrow, who would serve as her lifetime editor, he advised her to add “more about what all this means to Americans.”1 This she did. Mary Pipher, an American psychologist and author, wrote, “Mead believed the problems for American teens were too many choices, too much pressure, and too little exposure to real-world phenomena, such as birth and death.”2 From her many exotic experiences, she had learned about the tremendous role played by the social environment in everyone’s life.

Coming of Age has been printed numerous times. The 1961 edition proved wildly popular during the sexual revolution of the 1960s — the era of Bob Dylan’s song “The Times They Are A-Changin.’” Pipher notes that Mead, often referred to as “the original flower child, was interested in peace, justice, sexual freedom, and adventure.…Her definition of an ideal culture was one that found a place for every human gift.”3 The academic world asked her to speak everywhere on these topics. Her book may have been the reason why young people during the San Francisco summer of ’67 grew their hair long, wore flowers and went barefoot to advertise their promiscuity.

Her focus was on young girls

In Samoa, Mead found a harmonious agrarian society with abundant access to marine resources and living a simple life based on a unique culture. Her purpose was to focus on young girls, subjects absent from earlier anthropological studies. She found that mothers charged older sisters aged six through ten with the care of their younger siblings. The older girls, who saddled the younger ones on their hips and carried them about the village, learned other simple skills like tidying the house and bringing water from the sea. They also learned to spread copra to dry and to roll pandanus leaves for plaiting, but “baby tending” was their primary chore. They had little opportunity to learn more interesting forms of work or play.

As soon as these girls were big enough to carry heavier loads, their mothers changed their responsibilities. Still younger sisters took over baby tending, releasing the now adolescent girls to other work. Along with dozens of other tasks, they would learn to weave baskets, pick taro leaves for cooking and dig tuberous taro roots in the swamps. During this stage of their lives, these girls became sexually active. To the monotony of their daily routines, they often added the excitement of nightly trysts among the coconut groves.

A young Samoan man needs a soa

A soa, or third-party friend of an interested young man, usually arranged these engagements. If the relationship was to be clandestine, the soa would approach the girl during her daily activities and schedule the rendezvous. Of course, this might take the efforts of more than one soa. The alternative was for the boy to formally “sit before the girl.” As the village would perceive such a step as tentative to marriage, he would have to overcome quite a bit of embarrassment. Together with his soa, the young man would show up at the girl’s home, usually before the evening meal. They would offer a gift, such as a basket of fish, or perhaps a chicken. If the parents accepted the gift, it was a good sign. It showed that the girl’s family was willing for him to express his intentions to her.

Such a “sitting” seldom came as a surprise. Usually, the soa would do his job and make some arrangements. Both families may already have been aware of a possible union. The matai, as headman of the household, would welcome the boy to the home. After the evening prayer, if all went well, he and the soa would stay for supper. Once the whole village knew the boy as her suitor, the girl might tease him with avoidance.

When he came the next evening, she could have gone to another house, for example, and he would have to wait, wondering if she would arrive. Her point was to drag out his embarrassment and test his resolve: he had to endure her “love magic.” When such courtship ripened into an accepted proposal of marriage, custom would finally allow him to sleep in her house. Ceremonial marriage would occur once the boy’s family had collected enough food and property and the girl’s family had provided a suitable dowry of tapa (cloth made from the paper mulberry tree) and mats.

Each Samoan household had a matai

A headman presided over each household and exercised authority over every individual in the household, even his father and mother. A father could punish a young girl, but the matai held ultimate sway over this or any other family disagreement. The prestige of the household depended upon the rank or title (if any) of its matai. The high chief would grant a high-ranking matai a seat before a post at a meeting house of the fono, the assembly of headmen, and would give a matai of lesser rank a “between the posts” seat. This seat would still give a lesser-ranking matai the right to drink kava with his chief. There were also titles for lesser chiefs.

In each Samoan village, one or two high chiefs had the hereditary right to name one girl of their household as the village’s taupo, the ceremonial princess of the house. This taupo would inevitably marry into another village and would make the chief’s kava. She would wait upon and dance before his visitors and would represent her village at formal functions and while traveling. The wives of high chiefs had to treat their village taupo with courtesy and respect, and they would use separate nouns and verbs when speaking to her. They chaperoned their taupo constantly because the village expected her to remain a virgin.

Romantic love seemed absent from Samoan life

Marriage was a simple matter of gift exchange between the families. But because marriage brought a more robust set of chores, the average young woman would be in no hurry for that, often delaying it until her mid-twenties. Samoan society viewed marriage as a social and economic arrangement. Our western idea of romantic love, with its associated concept of fidelity, seemed absent from Samoan life as described by Mead. There was much less fuss over adultery than we find in our country today.

Mead’s personal life seemed to mirror the freedom from Christian mores that she found in Samoa. She had a brief relationship with linguist Edward Sapir before leaving for the island. Before her stay there, she was married to anthropologist Luther Cressman. Then she met Reo Fortune, a New Zealand–born anthropologist, aboard the ship on her return from Samoa and married him in 1928. He went with her to the New Guinea island of Manus, where she did her research for Growing Up in New Guinea.

Her third and final marriage was to the British anthropologist Gregory Bateson in 1936. Their daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, also became an anthropologist. She wrote the introductory essay to the 2001 Perennial Classics Edition of her mother’s book Coming of Age in Samoa. Though Mead and Bateson were separated, she remained devoted to him throughout her life, despite her relationships with Ruth Benedict and another anthropologist, Rhonda Métraux, before her death in 1978.

[1] Words for a New Century; Mary Catherine Bateson; 1975

[2] Coming of age in Samoa; Mary Pipher Ph.D.; 1973; Introduction

[3] Coming of age in Samoa; Mary Pipher Ph.D.; 1973; Introduction

[4] Coming of age in Samoa; Mary Pipher Ph.D.; 1973; Introduction

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