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Geoffrey Gorer Papers

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Collection Description

Geoffrey Gorer’s subjects for research were wide in scope and the Archive reflects his many interests. His studies of national character ranged from West African tribal life to Japanese propaganda during the Second World War. His professional writings took in horticultural journalism and literary parody, but it is to Gorer’s numerous articles and publications as an anthropologist that most of his papers relate.

The Archive contains autograph, typescript and printed papers with a substantial number of photographs, letters and notes to frame his research. The material covers his earliest student writings, the anthropological studies of the 1930s which made his name, and the studies of English life and culture (1955–70) which consolidated it. In the latter case, researchers should note the considerable overlap in theme and format with holdings in the Mass-Observation Archive [link]. Among other topics, Gorer surveyed English attitudes to such national obsessions as television and sex. His long friendship with American contemporary Margaret Mead, meanwhile, resulted in a wealth of correspondence which will be invaluable to researchers studying the life and work of either anthropologist.

The collection includes samples from Gorer’s earliest student jottings. His first major work, The Revolutionary Ideas of the Marquis de Sade (1934), born out of an interest in abnormal psychology, is included with accompanying notes and corrections and later revised editions. For a lifelong career, however, it was social anthropology on which Gorer would settle; a vocation he fell into when an impulsive field trip to West Africa gave him sufficient material for a book, Africa Dances (1935). Further studies of different cultures followed, including Bali and Angkor (1936) and Himalayan Village: An account of the Lepchas of Sikkim (1938). The photographic material in the Archive is a valuable supplement to his writings. Gorer took a camera everywhere in the 1930s and his papers contain a mass of negatives and contact sheets from field trips. Although these are not fully sorted, researchers may consult a full catalogue of the images which accompany Himalayan Village. West African photographs of tribal life, meanwhile, complement Africa Dances and a trip to Cambodia resulted in an impressive series of pictures of the temples of Angkor Wat.

When his attention shifted to the United States, Gorer participated in the Rockefeller Foundation research project on mass communications (1939). This examined the influence of cinema and radio in the US and, although unpublished, it contains useful insights into American popular culture in the late 1930s. A subsequent work, Japanese Character Structure and Propaganda, came out of his involvement with the allied war effort via the British Embassy in Washington and its appearance made waves among his peers. The work was widely circulated and Margaret Mead was one of many who judged it influential and impressive. Other studies of national cultures in the 1940s included The Americans (1947) and a book on Russia.

Geoffrey Gorer’s byline became well known to readers of newspapers during the 1950s and 60s when, with newspaper sponsorship, he undertook national surveys on English attitudes and character. These would lead to a series of accompanying articles in the newspaper in question which analysed the findings. The Archive contains survey material such as questionnaires and letters from readers who were provoked by the articles. Gorer’s studies of the English character began in the People and generated 15,000 questionnaires, eight articles and a book, Exploring English Character, which covered a range of topics including crime, superstition and sex. A similar survey on the subject of television followed, this time in conjunction with The Sunday Times. The public reacted animatedly and he drew enthusiastic responses from figures as disparate as William Empson and Enid Blyton; this correspondence is held in the Archive. Other studies, with accompanying responses, include Death, Grief and Mourning in Contemporary Britain (Cressett, 1965) and Sex and Marriage in England Today (Nelson, 1971).

There is a large section of published and unpublished writings among Gorer’s papers, including articles for The Listener and the Illustrated London News and book reviews for The Observer and the New Statesman. The eclectic subject matter of his essays ranges from spiritualism to the initiation rituals of American college fraternities. Discussion of the social psychology of the Aymara people of Bolivia and Peru sits alongside a psychoanalytic approach to the works of Jane Austen; advice on American mores for young English expatriates is covered by one article; hen-pecked husbands are addressed in another. ‘Spies Aren’t Important’ (1951) argues that anxiety about spies is a symptom of paranoia; ‘Dionysus and the Welfare State’ (Encounter, September 1957) analyses rock and roll as a Dionysian response to the Apollonian characteristics of modern mass society. Almost 350 book reviews survive in the collection, mainly in the form of corrected carbons of the author’s typescripts.

An estimated 10,000 letters are contained within Gorer’s papers, and there is some overlap between personal and professional correspondence. Although Gorer often only exchanged one or two letters with a particular person, the exception was Margaret Mead, with whom Gorer had both an enduring friendship and a professional association. The Gorer-Mead correspondence was long and involved (well over 400 letters from Mead to Gorer are available, with 52 from Gorer in return), with many enclosures of interest to the Mead scholar. Gorer was also in touch with a large number of other thinkers from anthropological and sociological disciplines and there are interesting letters to Gorer from, for example, Ruth Benedict, George Devereux, John Dollard, Masud Khan and Rhoda Metraux. Other correspondents include Kingsley Amis, Karen Blixen, Daniel Boorstin, Ivy Compton-Burnett, EM Forster, Anna Freud, Tom Harrisson, Melanie Klein, Roland Penrose, SJ Perelman, Nikolaus Pevsner, CH Rolph, Edith Sitwell (the correspondence with Sitwell, though small in number, spans four decades and includes manuscript and typescript verse), Pavel Tchelitchew (31 letters; Gorer had a number of Tchelitchew’s works and photographs of his art collection are available for consultation), Rebecca West, Thornton Wilder and Angus Wilson.

Archival history

The similarity in themes, aims and methodology between Gorer’s studies of English character and the work of the Mass-Observation Archive prompted him to deposit the papers relating to his surveys of television, English character, and sex and marriage at the University of Sussex. Gorer had promised Mass-Observation founder Tom Harrisson he would pass on some of his material to the Archive, and it was Harrisson’s sudden death in 1976 which prompted him to honour that pledge. Gorer’s remaining papers, were subsequently bequeathed to the University and he made arrangements for his books to be transferred to Sussex shortly before his death in 1985.


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