Cover image for In the arms of Africa : the life of Colin M. Turnbull
In the arms of Africa : the life of Colin M. Turnbull
Grinker, Roy Richard, 1961-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
xii, 354 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
GN21.T85 G75 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
GN21.T85 G75 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Colin Turnbull made a name for himself with The Forest People, his acclaimed study of African Pygmies. His second book, however, The Mountain People, ignited a swirl of controversy within anthropology and tainted Turnbull's reputation as a respected anthropologist.In this scrupulously researched biography, Roy Richard Grinker charts the rise and fall of this colorful and controversial man-from his Scottish family and British education to travels in Africa and his great love affair with Joe Towles. Grinker, noted for his own work on the Pygmies, herein gives readers a fascinating account of Turnbull's life and work. Originally published by St. Martin's Press

Author Notes

Roy Richard Grinker is Associate Professor of Anthropology at George Washington University.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Grinker originally intended to debunk what was considered the overromanticized work of famed Scottish anthropologist Colin M. Turnbull and ended up writing a fascinating biography of the complicated relationship between Turnbull's life and his work. Turnbull's celebrity, equivalent to that of Margaret Mead, was based on his extensive study of the African Pygmies in the 1950s. His fascination with their passion for life and nature became entwined with Turnbull's own search for a more spiritual life, which led him to the Buddhist religion. His search for companionship led him to a 30-year homosexual interracial relationship with Joseph Towles, an African American. When they met, Towles was in his 20s and was starting a career in acting and writing. Turnbull spent the remainder of their lives together trying to transform Towles into an anthropological scholar. The two traveled and worked together, at Turnbull's insistence, until Towles died of AIDS in 1988. Grinker recounts the turbulent nature of the relationship as the two men struggled with their different backgrounds: Turnbull the famous anthropologist of privileged origins and Towles a man made doubly outcast from American society by virtue of his race and sexual orientation. --Vanessa Bush

Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Grinker's portrait is at once a love story, a psychological profile, and a scientific biography of the controversial Scottish American anthropologist. Turnbull was both credited with doing landmark on African native populations and criticized for subjectivity and his openly gay lifestyle. His longest and most complex relationship, which he characterized as a marriage, was an African American variously his lover, protege, colleague, and metaphor for the continent he came to love, and by extension, the world's disadvantaged. Thus the title. Grinker (Houses in the Rainforest) began by wanting to debunk Turnbull's scholarship, but his own studies and experiences of Africa and his growing understanding of Turnbull's background and personality led instead to insightful respect -- though never adulation. Thoroughly researched and highly readable, this biography will earn a place in both academic and popular collections. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Grinker (George Washington Univ.), author of two books about African peoples, discusses Turnbull's problematic contributions to the literature of anthropology. The anthropologist completed a distressing period of fieldwork among the Ik people in Africa and then saw the fruit of this endeavor, The Mountain People (CH, Mar'73), assailed by other anthropologists. Turnbull seemed to walk a razor's edge in work and life, teetering between science and art, subject and object, and analysis and interpretation. Nobody comes out looking good in Grinker's discussion of Turnbull's years at the Museum of Natural History and the foolishness of apparently racist and homophobic colleagues. The passages that demonstrate Turnbull's devotion for his partner, Joseph Towles, are compelling and serve to counter Grinker's report of frequent cruelties and infidelities in the relationship. Accounts of Turnbull's other complex relationships (including those with friends whom he is said to have slighted) seem sometimes petty; Turnbull is not around to refute accusations. There are editing errors--it is Osa, not Asa Johnson, ethology and ethnology are confused on p. 179, and K. Anthony Appiah has written that he was misquoted. Recommended for general and academic collections at all levels. L. De Danaan; Evergreen State College

Table of Contents

Acknowledgementsp. viii
Chapter 1 Pygmalionp. 1
Chapter 2 The Wizardp. 9
Chapter 3 Hothousep. 19
Chapter 4 Classp. 33
Chapter 5 The Flute of Krishnap. 47
Chapter 6 The Rain Forestp. 67
Chapter 7 Magical Soundsp. 85
Chapter 8 New York Cityp. 117
Chapter 9 The Museump. 139
Chapter 10 The Edge of Humanityp. 155
Chapter 11 Wild Correspondencep. 171
Chapter 12 Rainp. 189
Chapter 13 Peter Brookp. 209
Chapter 14 Virginiap. 223
Chapter 15 Withdrawalp. 241
Chapter 16 Death Sentencep. 271
Chapter 17 Together at Lastp. 293
Chapter 18 Epiloguep. 319
Notesp. 321
Books by Colin Turnbullp. 347
Indexp. 349