Gorer, Geoffrey (1905-85)

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Geoffrey Gorer (1905-85) was born in London of well-to-do parents. Educated at Charterhouse and Jesus College, Cambridge, he graduated in 1927 with a degree in classics and modern languages. Periods of study at the Sorbonne (1922-1923) and at the University of Berlin (1927-1928) fostered an interest in other cultures which was to become the principal unifying theme of his career. However for the next few years Gorer saw himself as primarily an imaginative writer. Only after completing a picaresque novel and several unacted plays was he to conclude that his future lay elsewhere than in a purely literary career.

Gorer's first published work, The revolutionary ideas of the Marquis de Sade (1934), was an outgrowth of his burgeoning interest in abnormal psychology as much as of a training in modern languages. The book enjoyed a considerable critical success but was again something of a false start, since its author was not by constitution a scholar and in later life was to be only an occasional literary critic. His real talent surfaced almost by accident, when a three-month visit to West Africa in 1934, undertaken on impulse, resulted not only in a second successful book, Africa dances (1935), but also in the forming of a lifelong attachment to the science of social anthropology.

The new direction which Gorer's career had now taken was evidenced by a further two books, Bali and Angkor (1936) and Himalayan village (1938), the second of which alone would have earned him a secure if minor reputation among students of the social sciences. Unfortunately it was to be his only fieldwork-based study, since while gathering material for the book he contracted the tropical disease sprue (as well as fracturing a vertebra in falling off a rock) and was advised, at least for the immediate future, to avoid the rigours of life in the field.

During the Second World War Gorer was domiciled in the United States, where he studied behaviorism under Clark Hull at Yale and was employed by the allied authorities on a series of investigations of national character, the first of which, 'Japanese character structure and propaganda' (1941), achieved, in its author's words, 'a quite fantastic circulation and influence' in a mimeographed version. He also collaborated with the psychiatrist Earl R. Zinn on a book-length case study of a schizophrenic youth, 'Tom Malden', which while never published is a substantial and compelling account of mental abnormality.

What with the stresses of war work and other distractions a decade had passed since Gorer's last book, but in 1948 he published The Americans, following this a year later with The people of Great Russia: a psychological study, the latter book being a collaboration with the psychologist John Rickman. This same phase of his career witnessed his involvement with a series of projects concerned with the study of 'culture at a distance' and coordinated first by Ruth Benedict and (after her death in 1948) by Margaret Mead.

In 1950 Gorer purchased Sunte House, a small seventeenth-century manor house near Haywards Heath in West Sussex, which was to be his home for the last thirty-five years of his life and, being on Weald clay, the origin of an expertise in cultivating rhododendrons. The next two decades were to be productive ones, three substantial studies of English culture ( Exploring English character, 1955; Death, grief, and mourning in contemporary Britain, 1965; Sex & marriage in England today, 1971) being completed as well as a major series of articles, 'Television and the English' (1958), commissioned by the Sunday Times . These were also years in which Gorer's name became familiar to readers of the book pages of several weekly and monthly journals, his reviews and miscellaneous journalism showing the same qualities of professionalism and humanity which mark the rest of his work.

After 1976 Gorer seems to have been inactive as a writer. The flow of reviews and articles stops abruptly in that year, though the correspondence - a significant proportion of it now devoted to horticulture - continues until 1982. There is some reason to think that the sequence of correspondence received by the Library may be incomplete, since there are no letters for 1981 or for any year after 1982, though 1982 itself is fairly well represented. He died in May 1985 at the age of eighty.

Gorer characterized his 'chief sin' as sloth, adding that an adequate investment income, coupled with the ability to earn an easy living from journalism, had been responsible for diverting him from more important scientific work. The judgment may be considered harsh, coming as it does from a writer whose works include Himalayan village, the wartime and immediately postwar studies of national character, 'Tom Malden' and the three large-scale surveys of English life. More accurately one might point to the author's broad general culture, his ability to empathize with the world-view of respondents from another culture rather than simply to record it, as factors which make him more than a 'mere' social scientist. Whatever be the final verdict, the papers gathered together in the Gorer Collection will provide the necessary raw materials for any future reassessment of Gorer's life and writings.

From the guide to the The Geoffrey Gorer Archive, 1913-1982, (University of Sussex Library)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf The Geoffrey Gorer Archive, 1913-1982 University of Sussex Library
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Gorer Geoffrey 1905-1985 person
associatedWith Mead Margaret 1901-1978 person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Anthropologists Great Britain 20th century


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