Morris Jesup is a fascinating character in Westport’s history. They say he was born in Westport in 1830 but, of course, Westport wasn’t Westport until 1835. When he was 12 he moved to NYC and by the time he was 22 he had established a banking house. Other details from his story really stand out.
The real grabber is that he became the president of the American Museum of Natural History, the museum’s 3rd president. As such, he personally financed an expedition in 1897 to Alaska and Siberia headed up by a gentleman by the name Franz Boas.
This expedition became known as the Jesup North West Expedition. Boas’ focus was on documentation of tribal life and he, in later years, became known as the Father of Modern Anthropology. He had made a big splash at the World’s Fair in 1893, also known as the Columbia Exposition, in Chicago, showcasing his earlier work with northern Canadian Eskimos.
Boas assembled teams headed up by brilliant men. They were instructed to create life masks of the people they met along the way. They collected death masks from all the different tribes, also, all different kinds of masks and artifacts from many tribal cultures. They wanted to prove that humans had populated North America by crossing the land bridge from Siberia some 10,000 years previously.
Back in New York Boas displayed all the artifacts at the museum. He did such a good job re-contextualizing the evidence that he was appointed curator. Boas also did a lot of work studying the different languages of the tribes by comparing the differences and similarities.
Now here is where it gets interesting—by putting all the artifacts in context he was able to establish methods that in later years were made use of by a gentleman who went by the name of Claude Levi- Strauss. Franz Boas actually died in the arms of Levi-Strauss after suffering an attack at a dinner party.
But Strauss had always credited Boas as a major inspiration for his own work in anthropology and philosophy making use of what is called Structuralism. As until 1966, when Jacques Derrida blew that theory out of the water, this Structuralism was at the forefront of continental(European) philosophy.
It is a little complicated for me to set out clearly in a few sentences but here goes—Claude Levi-Strauss posited that the human mind was born with a language function built-in as it were–how else could little children perform with a highly complicated language skill set after very little training. Structuralism is used to break down literature and local myths into binary opposites making comparisons possible. Structuralism is not concerned with the narrative or stories but more with the primary relationships among the elements of the story.
In 1966 Jacques Derrida delivered his speech at John Hopkins University. Levi-Strauss was in attendance and everyone one thought that he would be confirming Levi-Strauss’ work. But he didn’t, Derrida offered a critique of Structuralism–termed Deconstruction. Though he acknowledged that he was standing on Levi-Strauss’ shoulders he found that the binary opposites at the heart of structuralist thinking were usually dominated by one or the other and not opposites at all.
In Westport we can stand on the shoulders of men like Morris Ketchum Jesup whenever we walk into the library or lounge around Jesup Green—how cool is that?