Study Guide

Alfred L. Kroeber in A Left-Handed Commencement Address

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Alfred L. Kroeber

Prediction for Newest Hipster Trend: The Kroeber Beard

Alfred Kroeber was a pretty insanely fascinating dude. Check it out:

He was born in New Jersey to German-immigrant parents, and interestingly enough his childhood was anything but a typical impoverished-immigrant family story. He was firmly upper-middle class, and he studied in New York's finest private schools, excelling in languages like German, English, Latin, and Greek. He went to Columbia College at the age of sixteen (!), earning an associate's degree in English, and then a master's in Romantic Drama. Then he delved into the new field of Anthropology, receiving the first ever Ph.D. in that particular discipline by writing a dissertation on the "decorative symbolism" of the Arapaho Indians.

Not too shabby so far, right? Well, he's not done yet…

He then went on to build the University of California, Berkeley's Anthropology Department, and spent most of his career there influencing America's budding anthropologists and fighting for the rights of the many disenfranchised western tribes of Native Americans. He was so influential, in fact, that the way he styled his facial hair became a massive trend of the times. (He was quite the stud, you have to admit.)

Proud Papa

Most notably, though, Kroeber is famous for working with Ishi, a man who claimed to be the last California Yahi Indian (and of whose exploits Kroeber's beloved wife, Theodora, wrote an acclaimed biography).

More importantly to us, though, Alfred Kroeber was a huge influence for his daughter, Ursula Le Guin. She has often has expressed a deep gratitude for the environment he and her mother created at their home and for most of her unorthodox upbringing:

Obviously, my father's interest and temperament set some kind of… well, I almost want to say a moral tone. He was interested in everything. Living with a mind like that is, of course, a kind of education. His field of science was a human one, and that's really good luck for a novelist. […]

We spent every summer, all summer, at a ranch he had bought in Napa Valley. It was very run-down, easygoing, and my parents had lots and lots of guests. My father would entertain his fellow academics and people from abroad—this was the late thirties, and there were refugees coming in, people from all over the world. Among the guests were a couple of Indians who had been "informants," as they called them then—they don't use that word anymore—tribal members my father had come to know as friends through working with them, learning their language and customs from them. One of them, Juan Dolores, was a Papago, or O'odham—he was a real family friend. And he would stay for a couple weeks or a month. So we sort of had this Indian uncle. Just having these people from a truly other culture—it was a tremendous gift.

Maybe simply the experience of the "other"? A lot of people never have it, or don't take the chance when offered. Everybody in the industrial nations now sees "others" on the TV, and so on, but that's not the same as living with them. Even if only one or two of them. (Le Guin, 2013)

This experience of the "other" and an outlook on life that embraced different perspectives laid much of the groundwork for Le Guin's anthropological sect of science-fiction. That's a pretty big "gift", don't you think?

He also supported Ursula in all of her early publication efforts, especially in the fascinating world of poetry.

I knew by then that my main shtick was fiction, but that I would always write poetry. My first publications were all poetry, and that's partly because of my father. He realized that sending out poetry is quite a big job. It takes method and a certain amount of diligence and a good deal of time. And he said, I could help you do that, that would be fun! He got interested in the subculture of the little magazines and realized that it is a little world, with rules all its own. (Le Guin, 2013)

Thanks, Alfred Kroeber, for being a supportive father and nurturing Le Guin's sense of anthropological curiosity. The literary world will never be the same.

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