The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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James George Frazer | Biography

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Early Life and Education

Sir James George Frazer was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on January 1, 1854. His parents, Daniel F. Frazer and Katherine Brown, were devout Presbyterians, and raised Frazer and his three siblings accordingly. Frazer attended the University of Glasgow, graduating in 1869 with a Master of Arts, and then studied classics at Trinity College, Cambridge. After he graduated in 1878, he was offered a Classics Fellowship by the university. He remained there for 62 years, aside from a one-year position at the University of Liverpool as a lecturer on social anthropology in 1907. Frazer also studied law at the Middle Temple, a prestigious British legal society, although he never practiced law professionally.

Academic Career

Frazer was a zealous scholar, devoting countless hours to his passion for research and academic discovery. During his career he produced numerous original works of nonfiction, as well as translations of classic titles from Greek and Latin. The Golden Bough, first published in 1890, is his most famous work. In this groundbreaking book Frazer analyzes historical writings and previous scholarly research to draw broad conclusions about humankind, particularly regarding the development of thought in the areas of magic, religion, and science. When it was published, the book was unique in its academic consideration of religion as a cultural phenomenon. Frazer's inclusion of traditional Christian stories alongside pagan myths ruffled more than a few feathers. Overall, however, The Golden Bough cemented Frazer's reputation as one of the most important anthropologists of his era.

The Golden Bough was published in several editions. The first edition was published in 1890 in two volumes. Frazer expanded and republished it in 12 volumes between 1911 and 1915. He then abridged it into a single volume in 1922. In 1936 he published a follow-up, titled Aftermath, a Supplement, with updated information on the subjects in the original book. In this volume he noted, "I hold all my theories very lightly, and am ever ready to modify or abandon them in the light of new evidence."

The scope of Frazer's anthropological studies was huge, including cultures from every corner of the world, yet Frazer never traveled much and never met firsthand any of the "savages" he studied. Much of his information came from ancient literature and from query letters he wrote to missionaries, colonial officials, and travelers around the world. Some have criticized Frazer for his lack of hands-on fieldwork, labeling him an "armchair anthropologist." However, such criticism does not detract from his work's importance in the field of cultural anthropology.

Personal Life and Legacy

Frazer married Elisabeth Grove, also called Lilly, in 1896. She was a great supporter of her husband's work and translated The Golden Bough into French. Frazer also gained the support and admiration of important scholars and writers who were influenced by his work. In 1914 Frazer was knighted for his contributions to anthropology, and in 1920 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, which promotes excellence in science. The following year a lecture series on anthropology was established in Frazer's honor at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Glasgow, and Liverpool. In 1925 Frazer became a member of the Order of Merit, an honor bestowed on him by the British Crown in recognition of his exceptional scientific work.

In 1930 Frazer nearly went blind due to an accident. Nonetheless, he continued his research and writing with help from his wife and his secretaries. Frazer passed away on May 7, 1941, and his wife died just a few hours later. His contributions to the field of cultural anthropology have earned him a lasting place in academic history.

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