Remembering Marshall Sahlins (1930-2021)

April 9, 2021
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Marshall Sahlins, a giant in the field of anthropology and a celebrated Press author, died earlier this week at his home in Hyde Park. Best known for his ethnographic work in the Pacific and for his contributions to anthropological theory, he was the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Chicago and the author of many books. Retired anthropology editor T. David Brent had the honor of working closely with Sahlins throughout his career, and he offered these words of remembrance for a significant author and friend.

Marshall Sahlins in 2013. Photo by Alan Thomas.

Marshall Sahlins was a distinguished scholar, a great anthropologist, a treasured author of the University of Chicago Press, and my dear friend. I had the privilege of being the editor for several of his books including Islands of History (1985), Anahulu: The Anthropology of History in the Kingdom of Hawaii volumes 1 & 2, co-authored with Patrick V. Kirch (1992), How “Natives” Think: About Captain Cook, For Example (1995), Apologies to Thucydides: Understanding History as Culture and Vice-Versa (2004) and What Kinship Is . . . And Is Not (2013). I also helped shepherd his Culture and Practical Reason (1976) into publication just after I joined the Press in 1974. We were friends and colleagues for nearly half a century.

Marshall and I bantered, argued, and laughed at lunches, dinner parties, and our beloved Chicago Cubs baseball games (one of which we attended courtesy of the University of Chicago Press, which Marshall made a condition before signing his contract). When it came to considering a work of his for publication, though, he didn’t want an editor in the conventional sense; he wanted and needed a friendly advocate who could understand and defend his work, get him a fair deal financially, and give him some influence over cover designs, promotion, and publicity. He was demanding, but his demands were always tempered by charm and good taste.

I hated to turn down Marshall’s requests, even those that were impractical. There was once a close scare with Apologies to Thucydides. Marshall proposed, or rather insisted, that the Press include a bookmark printed with a diagram of the kinship relations of the rulers of certain kingdoms of Hawai’i in the 19th century. I explained to him that this would be technically difficult, a considerable additional expense that would have to be added on to the list price of the book, and that I just could not get it approved by my colleagues. It was too much cost for too little gain. He threatened to withdraw the book.

I appealed to my colleagues in production with the counter-proposal that we insert a printed page that was perforated so it could be detached by the reader to have handy while reading the book.  This, too, was vetoed. Luckily, at the last minute, our editorial associate Elizabeth Branch Dyson (now Executive Editor and Assistant Editorial Director) had the brilliant idea of printing the diagram on the very last page of the book with a faux perforation line so that readers could cut it out and use it as Marshall wished. We all agreed, and the day—and the book—was saved. I have serious doubts whether any owner of the book ever took advantage of this typographical innovation, but it pleased Marshall, and that’s all that mattered.

From time to time Marshall recommended that I consider various works by others, but he never intervened in a single decision I made concerning anyone else’s work over the course of my long career as anthropology editor. I once asked him why he had never served as a member of the Faculty Board of University Publications. He said it was because the Provost’s office never asked. I suspect this was because the University administration—which Marshall bedeviled in many ways over the decades—was afraid he would use his powerful intellect and charm to persuade others to his point of view. And they would have been absolutely right.

—T. David Brent

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