Although he wasn’t the typical anthropologist, doing years of fieldwork, Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) belongs to the most well known thinkers of his field. He became widely known with the publication of his memoir Tristes Tropiques in the 1950s and his name became synonymous with the structural method applied to kinship and myths.
He wrote his PhD in New York during the Second World War. Each morning, he went to the New York Public Library to read all he could about anthropology. He would leave at lunch time, ate and went home to write. As a cultural attaché after the war, he spent the mornings in the office and the afternoons at home writing. With this schedule, he managed to finish his thesis. It helped, that his office was in the same building as his apartment.
Years later, back in France, he used a different writing schedule in order to work on his four-volume Mythologica. Between 1964 and 1971, Lévi-Strauss rose between five and six in the morning and worked the entire day. He didn’t rest on weekends or take holidays. He worked that hard in order to not lose touch with the hundreds of myths he analyzed. A team of researchers provided the myths, read and proofread his drafts and transcribed his lectures. Even his wife helped with the work.
Working on his memoire, as well as with the myth project later, Lévi-Strauss had a fast writing pace. In the former case, he wrote the book in a few months, simply writing down whatever came to mind. The first edition, however, gave evidence of that, because there were many misspelled words. In the case of the myth project, Lévi-Strauss wrote several hundred pages a year, because he wanted to be done with the books before his death. While writing, Lévi-Strauss listened to classical music. He said that listening helped him think.
You might think that someone like Lévi-Strauss must have loved writing. Otherwise, how could he have spent years of non-stop work on thick volumes? Didier Eribon, who interviewed him, asked, whether he felt joy and satisfaction when finishing a book. Lévi-Strauss answered, that he felt satisfaction, but that writing wasn’t associated with joy for him. Instead, it was connected to anxiety and revulsion. He was no stranger to having the empty page in front of him: he needed several days in order to find the first sentence. Even when he had felt satisfied, a finished book became a foreign, dead object to him. There was only one case when Lévi-Strauss enjoyed writing a book (the small myth-volume The Jealous Potter). In general, he didn’t consider working more fun than not working. However, time went by without him noticing.
Lévi-Strauss’ writing strategy differs from those of other famous researchers. Having used the strategy during his time in New York, Lévi-Strauss used his lectures at the Collège de France to test his ideas. After giving a lecture based on an outline, he would transform the material and insights into a text.
Lévi-Strauss admitted to having been more of a desk than a fieldwork anthropologist. But because of his broad interest in ethnographic material from all around the world and his perseverance while sifting through hundreds of myths, he contributed some of the most influential and controversial insights to 20th century social science.
Eribon, Didier (1991): Conversations with Claude Lévi-Strauss. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Wilcken, Patrick (2010): Claude Lévi-Strauss. The Poet in the Laboratory. London: Bloomsbury.