2020 Charles King, Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century (Doubleday)

King’s entrancing work is a complex and intellectually supple group biography that takes a sweeping look at the birth of a new discipline—cultural anthropology—in the early 20th century. Gods of the Upper Air tells the remarkable story of a cadre of visionary American academics who sought to employ science and ambitious field research to understand some of the biggest mysteries of human nature, including fundamental questions about race, gender, morality, and sexual identity. With this elegant and wide-ranging study, King has achieved something very difficult and rare in the field of intellectual history: turning a story of ideas into a true narrative, with vivid, important characters in whom those ideas live and develop.

King writes with energetic prose and an engaging curiosity. His book, which reviewers have described as an “intellectual adventure story” and a “scholarly masterpiece,” focuses on the life of Franz Boas, a Jewish refugee from Germany and an idiosyncratic genius, and on several path-breaking women who were his protégés: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ella Cara Deloria. These mavericks and intellectual trailblazers dared to question the prevailing racial cant of their day, confronting and discrediting the specious theories of eugenicists and defenders of Jim Crow and immigration restriction. In so doing, they played a vital role in making the United States a more equal and just society. Indeed, they helped establish a fundamental political and moral precept of our times: that whatever our skin color, gender, birthplace, ancestry, or culture, we share a single humanity.

King, the author of seven books, is a professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University.