Laura Bohannan

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Laura Bohannan (née Laura Marie Altman Smith), (1922–2002) pen name Elenore Smith Bowen, was an American cultural anthropologist best known for her 1961 article, "Shakespeare in the Bush." Bohannan also wrote two books during the 1960s, Tiv Economy, with her husband, and Return to Laughter,[1] a novel. These works were based on her travels and work in Africa between 1949 and 1953.

Early life[edit]

Bohannan's undergraduate education was at the University of Arizona, where she met her husband Paul J. Bohannan. They married 15 May 1943. In 1951 Bohannan received her doctorate from Oxford University.


Off and on from 1949 to 1953 Bohannan and her husband lived among the Tiv tribe of southeastern Nigeria. They would be the subject of her major works.

"Shakespeare in the Bush" is often anthologized because of its subject matter and unique perspective. Bohannan, while living in a small village in Nigeria, attempts to tell the story of Hamlet to a group of villagers. The cultural and language barriers between the two parties result in an entirely different telling of this most famous of English plays, with her audience left puzzling over Westerners' inability to understand their own literature. Thus, the essay is often used by students of anthropology, linguistics, and literary theory as a means of understanding how perspective affects perception and expectation.

Return to Laughter, which she wrote under the name Elenore Smith Bowen, remains a well-reviewed work,[2] and it is based on Bohannan's fieldwork in Nigeria. Bohannan used a pseudonym for this book, presumably because she felt its popular tone and autobiographical format were inappropriate for her professional reputation.[3] Bohannan's pseudonym was composed in part from her mother's first name, "Elenore",[4] and her own maiden name "Smith". However, many reviews of Return to Laughter, noted it as her work,[5] and later editions were published without the pseudonym.

Other works written about the Tiv include Tiv Economy, for which Bohannan and her husband received the Herskovitz Prize in 1969.

Assessment and later life[edit]

Bohannan is also part of a small school of women whose studies in anthropology were initially rejected because of their holistic (and sometimes personal) approach and style.[6] Other women in this school of early ethnographers include Zora Neale Hurston.[6]

From 1970 to 1973 Bohannan was the editor of American Anthropologist.[7] She and her husband divorced in 1975; they had had one son, Denis. She retired in 1990. On March 19, 2002, she died in her home of a heart attack.

Selected publications[edit]


  1. ^ First edition: Bowen, Elenore Smith (1954)Return to Laughter Victor Gollancz Ltd., London, OCLC 221519074; published in 1964 as Bowen, Elenore Smith Return to laughter: an anthropological novel by Doubleday, New York, OCLC 229910026; and thereafter with Laura Bohannan as the author.
  2. ^ Di Leonardo, Micaela (1998) Exotics at Home: Anthropologies, Others, and American Modernity University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 39-40, 215-225, ISBN 0-226-47263-9
  3. ^ Gottlieb, Alma (1997) "The Perils of Popularizing Anthropology" Anthropology Today 13(1): pp. 1-2, p.2, col. 2
  4. ^ Staff (1943) "Betrothal is Told at Reception" Tucson Daily Citizen 8 May 1943, p. 6, col. 8
  5. ^ Heiser, Charles B., Jr. (1965) "Review: Return to Laughter by Elenore Smith Bowen" The American Biology Teacher 27(2): p. 129
  6. ^ a b Visweswaran, Kamala (1994) Fictions of Feminist Ethnography University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, ISBN 0-8166-2336-8
  7. ^ WHG (1970) "Editorial Note" American Anthropologist, New Series, 72(1): p. vii

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