James Frazer

By: Anthony Miller
January 1, 2015


A Glaswegian classicist who spent his adult life as a Cambridge don, JAMES FRAZER (1854–1941) roamed the globe and the mind of mankind with The Golden Bough, his immense multi-volume compendium of totems and taboos, rites and resurrections. His study of ritual magic and religion has cast its own profound spell as a literary talisman, keeping writers of various sorts in its thrall. The book moved Bronisław Malinowski to become an anthropologist in much the same way that E.B. Tylor’s Primitive Culture had catalyzed Frazer. “Frazer’s chief influence seems to have been in fields rather remote from his own,” the incomparable University of Chicago historian of religions Jonathan Z. Smith wrote in his dissertation on The Golden Bough at a time when Frazer had fallen into scholarly neglect and disrepute, “in occult literature, in novels and poetry, in literary criticism, in psychoanalytic literature.” Think Yeats, Freud, Jung, Crowley. Robert Graves wrote his own version of The Golden Bough with The White Goddess. The most enduring shout-out for Frazer’s book came from T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land when he acknowledged its influence on his poem and declared the book “one which has influenced our generation profoundly.” Frazer lies behind the monomythomania of Joseph Campbell and the pagan-pop syncretism of Camille Paglia. A Frazer quotation about the “purblind vision” of small minds can be found on a wall at Los Angeles’s Museum of Jurassic Technology as a curatorial admonition. Frazer described “sympathetic magic,” cures found through mimicry or contiguity to the object of the illness (as in “hair of the dog”). There is also some sympathetic magic in the way writers have taken up Frazer’s book for its scope, ambition, and power. Like the figure of the “dying god” in The Golden Bough whose death restores the land, Frazer’s great encyclopedic work returns again and again as a source of regenerative energy and vital inspiration.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Frederick Wiseman.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the New Promethean (1844–53) and Plutonian (1854-63) Generations.