Books in the Background 5: Wilderness

Ron Berman


            Michael Reynolds wrote in The Young Hemingway (1986) that “not long after the movie of Roosevelt's African hunt played Oak Park, the Hemingway family-reunion picture shows young Ernest in his safari costume standing at the edge of the smilers. At his side. he holds a hat like the one Teddy wore.  In National Geographic, he devoured Roosevelt's account of the hunt, complete with pictures of dead animals and half-naked native women.  Roosevelt's book African Game Trails became a permanent part of Hemingway's library.” The literature of exploration and the hunt assumed that trophies of a safari meant less than shaping life by risking it. There were other important meanings: Reynolds states that Oak Park was a center of African missionary interest when Ernest was 13. Every church in town had lectures on the subject.  Grace Hall Hemingway led the Third Congregational Church's memorial to David Livingstone in 1913.  For several weeks, Oak Park held exhibits of Zulu costume and listened to recitals of African songs.  Hemingway heard the story of Madecana Cele's conversion to Christianity, and the Young Ladies quartet learned to sing "in the Congo dialect." The idea of wilderness combined adventure and a deep, remorseful sense of Christian responsibility. Just a few years earlier, the London Spectator said that the hunt for the lions of Tsavo (who were shot only after killing scores of people) was simply a demonstration of our duty to help those without power over nature.

            There were doubts over the Roosevelt effect. An enemy, the Reverend William J. Long wrote in 1909 that “the worst feature in the whole bloody business is not the killing of a few hundred wild animals in Africa, but the brutalizing influence which these reports have upon thousands of American boys. Only last week I met I met half a dozen little fellows in the woods.  The biggest boy had a gun and a squirrel's tail in his hat, and he called himself Bwana Tumbo.  They were shooting everything in sight, killing birds at a time when every dead mother meant a nestful of young birds slowly starving to death.  How could I convince them that their work was inhuman?  Is not the great American hero occupied at this time with the same detestable business?” He later added, “the only thing we will ever get out of this . . . will be some more hunting yarns” (230-31). At the same time, George Santayana was thinking about the dehydration of our culture, its reliance on mere forms and styles. He wrote that few seemed willing to confront the actual circumstances of life—except for "naturalists."   They were at least finding part of the truth about human behavior in the physical world. Santayana noted that Americans instinctively turned to forests and sierras for examples of actual existence.  Inevitably, he said, we would discover our own moral relativity in those places. And the strength of time.         


The Naturalist. By Darrin Lunde.  New York: Crown Publishers, 2016. 334 pp. $28.00.

            Hemingway read African Game Trails and Roosevelt read Livingstone's Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa. The naturalist book was full of moral issues and the missionary book was full of adventure:

Although it was too large and heavy for a small boy such as Teddy to carry properly, he dragged the book around the house, begging people to read it to him. . . .  Roosevelt may have been too young to understand the words, but the pictures in Livingstone's book spoke clearly: a desperate man pinned to the earth by a snarling lion; men with spears and shields driving whole herds of zebras, elands, and antelope into giant pitfall traps dug into the earth; a dugout canoe being violently tipped by an enraged hippopotamus, the passengers flailing their arms and leaping to escape. 

            The man squirming under the lion's paw was David Livingstone himself. . . . “quite conscious of all that was happening.” (12-13)


Victorians had dual convictions about wilderness. Just before Long's remarks were published, Colonel Patterson had written in The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, “I was delighted to see two beautiful giraffe feeding peacefully a little distance away and straining their long necks to get at the tops of some mimosa-like trees, while a young one was lying down in the grass quite close to me. . . .  They seemed on the most affectionate terms, occasionally entwining their great long necks and gently biting each other on the shoulders. Much as I should have liked to have added a giraffe to my collection of trophies, I left them undisturbed; as I think it a pity to shoot these rather rare and very harmless creatures, unless one is required for a special purpose.”

            Teddy Roosevelt admired the great stories of exploration but those times were over and he had to write about collecting species for exhibits. Hemingway read about TR's museum treks but wrote about trophies taken nearer Nairobi and civilization. Yet each layer of ideas stayed on the page.  Roosevelt opens African Game Trails with a line (“I speak of Africa and golden joys”) from Henry IV part 2; Wilson in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” goes to the same play to bring “out this thing he had lived by.” Even the society columnist in that story knows the drill:  Francis and Margot have read up on Africa, seen it on “so many silver screens” and will be “collecting specimens for the Museum of Natural History.” His texts are dubious.  But the Shakespeare lines in Roosevelt are from Pistol and those of Wilson from Feeble, which makes you think.

            Books about Africa like Roosevelt's African Game Trails (1910), Frederick Courteney Selous' African Nature Notes and Reminiscences (1908), and John H. Patterson's The Man-Eaters of Tsavo (1907) had certain themes. The Macomber story is poised against tales of lion hunting (according to the columnist “they were pursuing Old Simba the lion”). Those were not hunting yarns. Francis Macomber is in exactly the same bind as Patterson, Roosevelt, and Selous who all wanted to be part of an immemorial ritual.  They wanted the hunt to confirm heroic values. But Lunde describes Roosevelt's actual hunt as moral chaos. So does Roosevelt:  his group routinely miss their shots, kill the wrong animal, leave wounded beasts in the brush, use the wrong caliber guns, and even end up shooting, “mysteriously, a domestic house cat” (Lunde 217).  Lunde's description of the bear hunt in Mississippi in 1902 (the bear was lassoed, clubbed, and tied to a tree before being shot—but not by the horrified president) is a ways from Faulkner.  As the Spectator said, hunting tends to remind us of our incomplete dominion over the creation.              

            Lunde tells how Roosevelt and others tried to square the circle. Their books have a dogma: protect bush people from lions, shoot only at large males, finish off a wounded beast, use the kind of gun that will do the job, honor the code.  But the central problem of big-game hunting is that lion, buffalo, or rhino can't be killed beautifully with a single shot. Big game has to be crippled, like the bullfight. You begin by shooting at a target but end by following a blood-trail. Ethics were always compromised. There could never be a justification for shooting large mammals unless they were eaten. There were moral difficulties in treating nations as game preserves for moneyed tourists. But, justifications were provided by science: collection, preservation, and exhibition turned trophies into exhibits. The hunt sustained economies by gratifying appetites.

            “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is an extraordinary story of its moment.  There is nothing in its tradition as good as the detail of the lion hunt.  But one of its strengths is reusing characters and predicaments; another is modernizing circumstance. Hemingway took from (some of) the old hunting stories powerful details about losing your grip, finding that accident trumps intention, enduring fate. Wilderness, a concept of numinous power since at least John James Audubon, provided a different sense of existence and Hemingway shows how costly has been its absorption by culture. What happened to the old beliefs?  Mario Vargas Llosa has tried to account for the integrity of Victorian values that were deeply imperfect. He begins, in fact, at that odd moment when we rediscovered primitive life at the end of the nineteenth century.  He even uses the language of exploration:  knowledge was then a kind of  “compass, a guide that allowed people to find their bearings in the dense thickets of knowledge without getting lost.” It located the self within things larger than it was; and insisted that intelligible actions proceeded from ideas tested by reality. As he notes, ideas derived from wilderness were bound to fail--but not as badly as those derived from our culture.

Ron Berman 08/05/2016

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