Saturday, March 16, 2013

Book Review: 'Between Man and Beast' by Monte Reel

An explorer emerges in 'Between Man and Beast'
By Harper Barnes
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
March 16, 2013

On the evidence of “Between Man and Beast,” Monte Reel’s entertaining and provocative story of the life and adventures of explorer Paul Du Chaillu, fame in the middle of the 19th century could run the same course it so often does in the early 21st century — a burst of glory and adoration is followed by suspicion and then come the attacks, driven by envy and the media need for new fodder.
Du Chaillu was the first explorer of European ancestry to penetrate deep into the jungles of West Africa and observe up close the elusive gorilla, which many believed to be a mythical or imaginary creature. In 1861, when Du Chaillu published the results of his explorations and displayed in London the stuffed skins of gorillas he had shot, daily and weekly newspapers and even scientific journals in England played the role taken up today by cable television gossip shows and the Internet. At first, they lionized him, but fairly quickly, Paul Du Chaillu was turned from a hero into a villain, from an intrepid adventurer into an imposter, “a mere spinner of yarns.” And worse, as if it mattered, “a mongrel,” a person of mixed race.
Du Chaillu was the son of a French trader in West Africa who willingly turned the boy over to an American missionary couple, who educated him. From childhood, he was fascinated by tales of a mysterious, possibly mythical animal who stood upright taller than a man and was covered with hair — the gorilla.
In 1852, his adopted father sent him to the United States to study and teach, and in 1856, in his mid-20s, outfitted by scientific foundations, Du Chaillu returned to Africa as an explorer. He spent three years on expedition, shooting and sending back thousands of birds and other specimens, including the skins and skulls of gorillas. (Killing specimens for study was the common practice at the time of naturalists, notably John James Audubon. As Reel notes, “Today science has uncoupled itself from hunting, but the two realms were indivisible for most of the nineteenth century.”)
Du Chaillu had several of the gorilla skins stuffed and displayed them first in New York and later in London where, in 1861, he published a book describing his explorations and his findings. The explorations of men like Richard Burton and David Livingston had created what Reel calls a “public mania for exploration” in England, and Du Chaillu’s book added to it and helped induce “gorilla fever.” Some thought the gorilla might be a “missing link” between man and apes.
And then the reaction set in. In part, Du Chaillu got caught in the middle of a ferocious zoological battle spurred by the recent publication of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” But there also were noted academics who, despite never having been to Africa, knew that gorillas lived in trees, not on the ground as the explorer had said, and never beat their chests and roared. At least one scientist had managed to acquire his own stuffed gorilla and was furious at Du Chaillu for beating him to the lecture circuit. And there were the sensation mongers who claimed (with some truth) that Du Chaillu’s mother was a mixed-race native of the African island of Reunion.
Bewildered and angered by the attacks, Du Chaillu eventually decided to stage another expedition and this time lug a camera along. In the midst of it, he decided he couldn’t bear to shoot another gorilla and took pictures instead. He succeeded in restoring his reputation and continued exploring the world for the rest of his long life. When he died in Russia in 1903, his body was shipped back to the United States for burial. A Presbyterian minister said in eulogy, “As an explorer, as lecturer, as author, as social companion and investigator, he made the world largely his own. Known and welcomed on three continents, he had everywhere, yet nowhere, a home.”
Reel, author of “The Last of the Tribe” and a former reporter for the Post-Dispatch and the Washington Post, does a superb job of telling the engrossing story of Du Chaillu and tying it into the events and thoughts of the time, from the intense debate over racial differences in light of the theory of evolution to the habit of Abraham Lincoln’s political enemies of referring to him as a “gorilla.” The book appears to be scrupulous in adhering to the facts, to what was actually said and done. At the same time, it has the narrative flow and evocative language of a fine historical novel.
Harper Barnes is the author of “Never Been a Time,” a history of the 1917 East St. Louis race riot.

‘Between Man and Beast: An Unlikely Explorer, the Evolution Debates, and the African Adventure that Took the Victorian World by Storm’
By Monte Reel
Published by Doubleday, 352 pages, $26.95

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