October 18, 2010

IF YOU HAD JUST ONE PICK FOR THE MOST UNJUSTLY FORGOTTEN NOVEL EVER...:

The Great Opportunist: Don't presume you know the strange truth about Henry Morton Stanley: a review of STANLEY The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer By Tim Jeal ( Jason Roberts, December 23, 2007, Washington Post)

It's hard to imagine a more intriguing -- and intimidating -- challenge to the biographer's art than the life of journalist, explorer and continental opportunist Sir Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904). He is rare among celebrities of centuries past, in that the years have not transmuted his fame into benign augustness nor obscurity, but rather into infamy: Post-Victorian sensibilities have long since extinguished the heroic light once cast upon Stanley's expeditions into so-called "darkest Africa." The man who did more than any other Westerner to illuminate what Joseph Conrad termed "the unsolved mystery of that continent" is now less commemorated for his achievements than condemned for the ruthlessness by which he achieved them.

Even during his lifetime, exploits that once thrilled admirers began to appall. Stanley wrote casually of beating his native porters to perk up "the physical energy of the lazily inclined." He once observed that the massacre of 33 Bumbireh warriors should teach the survivors to "in future behave with some regard to the rights of strangers." Yet as Tim Jeal points out in this commanding, definitive biography, much of this was bluster, calculated to fit the public-consumption ideal of the Great White Conqueror.

The unguarded Stanley was remarkably minimal in his racism, declaring himself "prepared to admit any black man possessing the attributes of true manhood, or any good qualities, to my friendship, even to a brotherhood with myself." The violence he perpetrated was regularly exaggerated, usually by Stanley himself. It's not hard to find evidence of similarly inexcusable behavior among his contemporary explorers -- even the Scottish missionary David Livingstone, whom Stanley famously set out to "rescue" from the African interior, not only killed several natives but punitively burned their huts. None of this serves as an apology for the man, but it demonstrates that is impossible to view Henry Morton Stanley plain. One must filter his image through two distorting prisms, that of his era and of our own.


...you could do worse than Peter Forbath's great Last Hero


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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 18, 2010 6:53 AM
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