Monday, June 4, 2007

The River of Doubt

Roosevelt and the non-Brazilian members of the expedition, before plunging into the Heart of Darkness.

Title: The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey (New York: Broadway Books, 2005)

Author: Candice Millard, former writer and editor for National Geographic.

Argument/Plot Summary: This is a book of "popular" history, and as such does not really have an argument that engages with other scholarship. So I'll focus mainly on its plot.

River of Doubt is a recounting of the journey that TR took up the eponymous river in Brazil, in 1913. Although TR seems to have conceived of the trip as a jaunt intended to distract him from the loss of the Presidential race of 1912 (that's the year he ran as a rep of the Progressive Party) and the social rejection he suffered in the aftermath, the journey was disastrously under- and mis-planned, resulting in a dangerous misadventure that put TR's life in danger, as well as the lives of the other men on the expedition - including TR's son Kermit. The book's TR is an unparalleled saint, beloved by all who meet him, from heads of state to itinerant rubbertappers.

Kermit Roosevelt, in his 20s, about the time of the 1913 expedition.

The most interesting aspects of this book have to do with the Brazilian commander of the expedition, Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon, a man who had previously commanded the initiative which had strung telegraph lines throughout 800 miles of Brazilian rainforest. Rondon was also a humanitarian and a Positivist, and believed in the gentle incorporation/assimilation into modernity of the jungle's indigenous tribes. Because of this, he forebade men on any of his expeditions to fire at or kill a native jungle inhabitant - a provision of his leadership that TR, who generally admired Rondon's military work ethic and iron control, was not too psyched to hear about. These conflicting national ideas of how exploration should be carried out, esp. in conjunction with objectives for native peoples, would be really interesting to tease out, but this book's not the venue for that.

Roosevelt and Rondon, with one of the only pieces of game they managed to capture in the jungle.

It's also not the place - to be fair - to discuss the implications of TR's safari diplomacy, and talk about how his public reception in South America might have been different from the way he was seen in Africa, and how these expeditions of his might have contributed to world opinion about the Project of America. This book does point to TR's initial chilly reception in Chile, due to his recent Panama Canal shenanigans and pro-interventionist, pro-imperialist re-enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine (see Barbarian Virtues for more on this). But this issue is resolved, by Millard's lights, after all of the Chileans came over to TR's side, swayed by the tremendous force and magnetism of his personality ("The audience leapt to its feet, cheering and applauding the Yankee imperialist" [66]).

Millard's view of nature hits again and again on the relentless evolutionary fervor encapsulated in the jungle environment (when describing the expedition's difficulty hunting, she writes "In its intense and remorseless competition for every available nutrient, the Amazon offered little just for the the extent that they were obliged to rely on the jungle for food, the men of the expedition were destined to do without" [238]). I find this intriguing, especially when juxtaposed with her descriptions of the jungle tribes, which *are* able to wring food out of their landscape, but which she sees as barbaric, dangerous, and pathetic. This seems to be somewhat of a throwback to an environmental-determinist stance, which would hold that people developed in response to an unforgiving environment will in turn be unforgiving and stunted and somewhat sad. This also implies that the jungle is a denying and shrewish mother, while other landscapes, including all American ones, are sweet and easily coaxed into giving up sustenance - an intriguing juxtaposition. Alexander von Humboldt would not approve.

The jungle, and the Amazonian jungle in particular, would be a subject for an interesting chapter in a book about American perceptions of foreign environments. I'm sure one exists out there somewhere.

New words: "avoirdupois" ("merchandise sold by weight" - used to refer to TR's figure! hilarious!); "arquebus" ("the early type of portable gun, varying in size from a small cannon to a musket, which on account of its weight was, when used in the field, supported upon a tripod, trestle, or other ‘carriage’, and afterwards upon a forked ‘rest’"); "epiphytes" ("a plant which grows on another plant; usually restricted to those which derive only support (and not nutrition) from the plants on which they grow").

Good stories: The book goes into satisfying detail on the habits of the various terrifying jungle fishes, including that one that swims up the urethra (the candiru). There's a story about Kermit Roosevelt hanging out with Rudyard Kipling in Europe (41). The Progressive Party used to put a fully-mounted stuffed moose on stage with TR when he gave speeches (10). On a previous expedition, one of Rondon's men got so hungry, he tried to kill some piranha in a pool by throwing dynamite in it; when he picked one up that he thought was dead and put it in his mouth, raw, the fish came back to life and bit his tongue almost all the way off (79).

Leads to follow:
Roosevelt's articles in Scribner's.

Little-known fact: TR became so hungry on the River of Doubt, he was prepared to eat an Anglo-Saxon baby.

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