Monte Reel – Between Man and Beast
At least, that’s the subtitle on my ARC version. The subtitle on the published version is An Unlikely Explorer, the Evolution Debates, and the African Adventure that Took the Victorian World by Storm, which is all accurate, but is also a mouthful.
Length: 352 pages
Started: 01 June 2013
Finished: 15 June 2013
Where did it come from? From the publishers for review.
Why do I have it? I have a hard time passing up history of science books, particularly if they’re combined with exploration stories as well (see: The Species Seekers, among others).
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 01 December 2013.
Gorillas are so
familiar that we forget
they are recent finds.
Summary: Paul Du Chaillu was not a typical explorer of the Victorian age, but he did have a distinction that no other explorer of his age could claim: he was the first white man to see a gorilla. In the 1850s, orangutans and chimpanzees were familiar to naturalists, but the gorilla was at best a fragmented tale passed among African natives of giant man-eating beasts that lived deep in the continent’s interior jungles, backed up by a few skulls that had made their way to Europe. Paul Du Chaillu grew up in coastal Gabon, and mounted an expedition to the tribes of that jungle, where he finally saw (and shot) the rumors made flesh: a gorilla. His discoveries barely made a stir in America, but they caused a sensation in England, catapulting Du Chaillu into the spotlight. However, Du Chaillu’s discovery came at a time shortly after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, when man’s relation to the rest of the animal kingdom was a subject of hot debate, and the revelation of an ape with so many human-like qualities set the scientific community abuzz.
Review: This was a great book; exactly the kind of history I love. I love stories of adventuring and exploration, so we’ve got that. I love the history of science, particularly in the Victorian era, with cabinet museums and scientific lectures being the fashionable places for the upper class to be seen. And finally, of course, I’m always interested in the history of evolutionary thought. I’d heard Du Chaillu’s name before, as the discoverer of the gorilla, but I didn’t really know much if anything about him. His is a fascinating story, from his origins which he tried so hard (and successfully, during his lifetime) to keep hidden, to his travels in Africa, America, and England, his rise and fall from grace, and the personalities of the era with which he interacted. So this book managed to tie a lot of my interests together into one very readable package.
Reel does an excellent job telling his story, particularly in terms of balancing Du Chaillu’s biography with a pretty comprehensive view of what was going on in the British scientific community at the time, and explaining why Du Chaillu and his gorillas caused the stir that they did. His prose is very readable; he neatly walks the fine line between keeping the story lively and personal without prefacing everything with a hypothetical, or speculating too far afield from his primary sources in terms of what people were thinking or feeling. It’s really one of the best historical biographies I’ve read, in terms of keeping things moving, interesting, and in context, without having an obtrusive authorial presence or engaging in unwarranted speculation. It really feels like half adventure story and half history of science, and was just really engaging, informative, and fun to read. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: If you like history of science, African exploration stories, biographies, or gorillas, I’d definitely recommend picking this one up.
Other Reviews: Popcorn Reads
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First Line: He’d been hunting in the forest’s depths for months, but he’d never known such silence.
Vocab: (see the whole list)
- p. 48: “He concluded that “bains, dews, winds blowing from malarious localities, marsh exhalations, and possibly the human breath, may therefore be considered as the proximate causes of fever. Those of nervous temperament, of light hair, and of fair complexion, of strumous habits, or a plethoric disposition, are the most liable to suffer from fever.”” – A bath; Having scrofula or goiter; Characterized by an overabundance of blood.
- p. 73: “These barracoons, or “slave factories,” as they were called, were little more than prisons where men, women, and children were held before being sold and loaded onto ships bound for the Americas.” – A barracks in which slaves or convicts were formerly held in temporary confinement.
- p. 98: ““This gave Huxley the opportunity of saying that he would sooner claim kindred with an Ape than with a man like the [bishop] who made so ill a use of his wonderful speaking powers to try and burke, by a display of authority, a free discussion on what was, or was not, a matter of truth,” reported Alfred Newton, a zoologist who witnessed the exchange, in a letter written a month after the meeting.” – To suppress or extinguish quietly; stifle.
- p. 117: “Workmen had lugged the props into the building, two bulky parcels swaddled in coarse drugget.” – A heavy felted fabric of wool or wool and cotton, used as a floor covering.
- p. 159: ““Nothing daunted by all this badinage of the keepers, the Squire, to the very great horror of numerous spectators, entered the palisaded enclosure with a light heart.”” – playful or frivolous repartee or banter
- p. 177: ““We regret that so distinguished a traveler and author should so disgracefully forget himself, and suggest to an English public whether the gasconading spirit of his Gallic blood has not been intensified and degraded by his naturalization in the land of the bowie-knife and his sojurn in the country of the gorilla.”” – bravado, boasting.
- p. 199: ““As Mr. D. will therefore be a celebrity in a small way, it will be a feather in your cap to be his cicerone, and to lionize him.”” – A guide for sightseers; To look on or treat (a person) as a celebrity.
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