In 1856 Paul Du Chaillu marched into the equatorial wilderness of West Africa determined to bag an animal that, according to legend, was nothing short of a monster. Read more...
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In 1856 Paul Du Chaillu marched into the equatorial wilderness of West Africa determined to bag an animal that, according to legend, was nothing short of a monster. When he emerged three years later, the summation of his efforts only hinted at what he'd experienced in one of the most dangerous regions on earth. Armed with an astonishing collection of zoological specimens, Du Chaillu leapt from the physical challenges of the jungle straight into the center of the biggest issues of the time--the evolution debate, racial discourse, the growth of Christian fundamentalism--and helped push each to unprecedented intensities. He experienced instant celebrity, but with that fame came whispers--about his past, his credibility, and his very identity--which would haunt the young man. Grand in scope, immediate in detail, and propulsively readable, "Between Man and Beast" brilliantly combines Du Chaillu's personal journey with the epic tale of a world hovering on the sharp edge of transformation.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-09-03
- Reviewer: Staff
Although he’s not well known today, Paul Du Chaillu was one of the Victorian era’s most famous explorers. He was the person who brought the gorilla to the attention of Europeans. In response to his fame, he was attacked mercilessly by competitors who claimed he was a fraud who fabricated his tales of African exploration. Reel (The Last of the Tribe) provides a robust intellectual history by embedding Du Chaillu’s story within the debate over evolution, the relationship among the human races, the rise of Christian fundamentalism, and the nasty backbiting that was common in the scientific arena of the time. He expertly probes the history of the enigmatic Du Chaillu, someone who purposefully shrouded his past from scrutiny, in large part, according to Reel, because his likely mixed race parentage would have scandalized upper-class British mores, destroyed his reputation, and turned him into an outcast. In Reel’s hands, Du Chaillu’s adventures in Africa, including his discovery of Pygmies and his part in a smallpox epidemic, were no less harrowing than his interactions with many of the world’s leading scientists and explorers. Agent: Larry Weissman, Larry Weismann Literary, LLC. (Mar.)
The spark of the great evolution debate
One can have the benefits of a first-class education these days and still be oblivious to the name and exploits of the Victorian-era explorer Paul Du Chaillu. He was the man who plunged into the jungles of Gabon, West Africa, in 1856 and, three years later, brought back—first to America, then to England—the skins and stories of a theretofore legendary creature: the gorilla. Those unfamiliar with the man would do well to pick up a copy of Between Man and Beast, Monte Reel’s new book about Du Chaillu’s life and adventures in pursuit of this fierce creature.
Returning from his travels the same year Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species, Du Chaillu’s own origins were murky—and remain so today. He was probably born on the island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar, the illegitimate son of a French father and a mixed-race mother. While still in his teens, he came under the care of an American missionary in Gabon, who taught him English and eventually helped him get a job teaching French at a seminary in New York. During his tenure there he wrote a series of newspaper articles about his time in Africa. The articles eventually attracted the attention of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, which agreed to sponsor his 1856 expedition.
Du Chaillu’s written account of his travels—buttressed by the physical evidence supporting it—quickly became a bestseller in England and catapulted the author into the center of scientific and religious debates about man’s relationship, if any, to other primates. It also exposed his shortcomings as a scientific observer, deficiencies which he was determined to mend by leading a second expedition into the same harsh territory.
Although Du Chaillu’s checkered life story is the bedrock of this book, Reel builds upon it fascinating sketches of England’s leading intellectuals, explorers and freelance eccentrics of the day, detailing not only their personal achievements but their professional jealousies as well. And he has plenty of tales about how “gorilla mania” saturated English culture via the publicity attending Du Chaillu’s discoveries. Through it all, Du Chaillu stands as a sincere, endlessly curious but often naïve witness to the human folly that surrounds him.