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‘Man and Beast’ documents tale of explorer Paul Du Chaillu

Wait a minute. Isn’t this the book, “The One and Only Ivan” by Katherine Applegate, that won the Newbery Medal? You know, it’s about a silverback gorilla that “… makes a new life for himself after being moved from a tiny cage in a mall to a zoo”?

No, this review isn’t about that book, although two books about gorillas, specific and universal, may be a reflex of mankind’s continuing fascination with a near-relative.

Instead, this is an appraisal of “Between Man and Beast, A Tale of Exploration & Evolution” by Monte Reel, a former reporter for the Washington Post now living in South America.

This is an admirable book for those who like epic tales of exploration. Regrettably, even scientific observation of gorillas may be nearing an end, as poachers kill off the remaining populations in Africa.

“Between Man and Beast” is the story of Paul Du Chaillu, a young Frenchman who came of age in the 1850s and early 1860s, a period of colossal discovery in the world of science. It was the time “… when the world was teetering on the sharp edge of transformation. Religious explanations of history, man’s place in nature, modern racial conceptions, all were undergoing contentious reassessments …”

The connection? It is the phenomenon that the Victorians called a “Grand Conjunction”, “… the chance alignment of seemingly disconnected subjects that offered new perspectives on each.”

Go back 10 years earlier to 1846, to Gabon, West Africa. There John Leighton Wilson, a missionary from South Carolina, lived with his family. Wilson had been in Africa for years, captured by a love of the habitat and observing everything from driver ants to pythons.

Wilson had just collected from the natives a “grotesquerie of sharp angles” – a skull of what the natives called a njena, what we know as a gorilla today. Natives explained that one of the brutes wrested a musket from the hands of a man and crushed the barrel between its jaws. (Check out the cover of the book for a gorilla with indigestion.)

This same Wilson befriended a young man, Paul Du Chaillu, who, after the death of his father, came to Africa to get away from humdrum life in Paris. As a result Paul grew up almost a member of the Wilson family, learning English and becoming familiar with the ways of the African bush.

The adventure tale has some interesting juxtapositions indicating how the broader world was beginning to interconnect, particularly in the fields of ornithology and taxonomy.

For example, there is a scene shift to 1847 London: to the home of Richard Owen, the most noted anatomist in England. There Charles Darwin, age 38, was a regular visitor, intrigued by what Owen knew about science and anxious to learn from him.

This was a time when the “ … Empire was sending explorers and naturalists all over the globe, and their biological discoveries almost always ended up on Owen’s dissection tables ….The public notoriety he’d earned opened the doors to London’s highest social circles …”

Our author commits an error in wording here that is commonly made these days. I think that Mr. Reel means “public acclaim” for Owen, not “public notoriety”, the latter meaning being known for some evil quality.(An important aside about this verbal slip-up: the American historian, Daniel J. Boorstin, makes the difference clear: “Celebrity-worship and hero-worship should not be confused. Yet we confuse them every day, and by doing so we come dangerously close to depriving ourselves of all real models. We lose sight of the men and women who do not simply seem great because they are famous but are famous because they are great. We come closer and closer to degrading all fame into notoriety.”)

To continue: at this point in Monte Reel’s story,Du Chaillu would have been pleased to be either famous or notorious. In 1859, he returned from Africa to New York City, cadging a place to stay with John Leighton Wilson, his earlier African acquaintance, who opened a ministry in a building on the edge of “Five Points,” a notorious part of New York City inhabited by minorities.

Du Chaillu was near-destitute. First, Du Chaillu tried to collect on money owed him for his African trip from John Cassin of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, who promised support. Cassin stiffed him on an $866.50 bill.

Next Du Chaillu was introduced to representatives of the American Geological and Statistical Society in New York where he was presented as a “French traveler who had advanced quite as far into the interior of the African continent as Dr. Livingstone.” Regrettably, few people listened to his lecture and nothing came of this association either. Too bad. Du Chaillu was the first “outsider” to confirm the existence of gorillas in Africa but it showed up only as a footnote to history.

Du Chaillu even tried to bring his African collection to Broadway! A small advert in the New-York Daily Tribune announced “Du Chaillu’s African Collection at No. 635 Broadway, four doors below Bleecker St.” that same year.

It was at this point that P.T. Barnum, the showman, stole Du Chaillu’s idea of what was called “the man-monkey.” Barnum couldn’t acquire a gorilla, so he hoked-up a mysterious creature to put on display in New York that he claimed had been captured in Africa. In fact, the creature was a deceased man who suffered from microcephaly, a developmental disorder resulting in a small skull that tapers back at the forehead.

Barnum purchased the corpse from a museum in St. Louis and clothed the arms and legs in black fur and shaved the head, except for a small tuft. Conclusion: Barnum made a buck. Paul was out of luck.

One could go on with this almost endless reel of exploration and evolution. It’s a fascinating piece of business and it shows how tough life was not just for the gorillas, but for those who pursued the animals 150 years ago.

Du Chaillu died in Russia in 1903, still the explorer, lecturer and author, studying the language and hoping to write a book about the country.

His influence touched Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote “The Lost World,” a story of an expeditionary crew fighting demonic jungle beasts. Jack London included a direct reference to Du Chaillu in an adventure story he included in a volume, “Round the Fire Stories.”

Fascination with gorillas continued into the 20th century. “Tarzan of the Apes” by Edgar Rice Burroughs didn’t publish until 1910 in magazine editions, but it was derivative of all the hubbub that had come 75 years before.

Then the Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller starred as Tarzan in the 1932 film, “Tarzan the Ape Man.” He owned the deerskin loincloth franchise through 12 films before being sacked for sagging into middle age. Then of course “King Kong,” Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 film, set the standard for action and adventure films.

Even Disney produced an animated “Tarzan” in 1999, giving a new generation of children a whiff of the jungle.

And lastly, in the 21st century, Monte Reel reports that there is an ongoing collaboration with the University of Lyon and Omar Bongo University in Gabon, who are retracing part of Du Chaillu’s route and assessing his impact on the country.

Reel’s book, “Between Man and Beast,” highlights once again the big issues that seem endlessly interesting to new generations of Americans, “… the evolution debate, racial discourse, the growth of Christian fundamentalism” in careful historical context and with a fine hand for thoughtful exposition.

Between Man and Beast: A Tale of Exploration & Evolution

By Monte Reel


332 pages, $26.95

Michael D. Langan is a former headmaster of Nardin Academy.