11 September 2009

Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer

This biography by Tim Jeal is sort of a biographer's biography, I think--it's not just the story of a life, but the argument of a man with a mission: to reform the reputation of Henry Morton Stanley (the "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" guy), who made not one but three great journeys into Africa, and died just at the dawn of the 20th century.

For those of us who weren't aware of Stanley's tarnished reputation (he was damaged by his association with men far more brutal and scheming than he) this thick volume is a bemusing read. From the book's Dickensian start, with Stanley--born John Rowlands--growing up in a workhouse in Wales, the author is at pains to do multiple things at once: tell the story of Stanley's life, point out that previous biographies have been wrong, and convince us of why he's right.

It seems that previous biographers have been misled because until recently many primary sources, including Stanley's own writings, have not been available. These cast light on the fact that Stanley lied a lot. He was ashamed of his impoverished, illegitimate background, and gave himself a new personal history as well as a new name. He was also prone to exaggeration. Also, others--for various reasons--lied about Stanley.

One gets the sense that Jeal is very proud of himself about finding the truth, and, indeed, it seems a very impressive accomplishment, but I would have enjoyed a more straightforward biography, I think. Too often it feels like the author is apologizing for Stanley.

Still, the content is fascinating, and provides some keen insights about how the explorations of the past helped create the Africa we see today.

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