The Land of Footprints by Stewart Edward White
I. On Books of Adventure
Books of sporting, travel, and adventure in countries little known to the average reader naturally fall in two classes-neither, with a very few exceptions, of great value. One class is perhaps the logical result of the other.
Of the first type is the book that is written to make the most of far travels, to extract from adventure the last thrill, to impress the awestricken reader with a full sense of the danger and hardship the writer has undergone. Thus, if the latter takes out quite an ordinary routine permit to go into certain districts, he makes the most of travelling in "closed territory," implying that he has obtained an especial privilege, and has penetrated where few have gone before him. As a matter of fact, the permit is issued merely that the authorities may keep track of who is where. Anybody can get one. This class of writer tells of shooting beasts at customary ranges of four and five hundred yards. I remember one in especial who airily and as a matter of fact killed all his antelope at such ranges. Most men have shot occasional beasts at a quarter mile or so, but not airily nor as a matter of fact: rather with thanksgiving and a certain amount of surprise. The gentleman of whom I speak mentioned getting an eland at seven hundred and fifty yards. By chance I happened to mention this to a native Africander.
"Yes," said he, "I remember that; I was there."
This interested me-and I said so.
"He made a long shot," said I.
"A good long shot," replied the Africander.
"Did you pace the distance?"
He laughed. "No," said he, "the old chap was immensely delighted. 'Eight hundred yards if it was an inch!' he cried."
"How far was it?"
"About three hundred and fifty. But it was a long shot, all right."
And it was! Three hundred and fifty yards is a very long shot. It is over four city blocks-New York size. But if you talk often enough and glibly enough of "four and five hundred yards," it does not sound like much, does it?
The same class of writer always gets all the thrills. He speaks of "blanched cheeks," of the "thrilling suspense," and so on down the gamut of the shilling shocker. His stuff makes good reading; there is no doubt of that. The spellbound public likes it, and to that extent it has fulfilled its mission. Also, the reader believes it to the letter-why should he not? Only there is this curious result: he carries away in his mind the impression of unreality, of a country impossible to be understood and gauged and savoured by the ordinary human mental equipment. It is interesting, just as are historical novels, or the copper-riveted heroes of modern fiction, but it has no real relation with human life. In the last analysis the inherent untruth of the thing forces itself on him. He believes, but he does not apprehend; he acknowledges the fact, but he cannot grasp its human quality. The affair is interesting, but it is more or less concocted of pasteboard for his amusement. Thus essential truth asserts its right.
All this, you must understand, is probably not a deliberate attempt to deceive. It is merely the recrudescence under the stimulus of a brand-new environment of the boyish desire to be a hero. When a man jumps back into the Pleistocene he digs up some of his ancestors' cave-qualities. Among these is the desire for personal adornment. His modern development of taste precludes skewers in the ears and polished wire around the neck; so he adorns himself in qualities instead. It is quite an engaging and diverting trait of character. The attitude of mind it both presupposes and helps to bring about is too complicated for my brief analysis. In itself it is no more blameworthy than the small boy's pretence at Indians in the back yard; and no more praiseworthy than infantile decoration with feathers.
In its results, however, we are more concerned. Probably each of us has his mental picture that passes as a symbol rather than an idea of the different continents. This is usually a single picture-a deep river, with forest, hanging snaky vines, anacondas and monkeys for the east coast of South America, for example. It is built up in youth by chance reading and chance pictures, and does as well as a pink place on the map to stand for a part of the world concerning which we know nothing at all. As time goes on we extend, expand, and modify this picture in the light of what knowledge we may acquire. So the reading of many books modifies and expands our first crude notions of Equatorial Africa. And the result is, if we read enough of the sort I describe above, we build the idea of an exciting, dangerous, extra-human continent, visited by half-real people of the texture of the historical-fiction hero, who have strange and interesting adventures which we could not possibly imagine happening to ourselves.
This type of book is directly responsible for the second sort. The author of this is deadly afraid of being thought to brag of his adventures. He feels constantly on him the amusedly critical eye of the old-timer. When he comes to describe the first time a rhino dashed in his direction, he remembers that old hunters, who have been so charged hundreds of times, may read the book. Suddenly, in that light, the adventure becomes pitifully unimportant. He sets down the fact that "we met a rhino that turned a bit nasty, but after a shot in the shoulder decided to leave us alone." Throughout he keeps before his mind's eye the imaginary audience of those who have done. He writes for them, to please them, to convince them that he is not "swelled head," nor "cocky," nor "fancies himself," nor thinks he has done, been, or seen anything wonderful. It is a good, healthy frame of mind to be in; but it, no more than the other type, can produce books that leave on the minds of the general public any impression of a country in relation to a real human being.
As a matter of fact, the same trouble is at the bottom of both failures. The adventure writer, half unconsciously perhaps, has been too much occupied play-acting himself into half-forgotten boyhood heroics. The more modest man, with even more self-consciousness, has been thinking of how he is going to appear in the eyes of the expert. Both have thought of themselves before their work. This aspect of the matter would probably vastly astonish the modest writer.
If, then, one is to formulate an ideal toward which to write, he might express it exactly in terms of man and environment. Those readers desiring sheer exploration can get it in any library: those in search of sheer romantic adventure can purchase plenty of it at any book-stall. But the majority want something different from either of these. They want, first of all, to know what the country is like-not in vague and grandiose "word paintings," nor in strange and foreign sounding words and phrases, but in comparison with something they know. What is it nearest like-Arizona? Surrey? Upper New York? Canada? Mexico? Or is it totally different from anything, as is the Grand Canyon? When you look out from your camp-any one camp-how far do you see, and what do you see?-mountains in the distance, or a screen of vines or bamboo near hand, or what? When you get up in the morning, what is the first thing to do? What does a rhino look like, where he lives, and what did you do the first time one came at you? I don't want you to tell me as though I were either an old hunter or an admiring audience, or as though you were afraid somebody might think you were making too much of the matter. I want to know how you really felt. Were you scared or nervous? or did you become cool? Tell me frankly just how it was, so I can see the thing as happening to a common everyday human being. Then, even at second-hand and at ten thousand miles distance, I can enjoy it actually, humanly, even though vicariously, speculating a bit over my pipe as to how I would have liked it myself.
Obviously, to write such a book the author must at the same time sink his ego and exhibit frankly his personality. The paradox in this is only apparent. He must forget either to strut or to blush with diffidence. Neither audience should be forgotten, and neither should be exclusively addressed. Never should he lose sight of the wholesome fact that old hunters are to read and to weigh; never should he for a moment slip into the belief that he is justified in addressing the expert alone. His attitude should be that many men know more and have done more than he, but that for one reason or another these men are not ready to transmit their knowledge and experience.
To set down the formulation of an ideal is one thing: to fulfil it is another. In the following pages I cannot claim a fulfilment, but only an attempt. The foregoing dissertation must be considered not as a promise, but as an explanation. No one knows better than I how limited my African experience is, both in time and extent, bounded as it is by East Equatorial Africa and a year. Hundreds of men are better qualified than myself to write just this book; but unfortunately they will not do it.