Saturday, August 30, 2014

African Game Trails by Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt’s African Game Trails is a wonder to behold. Originally published in 1910, this massive book recounts the eleven months Roosevelt spent hunting in Africa (from April, 1909 until March, 1910) and reads like a cross between a pulp fiction adventure and a scientific encyclopedia. My interest and continued fascination with this book stems from my appreciation for great sportsmen and great writing, both of which are embodied by Roosevelt’s extraordinary life. In these ultra-sensitive times, with special interest groups condemning and vilifying both hunters and firearm owners, Roosevelt certainly appears as a monster. This is unfortunate, because Roosevelt was among the last of the great adventurers, and I am stating this emphatically without owning a political agenda. On the other hand, Roosevelt’s popularity is at an all-time high with both political parties embracing whatever tenuous connection they can exploit to our country’s 26th President. Roosevelt is fascinating and compelling; but still quite human and possessing the flaws of any man. Placing him on a pedestal is something I won’t do, nor will I whitewash him. In fact, his views on race relations are disappointing. Still, Roosevelt commands my attention. He was an avid reader and a skilled writer. His accomplishments in creating the National Park Service are well documented. His visage graces Mount Rushmore as it should, alongside Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. Writing his introduction to African Game Trails in Khartoum on March 15, 1910, Roosevelt set the tone for this extraordinary adventure: “But there are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm. There is delight in the hardy life of the open, in long rides rifle in hand, in the thrill of the fight with dangerous game. Apart from this, yet mingled with it, is the strong attraction of the silent places, of the large tropic moons, and the splendor of the new stars; where the wanderer sees the awful glory of sunrise and sunset in the wide waste spaces of the earth, unworn of man, and changed only by the slow change of the ages through time everlasting.” As you can see, Roosevelt made the effort to find those words to convey his love of “the silent places” and each page of African Game Trails is a testament to that effort. He wrote like a poet, and in fact, carried with him to Africa  a complete library that included the works of Shakespeare and Marlowe, Homer and Spenser, and Bret Harte, John Milton, John Keats, Mark Twain and Robert Browning among others. Roosevelt loved literature. African Game Trails was profusely illustrated with photographs from the expedition, all of which are reprinted in the facsimile edition published by Cooper Square Press. There is also a great amount of scientific documentation included as part of Roosevelt’s determination to catalogue and document every facet of his adventure for the benefit of science. I think African Game Trails is my favorite of Roosevelt’s many books, but as you will see, he wrote a few other amazing books which I’ll discuss soon.

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