Reading Report – April 2008

I’ve been reading mostly about Africa, which is sort of research and sort of just because. In April I perused about five books of West African and Liberian folklore, for example, and a big thick book on a related topic that is intimately connected to a work in progress.

I also perused a mighty tome called Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland, published by the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology in 1947, which recount the notes of one George Schwab from his ministerial excursions in the 1920s. It’s a quite dusty, scholarly looking thing, but is surprisingly lucid reading. Moreover, despite being a missionary, Mr. Schwab goes about his business in a professional manner, speaking respectfully of local customs and religions without once using the word “heathens,” though they may involve things, er, very incompatible with what we imagine a 1920s protestant preacher considers Godly.

If the minister has a story, it’s told by his virtual invisibility past the introduction of this book. It’s an unbelievable resource, simply packed with information, and I have to think that his religious mission gave way to a scholarly one.  I do wonder if his reporting is tainted as Margaret Mead’s is, i.e., anthropologists of the time would faithfully record what they were told, without considering the possibility that they were being lied to… either as a joke, or due to ethnic rivalries (the people on the other side of the hill are always cannibals, but never the people the anthropologist talking to….) Still, this curiously titled book might stand as the most comprehensive information about life in the Liberian countryside before it was transformed by rubber plantations and mining companies. I’ve learned a lot and it’s really interesting.

This project has also led me to re-read a couple of the most famous pieces of literature about West Africa: Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and The Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad. The books are obviously at opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of literary respectability: Tarzan is pulp lit, and Darkness is a classic among classics. Burroughs never set foot in Africa and made up stuff as went, even putting tigers into the original book, though they were turned into leopards in later drafts when he learned, gulp, that tigers live only in Asia. By contrast, Conrad spent nearly a decade in the Belgian Congo, and writes from deep knowledge, experience, and empathy. Curiously, the books follow similar themes–white men going native in a primeval forest, and Africa serving mostly as a symbol. Burroughs’ treatment of native Africans is abominable and racist, but Conrad’s does no better than make us wonder if he’s showing the abasement of Africans by imperialist forces, filtered twice through the eyes of the western Marlow and his unnamed friend who recounts the story, or if he’s just showing Africans as pathetic… that argument has been raging in English departments for fifty years, and I’m not likely to settle it in a blog entry.

One last book I merely flipped through and skimmed, but remembered with fondness, is the curious and hard-to-categorize Tarzan Alive, by sci-fi legend and Tarzan aficionado Philip José Farmer. Tarzan Alive is a parody of historical scholarship, presenting the facts behind the “real” Lord Greystoke, and explaining some of the huge gaffs, racist depictions, and less credible aspects of the Tarzan canon. It also involves a fabulously over-determined genealogy connecting Tarzan to Doc Savage, Elizabeth Bennett, Sherlock Holmes, and a few dozen other heroes and heroines of English literature. I don’t know if it’s literary criticism or fan-fic, or a combination of the two, but it is quite enjoyable and the first of many meta-fictive ventures by a remarkable author (some of which are collected here.)

Recalling Tarzan Alive made me wonder what had become of Farmer, which led to the wonderful discovery that he’s still alive and well (well, alive and in Peoria, anyway). What’s more, he’s got a MySpace page. I wonder how many nonogenarians can say that?

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