Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The River of Doubt


Here is the start of beautifully restored footage of the expedition from the Library of Congress, with reference to TR's book Through the Brazilian Wilderness.  There is also this excellent book, Stringing Together a Nation: C├óndido Mariano da Silva Rondon and the Construction of a Modern Brazil, 1906–1930, which provides much more background as to the motivations of Brazil and Colonel Rondon for the expedition.

16 comments:

  1. Thanks for these links! The footage is really fun to watch (I like seeing all these men in their suits getting off the steamer at the back country ranch).

    I actually liked the Millard book. Maybe not great "history" but I thought she did a really good job in setting it up as an adventure story. I enjoyed reading it.

    I still am amazed at how TR sets these up as scientific expeditions. I've come across correspondence at the Smithsonian telling of his contributions, so they were real. But somehow I don't see him as motivated by "science."

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think he was to a large extent. Of course, he also chose an expedition like this because of its great sense of adventure. I think he imagined himself discovering the world anew.

    ReplyDelete
  3. It never ceases to amaze me what you can find on the Internet. I wish I had it back in college, but then I would have probably been even more easily distracted by side interests.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I just don't see him motivated in the same way as scientists are motivated -- to understand the world around them. I think he was more interested in the adventure and the hunting, which was tied up more with adventure and proof of his manliness. And he uses the collecting aspect as a cover.

    When he's in the Grand Canyon, for example, he seems to shoot animals to prove that he can to his sons, but it's more about pushing the physical limits in some way. That's another interesting adventure that someone should write up. Wish I had more time.

    And yes, the internet is an amazing source. I can find all sorts of things now without having to travel. Libraries are great, but they all have their limits.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I think you compare him to scientists of today. It was a much looser profession back then. The intellectual rigor that we see today had only started to develop, at least in America. Roosevelt had been schooled in the old way at Harvard, which had its merits, as the old naturalists tended to have a broader vision of the world around them.

    ReplyDelete
  6. The same when it came to history. Roosevelt was drawn to writers like Francis Parkman and William Prescott, who wrote with a great sense of adventure as well as understanding of historic events.

    ReplyDelete
  7. TR definitely thinks of himself in that 19th century naturalist tradition -- or wants to be seen that way. But at heart he's a big game hunter, not a naturalist.

    Morris notes that he has lost his taste for hunting by the time he gets to South America (which is sort of belied in that film by the shots he keeps taking at crocodiles as they ferry by -- sort of like shooting bison from a train).

    Interesting idea to compare that to his ideas of history. I'll have to think about that!

    ReplyDelete
  8. I don't think there was much sense of a vanishing wilderness back then, especially with so much wilderness left to explore. So what if you took a few trophies back for the Smithsonian, and bagged a few for yourself along the way. There was a very different sense of our place in the world.

    Apparently, most of the hunting on the Brazil expedition was for food, and reading accounts there were some tense moments when there was little game to be had.

    I don't hold any of this against TR, although I imagine he was first and foremost serving his own ego on these expeditions. But, what makes the Brazil expedition so fascinating is that he was forced to rely so much on others, and developed a very strong respect for Col. Rondon and his men by journey's end.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I haven't reached the end of the expedition yet. I'm still chipping away ...

    But so far nothing on this expedition or some of his earlier exploits makes me think less of TR (except for maybe the shooting of the hippos which he knew at the time was excessive) -- he is who he is.

    And actually, believe it or not, one of the first thing scientists did when a species was threatened with extinction was go out and shoot the last of them for museums. That was the thinking of the day..... It wasn't until the national zoo (which was an off-shoot of the Smithsonian) that American scientists thought they might be able to establish some sort of research/captive breeding programs for wildlife.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I'll pick it up over here again since the South American adventure is so interesting.

    One of the small asides Morris makes is that Brazil wanted to have an American president on its side in case European countries threatened to start colonizing it again. So it may have been that naming the river and all of that may have been part of the plan in some obscure way.

    Rondon seems to have taken the voyage seriously (with his insistence on charting the river, etc.) but he also defers to TR there at the end, and seems very protective of him when it appears they may lose him.

    And we haven't even talked about the priest. I think Millard makes more of his involvement up front than Morris does. Morris treats him more like one the insects to be swatted away.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I think it was a pretty big aside, although Morris didn't dwell on it too much. The book I linked on the making of a Modern Brazil goes into more detail. This was a pivotal juncture in their development of the country and they wanted the US on its side.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Unfortunately, the google link only provides the first two chapters for Stringing Together a Nation. I have the book, but will scout around for other on-line sources.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Exactly! He sort of mentions it and moves on, but yes I can see any country wanting to have TR on their side just in case (as opposed to chomping at the bit to fight with them).

    ReplyDelete
  14. I don't remember Millard going into it at all. She pretty much just focused on the trip itself. I guess they figured American readers wouldn't be interested in a little Brazilian history mixed in.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I sure don't remember it. Even the physical size of Brazil as described by Morris caught me by surprise. I agree that he squeezed a lot of interesting information into a small space, and still was able to get a sense of some of the crazy characters like the priest.

    ReplyDelete
  16. She did mention the telegraph lines, as I recall, but they just seemed to stand there as far as she described it.

    ReplyDelete