Volume XX, Number 3, December 2000


by Peter Lewis

A two-year sojourn in a small city in central China yields this youthful, gracefully impressionistic portrait---RIVER TOWN (HarperCollins)---of a time and place from newcomer Peter Hessler. In 1996, Hessler reported for his Peace Corps duty to Fuling, a city of some 200,000 people astride the murky Yangtze where it cuts through green and terraced mountains in Sichuan Province. This book is a chronicle of his days in Fuling and a brief summer interlude of travel. Hessler's writing is unselfconsciously mellow, a lazy pace that works admirably in conjuring up Fuling as a place. There is the gentle knock of the croquet ball in the morning when the court below his window comes to life. There is this river city of steps pressed against hills; there are ridgelines cut with ancient calligraphy and pictographs that disappear under water during the rainy season. There are his wonderful students, a poignant, watershed generation who delight him no end, as when he "simply liked having a tall camouflaged boy named Daisy sitting in the back of my class." Big things happen while he is in country---the Three Gorges Project is in full swing, Deng Xiaoping dies---but it is the everyday stuff that s so affecting. The surprise and unpredictability of the townsfolk catch him unawares more than once, he feels the sensitivity of being a foreigner, with all eyes upon him and little cultural abrasions everywhere: "Those were our Opium Wars---quiet and meaningless battles over Chinese and American history, fueled by indirect remarks and careful innuendo." And he loves it, despite the dislocations and frustrations: the creepy drinking bouts at banquets---"Every banquet has a leader, a sort of alcoholic alpha male"---or the relentless mocking of his foreignness by strangers, for though the Peace Corps is no longer considered a running dog outfit, foreigners are nonetheless freaks. Readers will be able to taste the dusty air of Fuling each time they open these pages.

Another of Donald Worster's his sublime contributions to the historical literature of the American West: A RIVER RUNNING WEST (Oxford). Few figures stand as tall as John Wesley Powell in the exploration of the American West. He has come to represent all that is daring and wise in the move west, a one-armed man who took a boat down the wild Colorado, who undertook to survey the great reaches of the new frontier, who stood up for indigenous people and protected the environment. As Worster does so well, he cuts through the image to a more complicated portrait. He points out that Powell also wanted to tame the land--"He did not dissent from the project of westward expansion nor question the grand idea of progress, but he did argue that progress must always keep its feet firmly planted on the ground"---and his idea of protecting native peoples rights was through assimilation. But Worster's point is not to be a giant slayer: He simply understands that Powell's import is diminished by his sainthood, that much of what he had to say about the future of the American West was seen through the eyes of a fervent nationalist as well as those of a trained scientist and his "considerable skill as an ethnographer."  Worster covers Powell's life like a tarp---from early Ohio days to his ultimate marginalization for his socialistic views---having ferreted out a remarkable number of letters, journals, papers, diaries, and parish registers that bear upon Powell: not only is the research deep, and not only is it engagingly presented, but Worster makes all the connections, clearly abetted by his sweeping knowledge of the region. He also writes with grace and with a rewarding expectancy in his voice. A top-drawer biography, at once scholarly and popular, rich in context and anecdote, generous in its intelligence, and a welcome bit of fresh air after the beatification of Powell in Wallace Stegner's classic Beyond the Hundredth Meridian.

NOTES FROM THE HYENA'S BELLY  (Picador) is an affecting, transporting memoir of growing up fast during the grim years following the overthrow of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia, from Nega Mezlekia. “In 1958, the year of the paradox, I was born in Ethiopia, in a hot and dusty city called Jijiga, which destroyed its young.” And things only get worse for Mezlekia. He is able to attend a private nursery school---“reading, writing, and solving riddles composed in Amharic, the language of kings”---but quickly sours of it, only to have it succeeded by a brutal secondary school experience where he learns the true barbarity of his country’s feudal system, and the disillusioning fact that Selassie was not a protector but rather an oppressor. He joins in the general uprising against the landed elite, but then, in 1974, comes the overthrow of Selassie and the installation of the Junta, equally atrocious in its own way. Mezlekia has a born storyteller’s knack for pacing, and in his musical voice he manages to convey the helter-skelter of his existence, the turmoil and carnage, without it simply being a bloodbathed narrative of a take-no-prisoners world. But spilled blood there is, first at the hands of the Junta, then as Mezlekia is press-ganged into serving in a secret army cell, from which he deserts and joins a liberation movement in the Ogaden, then as he flees the rebels after they are co-opted by the Somalis. Home he returns, only to have to escape the Somalis as they invade Jijiga, and then the horrible, self-devouring days of the “Red Terror.”  Through it all run brief place histories, traditional stories, monkey business, tales of hunger, pieces of gossip, landscapes, the death of his mother, allowing for a real picture show in the mind’s eye and coalescing finally into a life. Then exile. A story of high drama told with aplomb, a story of the kind that allows readers to put their woes into perspective.

Larzer Ziff's RETURN PASSAGES (Yale) is a deeply intelligent, chin-in-hand rumination on the nature of American travel writing, or at least a selection thereof, from the Revolutionary War to the outbreak of World War I.  Ziff tracks the travel writings of John Ledyard, John Lloyd Stephens, Bayard Taylor, Mark Twain, and Henry James as they move from early descriptive reports of discovery to distinct literary narratives. In all 5 writers he found elements that both reflected and embellished the national character, powerful writing that celebrated the exotic but also possessed “the author’s capacity to present his heightened self-awareness in a manner that serves to move readers to question the unexamined familiarities of their own lives.” This self-awareness, in turn, often prompted a scalding eye to be cast on their own country, “a reevaluation of what in American life may be exceptional and what common, what worthy and what reprehensible.” In Ledyard, traveling through Russia and Sibera in the years directly after the Revolutionary War (and who earlier had written a narrative of sailing with Captain Cook), Ziff found the most resolutely democratic of the group, who optimistically foresaw in the American experience a universal liberation of mankind. Stephens endeavored to bestow on the Americas their own monumental past, and did so by returning home with the first news of Chichen Itza and Tulum. Taylor, after being the first to write about shoestring travel, later became all swagger and road to empire, an ideal companion for Commodore Perry. Twain, who hated travel writing, nonetheless brought to it the kind of horse sense that made readers check their preconceptions, as well as a biting satire on racial prejudice. For James, it was “the European past flowing into the American present,” that would complete the making of a nation. Written in a velvety professorial voice, these excellent vignettes of 5 exemplary travelers provide a steady pulse of context and critique, and amply demonstrate how travel literature helped shape a national identity.

Encounters with a grab bag of oddball groups---good, bad, and ugly, from Masonic conspiracy theorists to Kentucky vampire troupes to fans of the wasp waist---tartly observed by journalist Daniel Jeffreys appear in AMERICA'S BACK PORCH (Fromm). Like the crackerjack investigative reporter he is, Jeffreys sails forth and immerses himself in his subjects, which here are a curious collection of the halt, the lame, the seriously disturbed, with the occasional rare, worthy association of folks. These include the sorry situation of chain gangs in Alabama; Emmett, Idaho, where sex has a bad name and a judge lays down the rules: "I'm sure some of these folks are fornicators," he says of fellow citizens sharing lunch at a restaurant. "If I get evidence of that, they go to the lock-up"; the burgeoning industry of hired assassins; and a festival called "Burning Man," a post-Freudian, mythocentric excuse to drink, shoot guns, and do the kinds of thing that would get you arrested in Emmett, Idaho. Jeffreys wields a sharp pen upon which he skewers the unrighteous, obnoxious, sinister, and dangerous groupings (the only saintly crew are the Survivor's Club: a support group of wives whose husbands have tried to kill them). And he returns with some hard new truths: "The presence of political extremists on the Internet has given the ideologically insane a sense of community. Now they have the courage to stand up and have their multiple personalities counted," and "Copulation has become far too refined for New Yorkers," and "In America, where there are scumbags there will be bounty hunters." How comforting. Though Jeffreys isn't above the gratuitous dig---"on first sight you notice Darryl has a weak chin and there is an outside chance Vick has been eating too many fries"---for the most part he simply lays these curios exquisitely bare for readers to judge. Not a book to read when among strangers---it might well be they you are reading about---but an appalling pleasure at any other time.


By Jerome Dobson, AGS Councilor, Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Eighteen fifty-one was a time of keen interest in Polar exploration, and Sir John Franklin’s expedition had been missing in the Arctic for four years.  Tantalizing rumors hinted that survivors might be stranded at one place or another.  Lady Franklin appealed for help, and rescue missions were launched.  In our own time, that would be as if astronauts were stranded somewhere in Space, unable to tell the world where they were or what they had found, and their families went to the airwaves pleading for rescue.  The double appeal of compassion and curiosity aroused a small band of scholars, businessmen, and statesmen to found the American Geographical Society.  Thus from its birth, the AGS has pursued exploration with a passion for science and discovery. 

Much was left to discover in 1851.  World maps still contained sizable swatches of terra incognita. Arctic reaches showed starkly blank from Northern Greenland to the Pole, and vast areas were speculative and vague.  Maps of Alaska, for example, showed the“Youcon” River with two possible outlets indicated by dashed lines, one flowing into the Arctic Sea, another into the Bering Sea.  The general public wasn’t convinced of the value of filling those blanks, but scholars, businessmen, and statesmen were.  The AGS sponsored expeditions, helped train and prepare explorers, and published findings.  With AGS support, Robert Peary led several expeditions, one of them while serving as AGS President, and finally reached the North Pole in 1909, along with Matthew Henson, the African-American explorer. 

Then followed an era of more detailed explorations gradually converting from ships and dogsleds to airplanes.  An Associated Press report in 1926 illustrates the stature held by AGS during this transition.  After years of manufacturing automobiles, Henry Ford entered the airplane manufacturing field, and rumors were rife that he planned to sponsor an airplane flight across the North Pole.  The news read, “The flight, according to the report, is being arranged by . . .Dr. Isaiah Bowman, Director of the American Geographical Society [and others] . . .Dr. Bowman . . . would not confirm the reports, but said he would have an announcement to make within two weeks . . .”  Officials at McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio, did confirm, however, that one of the pilots would be Jimmy Doolittle.  Thus, the world waited while the AGS held center stage along with some of the grandest figures of the 1920s.

It’s impossible to say how much funding the AGS contributed to exploration during the first century of its existence.  That’s because funds rarely went through the Society’s treasury.  Usually, Councilors discussed each request and sometimes voted, but the actual transfer of funds was made in the name of the Society from individual Councilors to individual explorers.  In 1852, for instance, the Council resolved to furnish “a suitable scientific assistant” to a major expedition at a time when the treasury contained only $58.18.  Documentation is available to show that much “in kind” assistance was given in the forms of training and cartographic support prior to expeditions, provision of instruments and other equipment during expeditions, and cartographic interpretation of expedition results.  The list of recipients would be far too great to list here, but readers will instantly recognize Admiral Richard Byrd who explored the Arctic and Antarctic regions and established the Little America research base in Antarctica.  We supported Louise Boyd’s detailed exploration of Greenland’s coasts by ship and Finn Ronne’s Antarctic expedition of 1947-48, the last privately funded expedition to Antarctica.

In 1851, much of the Western United States was also terra incognita, but that was about to change in preparation for selecting a route for the Transcontinental Railway, subject of the very first paper presented before the Society.  A heated national debate ensued, and the AGS contributed mightily to those deliberations for twenty years.  We supported projects, served as a neutral forum for information on all routes, and ultimately compiled the most complete map of its day, which was used for comparing the five candidate routes.  Expedition leaders, governors, advocates such as Asa Whitney and Horace Greeley, and topographic engineers addressed the society.  John C. Fremont, who had surveyed the central route through Colorado, even joined the AGS Council and was elected Vice President.

As early as 1854, two guest speakers separately informed the Society of a proposed ship canal crossing Central America.  In the 1870s, selecting a route for the Panama Canal became a paramount interest among the Councilors, two of whom attended an 1879 congress on the topic held in Paris and chaired by Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal.  Appalled by the lack of scientific objectivity exhibited in that international meeting, AGS President Judge C. P. Daly determined to offer a better forum.  From that year forth, the AGS collected and disseminated information and served as a fair-minded host of the debate.

During World War II, the AGS assisted the war effort in many ways, including detailed explorations to support completion of the “Millionth Map of Hispanic America.”  After the war, public support for government sponsored exploration grew tremendously, and the AGS never regained its private sources of funding for such ventures. 

Even as the AGS celebrates its sesquicentennial and its remarkable history of supporting geographical exploration, the society is launching a new exploration initiative. In June 2000, the AGS Council voted to revitalize the Exploration Program and seek to endow an Exploration Fund. 

Our purposes are:

To reestablish exploration as a key mission of the Society.

To promote exploration by government, business, and academia.

To encourage greater private participation in exploration of all types.

To lead and encourage the discovery of new knowledge about the earth and planetary bodies.

During the Age of Exploration it was a stunning accomplishment simply to observe a new landmass and report it’s existence.  Afterward for several centuries, exploration meant filling the gaps in continental maps and reaching toward the Poles. Today, exploration is more demanding than ever as we probe deeper (oceans, inner Earth) and higher (atmosphere, planetary bodies), search for tangible evidence of historic and pre-historic landscapes, and seek new geographic understanding of complex earth processes.  Through technology, exploration can now be extended to places where humans cannot go, to phenomena that cannot be observed directly by human senses, and to macroscopic processes so large they can be observed only through remote sensing and geographic information science (GIS). It would be technically feasible, for example, to provide instantaneous access to space imagery or ocean floor imagery to anyone connected to the Internet or even to let private citizens direct sensors from their home computers.