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Stanley, is that you?

November 23, 2008, 2:45 pm

[Editor's note: zunguzungu, long-time commenter and friend of the blog, has stepped up with a guest post today. Thanks for this. We really appreciate it.]

Henry Morton Stanley pretended to have written something in his diary on November 23rd, 1871. Perhaps he did, though the pages in his diary are torn out, so we can’t know for sure. The event he claimed to have recorded — but probably didn’t — also probably didn’t happen, or at least not the way it’s usually “remembered.” He most likely didn’t say “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” on meeting the older doctor (Tim Jeal says so in his new biography), and he didn’t even meet him in the jungle at all. He met him in a town, as this image from How I Found Livingstone illustrates:

As Claire Pettitt put it in her excellent Dr Livingstone I Presume?: Missionaries, Journalists, Explorers, and Empire, it’s a phrase we remember without really remembering why, and pages torn out of a diary are an apt figure for the ways that forgetting what really happened have been the first step in making the event meaningful. For example, while Welsh-born Stanley would eventually give up the pretense of being from Missouri, he was, at the time, widely recognized as an American figure allowing the event to be contemporaneously interpreted by reference to an Anglo-American partnership that was going through a rough patch. As Pettitt illustrates, news of his discovery literally competed for column space with news of the negotiations in Geneva where the issue of British support for the Confederacy was being officially resolved, and this was symptomatic more broadly: Stanley’s narrative of the American finding a revered English abolitionist (though he was actually Scottish) in the jungles of Africa did a similar kind of work as the diplomats in Geneva in re-cementing a sense of Anglo-American moral identification.

At the same time, however, Stanley’s account also expressed important differences in the ways each nation represented itself. The narrative which first emerged — in which the American “finds” the Englishman — might be a story of Anglo-American imperial solidarity, but it was also a subtle argument for an American ascendancy within that partnership, a narrative in which the vigor of youth rescues and replaces the revered (but woefully past his prime) English parent figure. As Pettitt writes, the line “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” was funny to Americans “because it showed the Americans getting the better of the British, but also because it tapped into uneasiness about the relationship between Yankee sincerity and Yankee vulgarity in the democracy of post-bellum American. In Britain it was funny because Stanley was not a gentleman and seemed hardly to be trusted. But it also made the British laugh a little anxiously too, at the English gentlemen’s dilatoriness in rescuing Livingstone, and the ponderousness of their elite system more generally.”

As a literary type, part of what interests me about the event is how quickly this national difference came to settle on the status of writing, how quickly an argument about imperial style became a problem of literary style. When Stanley addressed the Royal Geographic Society, for example, their passive aggression took many forms,1 but they mainly focused on presenting him as a journalistic hack. Yet his response to being pilloried for his “sensationalism” was largely to agree (calling himself a “troubador”), and to make a virtue of his profession by focusing on the primacy of unmediated knowledge; as he put it, “if a man goes there and says ‘I have seen the source of the river,’ the man sitting in his easy chair or lying in bed cannot dispute this fact on any grounds of theory,” and he repeatedly returns to this point. It is, in a way, an argument for the primacy of fieldwork over stay-at-home learning — a theoretical question that social scientists would spend the next half-century arguing about — but he also specifically places this methodological difference in the service of nationalist difference, asserting the superior mobility of American methods over ponderous British dignity. When the RGS concedes the point without giving ground, their arguments converge: for the RGS, the American newspaperman is tarred by his associations with the cheap and democratic availability of newsprint while, in his mind, Stanley is uplifted by exactly this association.

Almost from the very beginning, therefore, Stanley and the RGS manage to agree on how they will disagree. Stanley began by declaring that “I am not a man of science,” but the RGS president had already granted him this, noting in (the press) that Stanley “had been sent out by our Transatlantic cousins, among whom the science of advertising had reached a far higher stage of development than in this benighted country, for the purpose of ‘interviewing’ Livingstone.” Yet while the RGS might find the idea of advertising as a “science” to be as laughable to the RGS as the notion that benighted England was at a lower stage of development than its transatlantic cousins, Stanley’s Herald was not laughing. As they put it, “the American mode of putting an idea into execution is certainly characteristic, compared with [the British failure to get supplies to Livingstone],” and went on to grandly declare that “The natives among the mysterious head waters of ancient Nile have seen the Stars and Stripes, and will not forget them…” Stanley’s bestselling How I Found Livingstone reflects this sense of national difference, not only self-consciously adopting a journalistic paradigm, but doing so in an implicitly nationalist opposition to Stanley’s European predecessors.

As Mary Louise Pratt has observed, the actual practice of African “discovery” was generally a non-event, and usually boiled down to asking the locals if there were any big lakes in the area and then getting them to take you there. Yet by aestheticizing the act of “discovery,” Pratt notes, such a non-event could become a spectacle of imperial power. Richard Burton’s “discovery” of Lake Tanganyika, for example, is written as a romantic epiphany, and locates its momentousness not in the plain fact of seeing but in the cultivated sensibility which apprehended the spectacle. Imperial mastery, for him, proceeded from this kind of poetics, an implicit argument that a space belongs primarily to those who can appreciate it.

In contrast, Stanley de-poeticizes his seeing, emphasizing that his “respect” for poetry impels him to abstain from actually producing any himself, and then using this abstention to contrast his journalistic method from the more poetic explorers who have preceded him. Phrases like “One could almost wax poetic, but we will keep such ambitious ideas for a future day” are symptomatic, as are his displacements of the poetic process onto specifically English figures (“if a Byron saw some of these scenes, he would be inclined to poetize in this manner…”). Yet, as is usual when people disclaim rhetoric, the very claim is itself rhetorical. He writes, for example, that “Kivoe’s steep promontory, whose bearded ridge and rugged slope, wooded down to the water’s edge, whose exquisite coves and quiet recesses, might well have evoked a poetical effusion to one so inclined…” Stanley, though, is not so inclined.

Instead, when he meets the good doctor, he finds himself “enacting the part of an annual periodical to him” as he brings him up to speed on world events. Yet the historical events he recalls just happen to favor a narrative of American ascendancy against a backdrop of European decline: Grant’s election silently contrasts with a series of deposed European monarchs, and the completion of the Pacific railroad shares space with various proud empires being ground into dust. And Stanley’s humility and respect for his poetic predecessors is as deceptive as his assertion of an unbiased account of world events. More telling is the larger framing of the scene as a kind of journalistic baptismal: on finding a Livingstone just “emerged from the depths of the primeval forests of Manyuema,” he writes that “the reflection of the dazzling light of civilisation was cast on him while Livingstone was thus listening in wonder to one of the most exciting pages of history ever repeated.” And when Stanley obsessively claims to be no more than a passive vessel for information, he consistently Americanizes this practice. In place of what Pratt calls the “imperial eye,” one might better characterize Stanley’s practice as an Emersonian invisible eyeball, a vigorously foregrounded ego that then necessitates an almost hysterical insistence on narrative objectivity. It’s a contradiction of which Walt Whitman could be proud. And Stanley also sounds positively Thoreau-vian in claiming that “Ego is first and foremost in this book. I am obliged to exhibit him as he actually was, not as he should be; as he behaved, not as he should have behaved; as he traveled, not as he ought to have traveled.”

Since Stanley wasn’t actually from Missouri, it’s not that surprising that his sense of himself as American would detach nationality from origin, and derive a kind of pre-Turner frontier thesis from the American journalist’s very openness to his new environment. Yet in emphasizing his Americanness by reference to a journalist’s passivity, Stanley becomes a very eccentric imperialist. When he notes of would-be African travelers that “the more plastic his nature, the more prosperous will be his travels,” he gives up something that Burton and company held onto for good reasons: the decided “un-plasticity” of Burton and the RGS was precisely the basis on which the white man’s monopoly on African knowledge was maintained. Stanley’s American emphasis on the frontiersman’s absorption into the frontier environment, on the other hand, relocated discovery back into the environment itself. There are many things going on there, of course, but at least one of them has broad consequences: a sense of American identity implicitly at odds with the metaphors of Victorian imperialism.

1 Stanley particularly resented being questioned about the open secret of his parentage, especially since the meeting’s chairman questioned him on this point as an explicit way of casting doubt on the reliability of his account. While parentage might seem to have little to do with scientific authority, the ironic twist is that the chairman was Francis Galton, the author of Hereditary Genius and the father of eugenics.

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