09 March 2009

Akeley, Delia. Jungle Portraits. New York: MacMillan, 1930.

Delia Akeley is renowned in her own right—she's the first woman to explore any number of African locales—but for the most part she's famous as the first wife of Carl Akeley, called by some the Father of Modern Taxidermy. This book was published four years after his death, and six years after he left her for a woman almost half his age. I, of course, had to read it for research, and by the end I was mostly skimming.

The hunting narrative, I've decided, is a dull, dull genre. There's a flatness to the hunting story that makes it proceed more like Freytag's line than Freytag's triangle:

Exposition: The hunter decides to venture out to find an animal.
Turning point: The hunter sees the animal.
Rising Action: Here the hunter takes his first shot, and strangely enough it doesn't matter whether he hits or not. Regardless, two things can happen here:
  1. The animal runs off. This begins the chase.
  2. The animal stays put, either hurt or merely stunned, and the hunter creeps closer.
Climax: The hunter hits with a critical shot and the animal goes down.
Denoument: The meat is discarded or eaten. The skin is stuffed, or not.

It's that rising action that's so dull. Because yes, nearly every single hunt is different, but it's merely a procedural difference. Not a dramatic one. Nothing ever changes. Nothing surprises. The animal is pursued and felled. The end.

Delia keeps hunting stories to a minimum here (especially compared to Carl), and instead tries to make her 1930s reader feel the wealth of exotica that Africa has to offer. Or at least had to offer Delia, on her several expensive safari trips she undertook with museum funds.

The book is a post-colonialist's nightmare (or dream, depending on what kind of paper she's hoping to write). Natives' skin is described, nearly always, as "dusky," and much fun is had over how quickly they are prone to laughter and dancing. It's all very weird because Delia is respectful throughout, and seems to admire the men she worked with on safari (particularly her cabin boy, Ali), and yet neither she nor her editor seemed to notice how belittling the tone is almost throughout. "A well-proportioned pygmy," reads one photo caption.

Oh well, earlier times I guess.

I always thought Delia was my favorite of the Akeley wives. Mary Jobe swept in very late in Carl's life, and after he dies her letters to the management of the American Museum of Natural History are just so cloying and gross, begging for an office or even just a desk for her to continue her busywork on keeping Akeley's legacy going. She also worked her ass off to get Delia's name removed from everything she could, as though she were Akeley's first real love.

But then Delia seems to selfish and paltry in this book. The chapter she chooses to end it with, after a lengthy and interesting account of her living for a time with a pygmy tribe, is one that tells of the night she bullied twenty porters into taking her through the jungle at night to find Carl's body, which had been recently trampled by an elephant. They don't want to go because nothing is darker than the African jungle in the middle of the night. She insults all of them and threatens them with her gun, and the lesson, I guess, of the chapter is thank god she found such courage. "The fact that his wounds were care for [by Delia] so promptly prevented infection," she writes, "and without doubt saved his life."

Bully for you, Mickie. (This was her nickname. From Carl's biographer: "Delia, a.k.a. Mickie for her bellicose ways, was forever getting into scrapes.") Your husband was, maybe, a dick for leaving you, but you brought back to New York a monkey you kept in a dress that tore up the furniture and made your lives hell. And yet you could never part with the thing. What was going on in that bellicose head?


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