A flawed but vivid story, and an ode to a lost art
Taxidermy is a subject most of us rarely think about, unless we happen to be at a natural history museum or at a backwoods diner where a deer’s head presides over the cash register. But for a time, around the turn of the last century, it was a dynamic career path offering artistic satisfaction, scientific challenge, and the promise of white-knuckle adventure. Nobody embodied these like the swashbuckling taxidermist and big-game hunter Carl Akeley, whose work (and name) graces the Hall of African Mammals in New York’s American Museum of Natural History.
In Akeley, Jay Kirk has found a fantastic character for a historical nonfiction narrative, and he tells his hero’s story in a vivid, often breathless style. Born at the tail end of the Civil War, Akeley endured a dismal upstate New York childhood, learned to stuff small wildlife from a mail-order pamphlet, and went to work with a Rochester taxidermist. His big break came when P.T. Barnum’s giant elephant, Jumbo, was hit by a train in Canada and Akeley was asked to render the dead animal lifelike yet sturdy enough to be hauled into the circus ring night after night. From commercial taxidermy, Akeley went to work for museums in an age that saw a flowering of interest in natural history. By 1909 he was in New York, along with his wife, Mickie, an able taxidermy assistant and his willing companion on safari. Akeley’s quests, both for the biggest, rarest animals (elephants, giraffes, gorillas) and for the ability to “give his beasts the souls of objects everlasting,’’ are rendered with deep sympathy by Kirk, a journalist who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania’s creative writing program.
In painting Akeley’s lifelong passion for preserving rare animals and tying it to modern-day conservation and environmental goals, Kirk brings together Victorian and modern ideas about nature and humankind in smart, sensitive ways. But when it comes to writing about Akeley’s time in Africa, which makes up the bulk of the book, he seems tone-deaf to the prejudices his characters express, providing neither historical context nor an authorial voice to contradict them. Although it would be unexceptional in a book published in 1910 to read about “the savages in Darkest Africa,’’ it’s surprising to see in a book published this year. There are passages that read as if they’re taken straight from a Tarzan novel, such as this one, in which Mickie faces off against African porters working for her and Akeley on a collecting trip: “The firelight licked at their scowling faces. Black hatred furrowed and pooled in the swarming shadows. Their defiance seemed to be a dare, a threat. But she could not back down now.’’
The book is populated by Africans who are stinky, lazy cannibals — at least in the eyes of the white characters, whose memoirs make up Kirk’s source materials, and whose perspective he rarely challenges. He admits in his endnotes that he found research into African colonialism tedious, and it shows. How else to explain the total absence of irony in applauding Belgian King Albert’s creation of the first animal preserve in Africa as “a small gesture of atonement against all the suffering caused there at the hands of his father, the late Leopold II.’’ No doubt many animals died under King Leopold’s rule, but the deaths of several million Africans during that regime ought to merit at least a mention.
I imagine Kirk would argue that he was only embodying the times and minds of his subjects. Writing from inside the head of one’s characters, particularly those who espouse beliefs now regarded as egregious, is a tricky game for any writer. Considering the outrage many felt, even at the time, about the wholesale slaughter of wildlife by great white hunters, the book’s relative silence on the similar treatment of African people is dumbfounding.
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.