Immediately after its publication, Granville Hicks called Ernest Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa “the dullest book I have read since Anthony Adverse,” and wrote that while “[t]here are perhaps ten pages that are interesting…[t]he rest of the book is just plain dull. Hunting is probably exciting to do; it is not exciting to read about.” Bernard DeVoto wrote that “long parts of it are dull,” that it “is not exactly a poor book, but it is certainly far from a good one.” And Edmund Wilson delivered the coup de grace, finding the book to be the “only really weak book he has written” and “the only book I have ever read which makes Africa and its animals seem dull.”
In the brief forward, Hemingway writes that “The writer has attempted to write an absolutely true book to see whether the shape of a country and the pattern of a month’s action can, if truly presented, compete with a work of the imagination.” The critics it seems totally agree that it could not.
A propos and independent of that, I find myself to have dissertated thusly of Theodore Roosevelt’s African Game Trails, the game safari’s Ur-text:
…the most un-ask-able question of the text is also the most important: why go on safari in the first place? Why is shooting animals in Africa pleasurable? And what is it in his monotonous account of animal after animal shot dead — intermixed with “dead time,” more or less defined by the fact that animals are not, now, being shot — that makes it an account worth reading? The book does not say, or rather, it doesn’t say repeatedly and with great emphasis, aestheticizing the hunt through its refusal of context or meaning, and thereby normalizing the omission. After the assertion in the introduction, for example, that “there are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness” — a strange admission from the author of such a massive tome — he answers himself with a rhapsody that is spectacularly empty of anything but pure assertion:
“There is delight in the hardy life of the open, in long rides rifle in hand, in the thrill of the fight with dangerous game. Apart from this, yet mingled with it, is the strong attraction of the silent places, of the large tropic moons, and the splendor of the new stars.”
“Is” is the only verb here, describing both a pleasure spectacularly bereft of any object and a form of desire with no wish being fulfilled. But this is precisely the point: instead of locating his safari, instead of giving it meaning and significance by embedding it into narrative, history, or context, Roosevelt works to make the safari a thing whose pleasure is to be found in the escape from narratives, histories, and contexts that it provides. One goes on safari, in his terms, in order to forget why one goes on safari, to erase the desires which motivate it, and to dis-imagine the empirical Africa on whose non-existence the entire experience is founded.
In this sense, in fact, I would apply both to Roosevelt and to the many Kenyan big game hunters who followed in his wake what Clifford Geertz famously wrote about “deep play,” that “[t]he transfer of a sense of gravity into what is in itself a rather blank and unvarious spectacle…is effected by interpreting it as expressive of something unsettling in the way its authors and audience live, or, even more ominously, what they are.” But as with Geertz’s Balinese cockfight, ritually performing that which is, in some sense, “unsettled” was not an effort to change, mediate, sublate, or transcend the contradictions being expressed. Instead, it was the poetry of making nothing happen, of making the status quo itself — and its reinforcement — the only possible site of pleasure. He therefore invests the “blank and invarious spectacle” of an empty and vanquished landscape with a profundity of meaning, I argue, as way of silencing and unthinking all the other potential sites of narrative meaning that he could have — but didn’t — photograph or include, and in so doing, evacuating of force the anxieties and contradictions they represent…