Tag: Theodore Roosevelt

Ernest Hemingway in Theodore Roosevelt’s Africa

I re-read Hemingway’s two “African” short stories last night — both because I’m in the midst of revising my chapter on Roosevelt’s African Game Trails and because I was energized by the hilarious “Hemingway” in Midnight in Paris — and while I was struck again by how deeply responsive Hemingway is to Roosevelt, I became much more aware of how hard he’s pushing against the Roosevelt thing.

First, the former: that Hemingway was deeply “influenced” by Roosevelt is only a starting point, but it’s the important one. Every boy of Hemingway’s generation trying to become a man was beaten over the head with Roosevelt’s stick, and Hemingway was particularly invested in the mythology, to such an extent that when he would eventually do his own big game hunting safari, he tried to replicate Roosevelt’s paradigm setting performance in many different particulars, even hiring Roosevelt’s own guide, Philip Percival. But in so many ways, the “Kenya” that Hemingway visited in 1932 was a different place than the “East African Protectorate” that Roosevelt had toured through in 1910. The first world war and the great depression had not only changed the world — destroying, among other things, the condition of possibility for the kind of synthesis of Victorian gentry and modernist progressive of which TR was a great example — but those two decades had also transformed the political and economic landscape of East Africa from top to bottom, and thus, the way that an American could play safari in Africa.

In 1910, the protectorate had been technically foreign to the British empire, and was largely still an open frontier of the kind that Roosevelt had almost missed finding in the American West: its indigenous peoples had been conquered, and open land had been created by their dispossessions, removals, and famines, but it not yet been filled in by the kind of civilization which the white settlers hoped to bring. Much was still unseen by white eyes, and certainly most was uncontrolled by white government. And it was a place that was, from Roosevelt’s perspective, all potential, the potential to follow in the footsteps of the American frontier as, what he calls, a “white man‘s country.”

By 1932, however, the white settlement project in east Africa was well into the process of failing; as Elspeth Huxley would put it a few years later, the white settlers were covered wagon pioneers in the age of the model-T. There simply weren’t enough of them to make Kenya into a white man’s country in the way they wanted to, and while they would hang on for quite a long time, the forces that would eventually lead to decolonization in the 1960’s had already made their dream of an apartheid state in the white highlands a fast receding mirage. For Roosevelt, East Africa’s white future was nothing but unbounded potential; for Hemingway during the depression, it was clear that imperial hegemony, racial hierarchy, and economic solvency were all under a kind of siege that Roosevelt never dreamed of. He doesn’t talk about it much, but it’s there.

More directly, while Roosevelt had been roaming through (man-made) wilderness, Hemingway was essentially hunting on government regulated game-parks, and he understood that perfectly well. Kenya was now a colony within the empire, and as a state, it was mostly one in which the kind of wilderness adventure that Roosevelt could imagine himself to be having — his daydream of being on a trip back to the Pleistocene — was no longer plausible. In 1910, “punitive expeditions” against “unpacified” African tribes were still ongoing; in 1932, African populations were safely penned into native reserves, educated and Christianized, or were laboring as official squatters on white plantations, and so the fantasy that Roosevelt was meeting wild Africans in their primeval state — which he really enjoyed — was no longer tenable. And while Roosevelt really had been the kind of outdoorsman who could survive, to a great extent, under his own power in the wilderness, not Hemingway wasn’t, and neither was Kenya that kind of wilderness anyway. Finally, while Roosevelt had employed South African guides to help him, the “White Hunter” was, by 1932, a well established institution that made it totally unnecessary for a man like Hemingway to actually have the kinds of skills and initiative that Roosevelt had (and thus to make it impossible to use them if he did have them). Roosevelt institutionalized and popularized the white safari, and that institution would frustrate Hemingway’s efforts at emulation.

This frustration is obvious; all of Hemingway’s Africa writing is about failure and frustration, one way or another. And on the surface, it’s women who are the frustrating force: both “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” are, fundamentally, struggles with women, and as always, “women” in this case really means the emasculating force of civilization or something. Hemingway’s misogyny is on full display in these stories, for not only is authentic manhood the only desirable way to be in the world — Francis Macomber’s life is short, because he’s only really alive in that brief period when he’s a real man — but women, these terrible creatures who aren’t men at all, hate and mistrust any true masculinity and seek to destroy it. A struggle for masculinity is a struggle against the woman who seeks to frustrate it.

And in this respect, the contrast with Roosevelt is strikingly easy: the absence of women from Roosevelt’s text is more or less its constitutive element. You go to Africa, if you are Roosevelt, to penetrate its jungles, to bond and become one with the other men, to roam over the virgin land, to put your bullets in the bodies of your prey and so forth, in a very long list of crypto-sexual exploits, but it’s very important that the feminine be present without any actual females around. In this way, while Hemingway is antagonistic to women who represent his frustrations — and brings them along for that reason — Roosevelt’s unfrustrated manhood not only has no need for a feminine antagonist, but his mono-gendered world view requires only the aura of the feminine in the landscape as backdrop for his performance of manhood. In response to his manhood, the landscape takes on certain feminine characteristics, but an actual woman would only get in the way, so they are excluded. Hemingway includes them, for precisely this reason, to register why the landscape is not responding to his non-manhood in the way it should

I certainly don’t think Roosevelt was anything close to self-aware enough to consciously register any of this. He was a deeply intelligent man, and historians so often fall into the trap of underestimating his perceptiveness (as a way of inflating their own), but it still seems to me that it was organic to Roosevelt’s personality to have closed his mind to anything like what we would now call “psychology.” Hemingway was a little bit different. At a certain level, I think, he got it; he still enjoyed being a stud and a brute and a pig, far too much to ever want to stop, but his Africa writing is filled with conscious acknowledgments that cruelty to women is not nearly as earned as they’d like to think. In Green Hills of Africa this is really clear (especially since it’s a first person, non-fictional account), but even in “Macomber” you can find traces of Wilson’s doubt as he rationalizes his small hypocrisy — sleeping with his employer’s wife and then despising her for it — and in “Snows,” the protagonist directly acknowledges that his cruelty to his wife is a way of staving off fear. These are grace notes, but they are there.

More than that, I suspect that Hemingway could understood the façade that was his own performance of manhood because he had Roosevelt to measure himself against, and to find himself wanting. Roosevelt had managed to get to the Dakota territory before it was a state, and to the East African Protectorate before it was a policed colony. Hemingway had no such frontiers available to him. More than that, his whiteness was as beset as his manhood: his antipathy to women might be a means of registering a different frustration — and he at least partially coded it as projection — but his antipathy to racial others stems from the much more direct and consciously understood challenge  that was being mounted, in the 1930’s, against white imperial authority in ways Roosevelt never saw. Roosevelt would never have written a passage like this, because he never needed to openly register his frustration in this kind of misogyny and race hate. His authority was always real, and so that was the public face he created. Whereas, perhaps, that’s a way of understanding where the particularly Hemingway-an fetish of the real in fiction comes from: the authentic real that he could never find in life could, perhaps, be acquired by writing about that condition of impossibility?

Anyway, believe it or not, all of this is really just to say that this poem I found this morning now makes a lot of sense to me. It’s Hemingway in 1922, directly expressing the extent to which “Roosevelt” could never exist in the world left to him by the Great War, and how angry he is with Teddy that this is the case:



Workingmen believed
He busted trusts,
And put his picture in their windows.
“What he’d have done in France!”
They said.
Perhaps he would-
He could have died
Though generals rarely die except in bed,
As he did finally.
And all the legends that he started in his life
Live on and prosper,
Unhampered now by his existence.

Mau Mau and Charlton Heston’s Naked Jungle

1954’s The Naked Jungle might initially seems like it was cowritten by Anne McClintock (or maybe Timothy Burke). Ostensibly set in the Amazon, the colonial tropes line up perfectly: white aligns with cleanliness, while the dark natives are dirty. The jungle is a place of primeval chaos, but Charlton Heston has made himself into “more than a king” by tearing a plantation from the earth, building a dam and thereby (almost) literally creating land where before there was none. As he puts it: “Go ten miles in any direction from here and it’s civilized. Go ten paces past where I stopped and its the bush. It’s the living jungle, where no man has a name, and the only law is to stay alive.” And though he alludes to the always feared prospect of going native — noting carefully that when he was starting out, he had “nearly forgot the English language” — you wouldn’t know it to hear his sonorous voice, nor would you guess it from the verve with which he plays colonial gentleman in the Amazon. Instead of surrounding his house with skulls on fenceposts, he has built a Victorian mansion, and drawn firm lines.

He likes the firmness of these lines, and the movie’s narrative initially seems to takes its shape from them. But the plot gets so much more interesting when he takes the next step: having long been in need of a wife (for children, for serving coffee, and for playing the piano), he imports one, getting a friend of a friend of a friend’s sister shipped out to him. And at first, even this bourgeois desire matches up neatly with the rest of the colonial tropes, for just as he’s ripped a plantation from the virgin jungle, so too does he plan to tear a wife out of this virgin woman he’s purchased. But as things devolve, the movie turns out to be so much more weird than I originally expected, both fascinated in pulling the neat binaries apart, and fascinating for the way it narrativizes this problem.

First, when the mail-order bride arrives, it turns out she’s a widow, and his anger that she’s been with another man is second only to his rage that he suddenly finds himself occupying the place of the innocent. “If you knew more about music,” she says, “You’d know that a good piano is better when it’s been played.” And after a marvelous shot where two whiskey glasses objectify the moment’s sexual tension, he drunkenly smashes down her door only to be treated to her mild reply that it’s never been locked. If you know what I mean. I’m interested partly in the way this kind of narrative problem “troubles boundaries,” to use that old cliché, and especially in the way it does so by staging Charlton Heston’s personal investment in those boundaries. If “gender” de-stabilizes “colonialism,” it does so only because the myth of the white woman occupies a peculiar and powerful place in Heston’s mind; when she isn’t only a virgin he is flabbergasted, and when she isn’t only a whore, he’s crushed. When she’s a woman, in other words, instead of a myth, he has nothing to say.

The narratologist in me is fascinated by the way this narrative problem suddenly gets shunted into the background when the second act plot kicks in, the way the movie suddenly turns into Leiningen vs. the Ants. In a certain sense, The Naked Jungle could be called an adaptation of Carl Stephenson’s short story, beloved of high school English teachers everywhere, but to say so is to drag the horse much too far behind the cart. The entire marriage plot of the first act is an invention of the screenwriter, and in that sense, the film feels less like seeing a “classic” piece of literature brought to the big screen with a romance plot tacked on than precisely the reverse, the weird experience of watching a movie about gender and colonialism suddenly get transformed into a completely different movie. It’s sort of like if The Taming of the Shrew had a horde of ants attacking Verona in act three. In this movie, on the other hand, the invasion of the ants takes an insolvable problem and replaces it with an even bigger (or at least more spectacular) problem, and by doing so, manages to resolve the original, if only by omission. When the chips are down – when the ants are on the march – gender turns out not to matter that much.

The postcolonialist in me, however, is fascinated by the Ants as a European fantasy of the modernized colonial subject, gone horribly wrong, the fantasy which transformed the “Land and Freedom Army” (whatever it was) into a narrative of Mau Mau. To wit: Europeans have come to the jungle to make things better by organization and development, but sometimes the natives actually respond to development by getting
worse, becoming more savage. The fault is clearly not Heston’s; when the ants come, his men flock to him and stay (because he’s a good master), and he stands and fights because of his people. As he puts it, “Fifteen years ago they were savages. I took them out of the jungle. If I leave now, they’ll go back. That’ll be the end of civilization on the Rio Negro.” He plays the enlightened European, uses science against the ants (studying them under a magnifying glass) and uses his ability to dam the water (and release it) as his major tactical advantage, to ultimate victory (of course).

The effect, in other words, is to displace all the fears and anxieties of the first part of the film onto the people themselves, humanizing the loyalists while animalizing the dissenters. It’s an example, in other words, of how you “Mau Mau” a peasant revolt: to foreclose the possibility that people’s discontent stems from being exploited and denied the fruits of modernization, you imagine that they are angry at the very prospect of modernity itself, that they have chosen, irrationally, to attack rationality. Offered the choice of becoming happy modern subjects, with schools and churches and stuff, these ungrateful savages instead turn to violence and cannibalism and mindless violence (usually under the influence of an authoritarian leader) thereby allowing the good Western liberal to cluck his tongue and reluctantly put his assent to massive campaigns of violence. This is not dissimilar to the way the war on terror has been conducted – I would note, parenthetically – and while Al-Quaeda is certainly not the equivalent of the Land and Freedom Army in Kenya, the narrative strategy taken by the West to the both of them is similar enough to warrant the comparison. In Kenya, there were good Africans and bad ones. And today, as Mahmood Mamdani puts it, there are two possible images the West can have of Islam: “Good Muslims” who have become secular and modern and “Bad Muslims” who have chosen not to.

Nowhere in that continuum is it possible to find Kenyans or Muslims who would like to be modern (or at least not poor and oppressed) but who have been denied the opportunity, which is precisely the point. So you get strange articles like this one, from Time magazine in 1953:

…the fear of spreading Mau Mauism haunts the fertile British Protectorate of Nyasaland. The colony’s 4,400 Britons raise bumper crops of tea, tobacco and citrus fruits along the Shire River valley, which drains the 360-mile-long Lake Nyasa (see map). They are outnumbered more than 500-to-one by 2,500,000 Africans, whom they call “niggers” and “coons.” Last week the British in Nyasaland were faced with the most ominous outbreak of mass disobedience and rowdyism since David Livingstone, Bible in hand, discovered the lush valley 94 years ago…

Get it? Mau Mau is not only a “fear” but it’s the kind of “disobedience” and “rowdyism” that can only be legible as an irrational response to a figure like Livingstone, the guy who came to Africa to end slavery by bringing capitalism. It doesn’t merely contradict the presence of development, it presumes it, and is legible only as a response to it; “rowdyism” before Livingstone is unthinkable. And while the fertility being protected by the British is oddly counterpointed by the blatant racism of the “whom they call” sentence, it still links back to an underlying colonial narrative of protecting femininity, domesticity, and reproduction from scary African men, something that articles like this one or this one make very, very clear. In the former, we get the evocation of African pangas (the machete as phallus) being wielded against white women in isolated plantations, while the latter spreads the rumor that “Negro nursemaids had been ordered by the Mau Mau to murder white babies.” I dreamed I saw Nat Turner, alive as you and me…

Izak Dinesen is the great example of how Kenyan settlers transformed the confusing status of female colonialists – how, after all, could a woman tear a plantation from the virgin soil? — into a pro-colonialist narrative: Dinesen as mother figure to infantilized, animalized Africans. The Naked Jungle is a context inspecific version of a similar narrative, only with “Mau Mau” an explicit presence, instead of merely implied. And if Ernest Hemingway is the other side of that coin – massive masculinity through shooting Africans – it’s only because he read Teddy Roosevelt carefully.

But what made “Mau Mau” distinct from other fantasies of African savagery – and here’s why ants are the appropriate animal metaphor – was the very organization by which they opposed development. People like Stanley and Livingstone could afford the luxury of not knowing any better, so they imagined that Africans lived in some version of Rousseauvian anti-development, a tribal life that was close to nature in the sense that development was an absence (and one which, it was implied, “development” would naturally disrupt). By 1952, such an illusion was no longer available, and nature now signified not the absence of development, but the two possible paths a permanently de-humanized portion of the human race could take: the path of the domesticated animal or the path of the wild animal. While the former could be taken in and allowed to serve — like Lulu and Kimante, Dinesen’s antelope and Kikuyu boy, treated by her as categorically indistinguishable – wild animals were those who could never be trusted with development, and who had therefore to be “conserved” in wild places set apart for them. And just as – in the perverse logic of a Teddy Roosevelt – you “conserve” a wild animal by shooting it, the Kenyan state’s response to Mau Mau was to burn the villages in order to save them. Locating the distinction in the animals themselves allowed development itself to emerge as both omnipresent and unquestionable: instead of Stanley’s distinctions been developed people and the not yet developed (but all equally develop-able), we have a distinction between those Africans who are animalized as domestics and those who are animalized as predators, and both by reference to the one-way technology of development which is appropriate to their status: the former is to be mothered; the latter is to be shot.

In The Naked Jungle, then, ants are exactly the unthinkable horror that Mau Mau was taken to be, a perverse and grotesque caricature of development which not only rejects development, but does so by using the very technologies of development to attack it. The ants organize themselves, moving in unison and with an implacable intention to destroy directed against the (newly) feminized domestic sphere of the plantation, and seem to emerge from the jungle in response to Heston’s efforts to create domestic spaces. In a sense, neither Roosevelt nor Dineson had to ever imagine such a thing happening in Kenya; Roosevelt “loved the great game” by shooting it while Dineson pastoral dream was of pulling the thorns out of the feet of metaphorical lions so they could lie down with lambs. For both, the animals loved them back. Yet, in another sense, I suspect these vigorous attempts to imagine pastoral bliss are motivated by a desire to dis-imagine the very contradictions of colonialism which Mau Mau both mediated and made immediate: what happens when Africans turn out to be human? The same thing as when a wife you’ve purchased turns out to have desire of her own. You freak out, and change the subject. “Look! A million billion ants!”

Just a Couple of Dudes

After he was done being President, Teddy Roosevelt decided to unwind by going on safari in East Africa and blasting the living bejeezus out of everything he could find. Ostensibly, he was there to get natural history specimens for the Smithsonian, but his heart was really in the simpler pleasures of hunt. Whatever else TR was, he was a man who like to shoot things. A lot.

He also took his son Kermit with him, but other than dedicating African Game Trails to “My Side-Partner,” he’s interestingly reluctant to frame the trip as the big father-son picnic it was. Instead, he displaces the problem of the father-son relationship (which is a problem for him for various reasons) onto the African landscape itself. Teddy’s epigram kind of says it all: “He loved the great game as if he were their father.” Because nothing says paternal love like a bullet to the brainpan.

Anyway, I find this photograph of the pair incredibly great:

There’s so much to say. They sit like manly men, legs folded to leave plenty of room for their genitalia, and they present their guns to us like the manly man phalli that they so clearly are. Their heads stick into the empty whiteness of the sky, stark against the background of a staged African emptiness that stretches out into the far horizon. Manly men in Africa, the place where manly men go to be men, manly-ly.

There’s also a clear gendered hierarchy within their manliness: Kermit’s hat is like a sun-bonnet, open and wide like his collar and posture, while TR’s hat is (like his face, closed off by glasses and mustache) tight and constricting. His gun is more phallic than Kermit’s, which is held at arm’s length, and TR’s wall of teeth (much beloved of caricaturists) has been displaced onto the bull itself, since his own lips are pinched closed and his gaze lowered and remote. And while Kermit has his leg braced against the animal, indicating that TR must be putting his weight against his son, the surface composition has TR floating unsupported, a towering tower of towering masculinity.

The bull itself… Shooting African animals brings these dudes together, and even though they sit in classic man-style (phalli carefully pointed in different directions to avoid the embarrassment of “crossing the streams”), the line between their bodies is both a point of contact and an impermeable barrier, both the point where they cleave together and where they cleave apart. But the horns of the dead bull they’ve shot resolves the problem, curving and embracing them in a single grisly familial body. Posed in an “action” pose — emphasizing not a scientific curiosity but a trophy — the Buffalo bull is the object on which their masculinity can be expended, and in doing so, bring them together. As TR writes:

“Kermit put his first barrel into the second bull, and I my second barrel into one of the others, after which it became impossible to say which bullet struck which animal, as the firing became general.”

Not much I can say about that. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But sometimes a hunting rifle is a phallus. And this is one of those times.

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