Thursday, March 02, 2006

On the River of Doubt

One of the many areas of agreement between me and my co-worker Jim is that there can never be too much written about Theodore Roosevelt. But whereas, with Abraham Lincoln, about whom I feel the same, the inextinguishable possibilities of history and biography lie more in the complexity of his psyche, Roosevelt’s richness as a subject is directly tied to his physical inexhaustibility. He crammed so much incident and interest into one life that Edmund Morris’s biography required two volumes just to get through the presidential years.

Nonetheless, I was surprised to find that I wasn't the only person who hadn't heard of the South American river journey that is the subject of Candice Millard’s River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey. Another co-worker who’s a TR fan checked the H. W. Brands biography; the journey down the River of Doubt receives a scant four pages. Candice Millard spreads the story out over 400 pages, and it's worth it.

Roosevelt began the trip as a way to cope with his landslide loss to Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 election, wherein Roosevelt had broken with the Republicans and run as the candidate of the Progressive Party. Crushed by the defeat, Roosevelt was quick to sign on to an idea proposed by an old friend, Father Zahm of Notre Dame, that he spend a few months traveling the Amazon River. Roosevelt put Zahm in charge of the planning. Zahm, for whom Millard doesn't attempt to hide her contempt, was no fan of hard work, and he delegated the organizational responsibilities to a man whose only credential was leadership of a disastrously failed Arctic exploration. The planning, thus, was poor: deep in the jungle, the members of the expedition were exceedingly displeased to find tins of luxury mustards where they expected to find basic foodstuffs.

The journey was to be fairly unadventurous, compared to some of Roosevelt’s travels as a young man. But once in Brazil—already chafing at the thought of breaking no new ground with his trip—he was quickly convinced to attempt something more daring: a descent of the River of Doubt, an Amazon tributary never before navigated by non-natives. The Brazilian government gave him its full support, in the form of a large number of camaradas, or laborers, and Brazil’s greatest explorer, Colonel Candido Mariana da Silva Rondon, who would be co-leader of the expedition.

From the start of the trip, things went poorly, as even the long overland journey, through territory familiar to Colonel Rondon from earlier exploration, was slower and more difficult than expected. Pack animals dropped dead, food supplies ran low, and malaria began its relentless attack on the group. Father Zahm quickly wore out his welcome through laziness and racism, which irked both Rondon and Roosevelt. The final straw came when he suggested that he be borne in a litter by four camaradas, because, “The Indian is made to carry priests.” Roosevelt asked Father Zahm to step into his tent; when they emerged, the Father was on his way back to Sao Paulo. (A private browbeating by TR is something better imagined than experienced. Even thinking about it makes me want to do whatever he thinks I should do. Quickly.)

The picture Millard paints of Roosevelt is the one we’re accustomed to: strong in body and stronger in will, brave to the point of foolhardiness, indefatigable, and a bit bull-headed. But alongside him she places fully-realized portraits of his son, Kermit, and of Colonel Rondon, who to this day remains a hero in Brazil for his work on behalf of the Amazon’s native population. You don’t need to know much about Roosevelt to realize that he would have trouble with the rule Rondon drummed into his exploration corps: in contact with Indians, “die if you must, but never kill.” Roosevelt was a man who cherished the idea of selling one’s life dear. Yet the element of willpower in Rondon’s adherence to his philosophy of life was so clear—the life hewing so closely to the ideals—that Roosevelt respected Rondon even as the River of Doubt tested the men and their new friendship.

As the expedition makes its way down the river, beset by difficulties at every turn. Millard describes the life of the jungle and explains how centuries of adaptive pressures had fitted animals and plants into ever-tighter evolutionary niches. With the verve of a student of natural history, she tells of the dreaded candiru (which I knew of from Peter Fleming’s excellent Brazilian Adventure), the monkey fish, which can leap high enough out of the water to snag monkeys from low branches, and the more familiar—but no less scary—piranha and caiman.

The men suffered from disease, hunger, and deadly rapids. The jungle itself, in its monotony as much as its dangers, preyed on their minds. Millard quotes from my favorite Brazilian travel book, H. R. Tomlinson’s 1912 The Sea and the Jungle
The forest of the Amazons is not merely trees and shrubs. It is not land. It is another element. Its inhabitants are arborean; they have been fashioned for life in that medium as fishes to the seas and birds to the air. Its green apparition is persistent, as the sky is and the ocean. In months of travel it is the horizon which the traveler cannot reach.

Millard conveys that tedium, and the danger, hunger, and weariness of the expedition, as well as the best travel writers—everyone from Apsley Cherry-Garrard to Bill Bryson—to the point where I found myself admiring the men just for getting up from their bedrolls in the morning.

Well into the journey, Roosevelt develops a fever and wastes away before our eyes, from the hale man who just the year before delivered a speech in Milwaukee with five bullets in his chest from a would-be assassin, to skin-and-bones shell, unable to walk. At that point, it doesn't matter that we know he died in his bed years later. There are thirty days ahead on the River of Doubt, and we see no escape. Getting out was Roosevelt's last great adventure, and thanks to Candice Millard, we now know all about it.

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