I. ON BOOKS OF ADVENTURE
Books of sporting, travel, and adventure in countries little
known to the average reader naturally fall in two
classes-neither, with a very few exceptions, of great value. One
class is perhaps the logical result of the other.
Of the first type is the book that is written to make the most of
far travels, to extract from adventure the last thrill, to
impress the awestricken reader with a full sense of the danger
and hardship the writer has undergone. Thus, if the latter takes
out quite an ordinary routine permit to go into certain
districts, he makes the most of travelling in "closed territory,"
implying that he has obtained an especial privilege, and has
penetrated where few have gone before him. As a matter of fact,
the permit is issued merely that the authorities may keep track
of who is where. Anybody can get one. This class of writer tells
of shooting beasts at customary ranges of four and five hundred
yards. I remember one in especial who airily and as a matter of
fact killed all his antelope at such ranges. Most men have shot
occasional beasts at a quarter mile or so, but not airily nor as
a matter of fact: rather with thanksgiving and a certain amount
of surprise. The gentleman of whom I speak mentioned getting an
eland at seven hundred and fifty yards. By chance I happened to
mention this to a native Africander.
"Yes," said he, "I remember that; I was there."
This interested me-and I said so.
"He made a long shot," said I.
"A GOOD long shot," replied the Africander.
"Did you pace the distance?"
He laughed. "No," said he, "the old chap was immensely delighted.
'Eight hundred yards if it was an inch!' he cried."
"How far was it?"
"About three hundred and fifty. But it was a long shot, all
And it was! Three hundred and fifty yards is a very long shot. It
is over four city blocks-New York size. But if you talk often
enough and glibly enough of "four and five hundred yards," it
does not sound like much, does it?
The same class of writer always gets all the thrills. He speaks
of "blanched cheeks," of the "thrilling suspense," and so on down
the gamut of the shilling shocker. His stuff makes good reading;
there is no doubt of that. The spellbound public likes it, and to
that extent it has fulfilled its mission. Also, the reader
believes it to the letter-why should he not? Only there is this
curious result: he carries away in his mind the impression of
unreality, of a country impossible to be understood and gauged
and savoured by the ordinary human mental equipment. It is
interesting, just as are historical novels, or the copper-riveted
heroes of modern fiction, but it has no real relation with human
life. In the last analysis the inherent untruth of the thing
forces itself on him. He believes, but he does not apprehend; he
acknowledges the fact, but he cannot grasp its human quality. The
affair is interesting, but it is more or less concocted of
pasteboard for his amusement. Thus essential truth asserts its
All this, you must understand, is probably not a deliberate
attempt to deceive. It is merely the recrudescence under the
stimulus of a brand-new environment of the boyish desire to be a
hero. When a man jumps back into the Pleistocene he digs up some
of his ancestors' cave-qualities. Among these is the desire for
personal adornment. His modern development of taste precludes
skewers in the ears and polished wire around the neck; so he
adorns himself in qualities instead. It is quite an engaging and
diverting trait of character. The attitude of mind it both
presupposes and helps to bring about is too complicated for my
brief analysis. In itself it is no more blameworthy than the
small boy's pretence at Indians in the back yard; and no more
praiseworthy than infantile decoration with feathers.
In its results, however, we are more concerned. Probably each of
us has his mental picture that passes as a symbol rather than an
idea of the different continents. This is usually a single
picture-a deep river, with forest, hanging snaky vines,
anacondas and monkeys for the east coast of South America, for
example. It is built up in youth by chance reading and chance
pictures, and does as well as a pink place on the map to stand
for a part of the world concerning which we know nothing at all.
As time goes on we extend, expand, and modify this picture in the
light of what knowledge we may acquire. So the reading of many
books modifies and expands our first crude notions of Equatorial
Africa. And the result is, if we read enough of the sort I
describe above, we build the idea of an exciting, dangerous,
extra-human continent, visited by half-real people of the texture
of the historical-fiction hero, who have strange and interesting
adventures which we could not possibly imagine happening to
This type of book is directly responsible for the second sort.
The author of this is deadly afraid of being thought to brag of
his adventures. He feels constantly on him the amusedly critical
eye of the old-timer. When he comes to describe the first time a
rhino dashed in his direction, he remembers that old hunters, who
have been so charged hundreds of times, may read the book.
Suddenly, in that light, the adventure becomes pitifully
unimportant. He sets down the fact that "we met a rhino that
turned a bit nasty, but after a shot in the shoulder decided to
leave us alone." Throughout he keeps before his mind's eye the
imaginary audience of those who have done. He writes for them, to
please them, to convince them that he is not "swelled head," nor
"cocky," nor "fancies himself," nor thinks he has done, been, or
seen anything wonderful.