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What was it in the national character of Victorian England that resulted in such a profusion of intrepid explorers, scientists, and geographers? Darwin and the Beagle in the Galapagos…Scott and Shackleton at the Poles…Burton disguised as a be-turbaned potentate at Mecca….”Dr. Livingston, I presume?”

TitleThe Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, by David Grann

Motivation: Recommended by Amazon on the basis of previous purchases of books on Stanley & Livingstone, whaling disasters, Theodore Roosevelt, and other boyish non-fiction adventures.

Completed: April 8, 2012 (#27)

Recommendation: Diverting for lovers of adventure and stiff-upper-lipped derring-do, though a superior choice is Martin Dugard’s Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley and Livingstone. This might be a good book for parents to read to young boys at bedtime.

Strange that the adjective “Victorian” has taken on such a pejorative sense in contemporary English: Not only did the age bring mankind to the zenith of masculine sartorial splendor (khaki, seersucker, madras, ascots, tweed, the modern dinner jacket, pith helmets) and potable potency (gin gimlets, planter’s punch, Singapore slings), it also seems to have been about as intellectually stimulating a period as the civilized world has seen since the Renaissance.

This was an era in which celebrities were built of sterner stuff:

The need to record every observation was so ingrained that during Robert Falcon Scott’s race to the South Pole he continued to make notations even as he and all his men were dying. Among the last words scribbled in his diary were ‘Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale.’

Imagine punctuating a sentence–let alone drafting an eloquent epitaph–in an Antarctic blast, knowing full well that it would be your last.

Mr. Grann’s book traces the life of one Percy Fawcett, the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and apparently a household name in the early 20th century, whose quixotic quest for a theoretical “Lost City of Z” in the Amazonian rain forest led to his mysterious disappearance and (presumably) his ultimate demise. Fawcett’s hardy constitution was legendary–the “green hell” of the Amazon is no walk in the park, even today. Indeed, since his disappearance in 1925, hundreds have attempted to discover Fawcett’s fate, and dozens of would-be explorers–literally dozens–have died in the attempt, occasionally meeting brutal ends at the hands of the rather Neolithic locals.

Luckily for us, Mr. Grann survived a similar trek into the still barely known Brazilian Amazon, one of the last blank spots to be filled on world maps. Having measurably expanded the historical record through his own researches, Mr. Grann arrives at a perfectly plausible hypothesis as to what may have happened to Fawcett’s ill-fated party.

The Lost City of Z is certainly worth a look, although I expect even greater things from River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard, which chronicles TR’s expedition to chart the course of an Amazon tributary after his loss in the election of 1912–yes, you read that correctly. Undiscovered lands, poison darts, carnivorous fish, naked savages…and an American president. Thought experiments abound… Jimmy Carter swimming the English Channel? Gerald Ford discovering the source of the Nile? George H.W. Bush exploring Mars? Barack Obama climbing Everest without oxygen?

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