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Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer
Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer
Tim Jeal
Yale University Press, 2007
570 pp., $38.00

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Ted Olsen


Post-Postcolonial Biography

Stanley in Africa.

Americans of a certain age associate "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" not with Henry Morton Stanley but with Ernie the Muppet. In a 1983 Sesame Street sketch, Ernie and Bert trudge "hundreds of miles through the hot steaming jungle, hungry, thirsty, tired" to "find Dr. Livingstone." Ernie eagerly shouts his greeting to a fireman, then a cab driver, before finally finding the elderly blue physician ("Sam Livingston, jungle doctor," rather than the explorer-missionary David) giving a young girl a checkup. Finally, Ernie asks the question that has sent him on his quest: "What's up, doc?"

Stanley's phrase remains, for many people, the only thing they know of either man. It was a punchline almost as soon as his account of finding Livingstone appeared in the New York Herald on July 2, 1872. "The fact that Stanley would be ridiculed and patronized as a direct result of this greeting, which he almost certainly never uttered, is painfully ironic," Tim Jeal writes in his new biography of Stanley. "He invented it [later] because of his old insecurity about his background. Ill at ease among the British officers in Abyssinia, he had admired their laconic, understated style and had hoped to emulate it … . Henry had thought this the height of gentlemanly insouciance. Of course, many English gentlemen would have thought it unfriendly and absurd. But how could the insecure outsider have known this?"

Jeal does not gloss over Stanley's many errors, exaggerations, and lies, starting with the man's very identity; the Welsh-born John Rowlands invented his name and history as Stanley after a painful childhood. And that childhood, in Jeal's account, comes to explain nearly everything in Stanley's life, from his relationship with Livingstone to his exaggerated capital punishment of deserters to his giving in to his wife's pressure to become a Member of Parliament.

Jeal's use of "Henry" is telling. In his 1973 Livingstone—still the definitive work by which all other Livingstone biographies ...

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