There’s a moment relatively early on in David Grann’s spectacular new book, The Lost City of Z, where the author is imagining his subject, Percy Fawcett, during Fawcett’s early years in Ceylon. Fawcett, who would go on to become the world’s most famous explorer and the inspiration for countless fanatical quests to resolve the mystery of his fate, was at the time encamped in a military fort. Grann, recounting a strained moment between Fawcett and his eventual wife Nina, tells us that “For years, they had no more contact. Fawcett remained at the fort, where, high on the cliffs, he could see a pillar dedicated to a Dutch maiden who, in 1687, had leaped to her death after her fiancé deserted her. Nina, meanwhile, returned to Great Britain.”
I offer this as a simple example of what makes this book so exceptional. In Grann’s meticulous endnotes there is no account of his having recovered this information from Fawcett’s papers, which means that instead it was gleaned by his doing what truly great biographers do: imagine their subjects fully, so fully as to meaningfully reconstruct their behaviour within a verifiable environment. Grann the researcher uncovered this pillar, and he can be certain that Fawcett would have seen it; knowing Fawcett’s obsessive streak, he can be relatively certain that his explorer would be aware of the local history. Even if Fawcett didn’t know the pillar’s history, Grann does, and the latter’s research, in this moment and countless others throughout the book, opens history to these small moments of insight, of knowing, and—as in his subtle juxtaposition here of the very practical Nina with her more melodramatic husband—quiet, wise wit.
David Grann is a staff writer at the New Yorker, where he contributes some of the most intriguing, bizarre, and gripping stories the magazine runs—investigating the mysterious death of the world’s leading Sherlock Holmes expert; reporting on Frédéric Bourdin, a French con-artist whose impersonations of children were so successful, he was taken in by a Texas family as their long-missing teenage son; considering Mark Halperin, one of the most influential—and sometimes controversial—players in American political media. We met a few weeks ago, on a cold Toronto Monday morning.
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I don’t know if you’ve yet seen this week’s New York Times Magazine story on Freeman Dyson, the scientist who’s become, as they bill him, a global-warming heretic. But it put me in mind of the idea that there are always people emerging from within the scientific community—people like Fawcett—whose ideas work against the consensus of that community. I know you suggest that he’s the last of the individual explorers, but he wasn’t the last of the free thinkers. How do you see Fawcett echoed today?
I haven’t gotten that one before. I have to think about that. You know, I’m so rooted in history and I’m trying to think about it in terms of that. There are always people who chafe against the establishment, and the scientific establishment, so that element—you’re right, he was the last of the great territorial explorers in the sense that he was kind of the last to venture into these blank spaces on the map—and the circumstances of the map have simply changed so that people like Fawcett don’t exist—but his ethnological and archaeological theories were not necessarily constrained by space. They were subversive, and they went against the scientific establishment at the time. The thing that’s interesting about Fawcett and the judgment of history—I guess the real question is the judgment of history on these characters, and Fawcett for many years was mostly forgotten, even though he was once this enormously titanic figure. And one of the reasons he’s been forgotten is for so many years he was dismissed by the scientific establishment as a crank who simply sacrificed his life and the life of his kid…
…And his kid’s pal…
…and his kid’s pal, in pursuit of this kind of mad fantasy, and now evidence is emerging to show that at least some of the scientific clues that Fawcett pieced together were very prescient. So the question—because I did read the Times article when I flew here, though I didn’t get to the end yet—the question about all these characters when they butt up against the establishment, sometimes they are just cranks, or subversive, but sometimes the evidence will eventually bear them out. In the case of Fawcett, in many regards it did bear him out.
What interests me is when you see these guys who are celebrated—had Fawcett said on the 1925 expedition, ‘I’m just going to go find the source of this river,’ if that had been his ostensible reason, he wouldn’t have died in vain, and he wouldn’t have been criticized. So what interests me are these guys who come up celebrated—medalists from the Royal Geographic Society—and then are kind of renegades, almost publicly mocked.
That’s true, and when you read Fawcett’s letters, you see the anguish he experienced. You know, he didn’t covet money, that wasn’t one of the forces that drove him, and so many of the people in pursuit of these ancient civilizations were greedy—gold was their main impetus. With him it really wasn’t that. But he clearly did long to be venerated. When he went against the establishment—there are some people who really relish going up against the establishment, it’s sort of what gets them up in the morning, and being ostracized almost motivates them—with Fawcett, I think he was obsessed with his pursuit and believed with such utter conviction that he was correct that he insisted on going against the establishment, but I think it was extremely anguishing for him. And in that sense it did also motivate him, because I think he was determined to prove he was right, and disprove all his critics. So I do think it motivated him to take risks that were…especially towards the end of his life when he was 57, to go on that kind of a trip at that age is almost suicidal. The other thing about Fawcett that’s interesting that kind of gets at your question is that Fawcett was born in an age of amateurs. The Victorian age was a great age of amateurs and generalists. And the scientific establishment—even Darwin was an amateur, it wasn’t professionalized yet with graduate programs and PhDs. And by the end of Fawcett’s life, by 1925, the establishment had really begun to harden. So Fawcett marks this kind of transitional period in history. One of the reasons he was celebrated was because he came of age during the amateurs and he was relished as such, but then as the scientific establishment hardened he was seen as something of an anachronism and as a relic and he felt very marginalized.
You can almost feel the age of Romance fading as the book goes along. I hadn’t thought about that, in a sense it’s different than any situation could be today because it wasn’t professionalized. I hadn’t thought of it from the other perspective too—that even though he did have to go against the establishment he really regretted it. It puts me in mind of that kind of heartbreaking letter he writes to the RGS saying, you know, we finally received funding, and if you’d be open to being part of such an important expedition, it’s your last chance. And it’s kind of devastating.
It’s devastating, yes. The level of hurt he felt was extraordinary because he had once been so acclaimed, and really saw himself as born and bred by the RGS. He’s an interesting character because he’s a bundle of contradictions. He clearly rebelled in so many regards from British society and Victorian society and Edwardian society and kind of lived in the Amazon on his own and, as he would say, went Native, yet still part of him longed for…
…exactly, the acceptance.
Well, insisting on his title as Colonel. [Even though he only attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, Fawcett referred to himself as colonel throughout his later life.]
The funny thing about the title is that he is known universally as Colonel—everywhere! Anywhere you look it up. When I found out he wasn’t a Colonel, I was stunned. No one’s really brought that up, but every newspaper article for a century refers to him as Colonel.
Did you discover this, or did a New Yorker fact checker discover this?
I discovered it! I was very happy to discover it in an old letter, and I was quite amazed by it. Not that he had changed his title, because that seemed, you know, in his mania, seemed totally plausible, but that it had worked so well! We live in a world of frauds being unmasked all the time, and nobody had ever said, ‘You’re not a Colonel.’
I couldn’t believe it! And, I mean, you have no real choice as the author of the book, but you kind of lapse back into it yourself. You can’t correct it every time you quote someone referring to him as colonel.
Exactly. And in fact, early in the book I wondered, ‘What do I do? Do I refer to him as Colonel, because he wasn’t one!’
You note that at one point it took you two days to travel what took Fawcett a month, and that along the way much of the forest has been destroyed, leaving open plains in its place. Is the Amazon today inherently less terrifying than it was for Fawcett—you’re no longer, as you say elsewhere in the book, ‘under constant seige’? Not just in terms of it being pleasanter to sleep in a car than in the open air, but that the sort of psychic geography itself has been forever altered?
Yes and no. The Amazon is so large, and its enormity, for me, as I began to research the story, is something I had no awareness of—that it’s about the size of the continental United States. So there are so many Amazons. Now its enormity is what has always made it kind of haunt the imagination, and the impenetrableness of the wilderness has haunted because people couldn’t easily explore what was in it. It’s quite shocking now because they are deforesting realms about the size of Delaware or Rhode Island every six months. So the wilderness is being transformed in a way and with a rapidity that it had never been transformed before. People have manipulated the Amazonian landscape before, but now they’re not so much manipulating the jungle as they are changing the jungle, and that is a huge leap. So it’s clearly changing the landscape. Now, that being said, it’s such a large area that there are still enormous wilderness areas, and the frontier remains a place that’s something out of a Cormac McCarthy novel. And even before you enter some of the deep wilderness areas, it’s like the last frontier. Violence that goes beyond anything we can imagine, slavery, massacres, it’s a very violent, almost mythic landscape, even on the frontier, and as you move to the wilderness areas, once you enter the jungle, it’s the jungle. So the terrors and the constant siege still remain, and even with your Satellite phone—and one of the things I tried to do is show how expeditions and exploration has changed, clearly it’s not the same as in Fawcett’s day, you go in with vaccinations and you have your malaria pills, so the siege is never quite the same. That being said, the jungle is still the jungle. Even in the Brazilian Amazon, the government estimates you have about sixty uncontacted tribes. So the question is a bit of a paradox. It is changing, rapidly changing, and a century from now this conversation might be very different. But at the moment, because of its vastness, there are still elements that are very similar.
At the end of the second chapter, you described James Lynch as finding the Amazon to be the most beautiful place he’d ever seen. It’s a tension that works throughout the book—not just in the idea of it as counterfeit paradise—but it seems that, despite their misery, many of the men you track through history found it beautiful. Is it that beauty that draws them? If it was just as treacherous, just as wonderfully rich with strange life and possibility, but it looked like, say, central Illinois, would our fascination exist? If it were just as scientifically invigorating, but astheticaly boring, would people still be interested?
One of the things I try to explore in the book is what is real and what is the imagination—and the Amazon in the imagination has always been one of two extremes. One is the Green Hell, an extraordinarily treacherous region which had its own temptation to people, the kind of human against nature in its most terrifying element—I think that itself as a seduction for men—and so that notion’s in the Western imagination. And the other notion was much more idyllic, this kind of paradisical realm, this last Eden, this primeval forest, this place that might even contain the Garden of Eden. So I think both those images haunted the imagination, and you can see it traced throughout writing from the earliest people to go in. You have these people searching for El Dorado, this golden, glimmering, almost mystical kingdom, and yet dying of disease and starvation as they confront what they describe in their writing as the Green Hell. Then you see both, and they both, I think, had their allure and attraction. The question is always, ‘what is the actual Amazon, in its reality?’ And one of the things I try to do in the book is show that the Amazon is a real landscape and an imaginary landscape and that the two are sometimes the same, but not always the same.
You suggest that your articles have in common the thread of obsession, that they “are about ordinary people driven to do extraordinary things…[people] who get some germ of an idea in their heads that metastasizes until it consumes them.” Beyond that very basic common ground, what would you say Percy Fawcett has in common with Mark Halperin?
Oh, the journalist Mark Halperin? Well, they both, oddly enough, wow, unusual question. Well, Mark is obsessed with inside dope and information and finding out something that other people don’t know, and being the first to get it, and Fawcett was driven, on a much grander scale, to get information people didn’t know and be the first to find it and bring back some sort of revelatory dope.
What would he have in common with Frédéric Bourdin [the French child imposter Grann profiled last summer in the New Yorker]?
The common thread is, again, obsession. The nature of their obsessions are very different. Frédéric was consumed with being an imposter, creating identities, to a point that he almost lost his own identity. So his obsession—which ultimately did consume him—began early on as just a persona in a very casual way. But kind of escalated, and became both more daring and dangerous. And Fawcett’s obsession with finding this ancient civilization also began almost…casually isn’t the right word…
Yes, exactly, by happenstance, and then his interest grows and grows and it also escalates and becomes more dangerous and, ultimately, deadly.
I was thinking about it in terms of, Frédéric’s one of the people you write about whose interested in creating identities in a way that, on some level, Fawcett must have been too. He sought to train at the RGS. I take the point that he wasn’t a real self-promoting guy, but he certainly had fashioned something of an identity.
Yeah, and, you know, in both their imaginations—in Frédéric’s and Fawcett’s imaginations—they both also have something idyllic that they’re searching for. In Fawcett’s case Z became, as time went on, less of a purely scientific endeavor and more of a utopian, fantastical realm in which he was seeking almost transcendence. And Frédéric in his own way was seeking not the perfect city but the perfect identity, the perfect family, and a kind of transcendence, though just as elusive.
What would you say Fawcett has in common with John McCain?
Well again, ambition, and pursuit of a goal that drives them to extraordinary lengths, even in their older age, and personal sacrifice in pursuit of the goal. Obviously for Fawcett it’s the goal, the ambition of finding the great explorer to find the City of Z, and for McCain this great desire to become president, which had driven him for an awfully long time—perhaps just as long. And, in the end, I think the pursuit of their ambition made them do things that were risky…
…they were both problematized by the choice of an inexperienced sidekick late in the game [on his final journey, Fawcett was accompanied only by his young son and his son’s best friend]…
…and both made compromises in pursuit of the goal. They both also saw themselves as slightly mythic characters.
I feel like if Fawcett were alive today, he’d be wearing a bomber jacket.
Yeah. And driving a Corvette.
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Part two of this interview—including discussion of Sherlock Holmes, spiritualism, Theosophy, and some of Fawcett’s more outrageous theories—can be read here.