Now What?

I had a fascinating subject and, equally important, a book contract. Perfect.

Now what?

I’ve always written about people who are breathing. Barth was not. Neither was anyone who had known him. As a journalist I depend not only on what people say, but how they say it—tones, hesitations, verbal tics, facial expressions, gestures. I also depend on watching them interact with other people, and on what those people tell me about my subject. With Barth, none of this was available.

Courtesy of the Heinrich-Barth-Institut

Visual evidence was thin, too. I found a few photos of him and a couple of line drawings. In the photos, taken after his great journey, he looks intense and haughty, verging on arrogant. I pinned my favorite one (above) over my desk. For the next couple of years we stared at each other, often in exasperation. I always blinked first. I might as well mention here that Barth was indomitable, a flattering word for mulish.

So my main route into Barth and his world would have to be written words, his and others’. He left behind a lot of them, in many languages. In addition to German and English, he spoke and read French, Italian, Spanish, Turkish, Latin, Greek (ancient and modern), and Arabic. He had taught himself English and Arabic as a schoolboy in Hamburg, pursuits that his classmates mocked as absurd.

His linguistic prowess served him well in Africa. As he traveled through its many kingdoms, he learned the local languages so he could talk to everybody, from sultans and imams to camel-drivers and slaves. He became fluent in half a dozen African languages and collected vocabularies in forty. Scores of individual Africans appear in his work, distinguishing him from most nineteenth-century explorers, who passed through the continent deaf to its peoples and hence largely blind to its cultures. The voices collected by Barth enriched his work and could populate mine.

Eventually I found many other voices. The voluminous files about the expedition in the British National Archives offered glimpses of feuds, alarms, heroic measures, misunderstandings, false charges, and bureaucratic pettiness, as well as strong opinions about Barth. The journal of James Richardson, who led the mission into Central Africa, gave me an alternate perspective on the expedition’s first year and also a close-up (and often disapproving) view of Barth. An obscure biography in German by Barth’s intimate friend and brother-in-law, Gustav von Schubert, opened the door to Barth’s youth, and preserved his private responses to important events.

All of these helped me begin to see Barth, and to catch his cadences and personality. He never blinked, but he began to breathe.

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