Saturday, May 28, 2011

Jay Kirk: Kingdom Under Glass

I was recently advised by my mom that I am reading books that are just a little too heavy. I'm not exactly sure why she thinks that, given my recent selection. I'm thinking she's right- the selections have been heavy, but I'm not sure about too heavy. I told her that rather than heavy, I was going with bizarre this time. Fitting, right? "Kingdom Under Glass" is the story of Carl Akeley, the man who modernized the art of taxidermy. Taxidermy really does seem like an art, as Jay Kirk portrays it, not just something weird that you see on the side of the road in out of the way towns, or in creepy TV crime shows. Akeley also invented a movie camera that helped put taxidermy out of business: he developed it to help him preserve images of animals in the field so he could come back and build more accurate models for people to see, but people didn't need accurate models when they had videos to watch.

In some ways, Kirk presents Akeley as totally a man of his times: he went on safaris, pulled himself up by his bootstraps, and is in awe of the manliness of Teddy Roosevelt. He sees the world shrinking, but can still see ways to improve it, and doesn't let much get in his way. He fights through fever after fever and fights off a lion and an elephant, steals someone's wife, ditches her when it's convenient, and finds a suitable one shortly thereafter. In other ways, he's slightly ahead of his times: his first wife is very much his artistic partner (though it's not clear that she gets any credit for her work), and both wives are active participants in his safaris. He is not content to stay with the status quo of taxidermy techniques, or with his social class (rural farmer).

Basically, before Akeley, taxidermy was all about skinning animals as fast as possible and stuffing them with whatever was on hand, usually sawdust. It was crude and impermanent. Women wore taxidermied birds on their hats, so there was a huge market to kill them at large rates, and stuff them and sell them as fast as possible. The skinning and stitching and stuffing was obviously, and the animals didn't resemble their live versions. Akeley didn't like this, and set out to progressively make the animals more and more lifelike, eventually changing the art to end up as we know it now: the dioramas of animals in situ in natural history museums- whole families of elephants, giraffes, deer, etc. His first wife, Minnie, painstakingly collected the flowers and grasses and bugs that would really live with the live animals, and the assembled lifesize scenes with the skins of animals they had hunted. This became the museum standard, and Akeley (not his wife) became a celebrity. He also became somewhat of a preservationist: while hunting in Africa, he realized that elephants and gorillas were not going to be around long enough to preserve them, either stuffed or any other way, and was influential in the building of a national park in Belgian Congo. (This didn't stop him from being compuslive in finding "the right" specimen, and killing many in search of that one.)

Kirk writes in a historical-fiction type tone, filling in a lot of blanks, and bringing us along for Akeley's life story. The book is a pleasant read, and for most of it, fast paced. There's a few points where it lags while filling in historical details on eugenics, etc, and a few threads left too far open: Akeley's first wife is described as insane, but was she? What were the effects of all of the fevers and monkey bites that both Akeley and his wife suffered? Was this the cause of the bizarre behavior on both their parts? The fiction-style doesn't leave a lot of room for analyzing on Kirk's part, but it seems like with the amount of research that went into this book, he's the man to do it. A nice light read; I'm back to the heavy stuff.


Anonymous said...

Bizarre? I don't this this book is "bizarre"...hey, I am the one who wanted to send Kozi to a taxidermist to be preserved.....But the book did seem "lighter" than the last few.