I’m a Steve Kemper fan. Four years ago, I read his A Labyrinth of Kingdoms with the sort of all encompassing fascination I brought to Gone with the Wind when I was thirteen. I’ve been eagerly awaiting his newest book, A Splendid Savage: The Restless Life of Frederick Russell Burnham, for at least two years.* Maybe longer. It did not disappoint.
A Splendid Savage tells the story of Frederick Russell Burnham (1861-1947), sometimes known as “the American scout”–a story with the dash of an H. Rider Haggard novel and a Saturday matinee thriller combined. The story of how he learned his astonishing woodcraft reads like a story from a boy’s magazine of the nineteenth century. His career as a scout and prospector carried him to every frontier and mining boom in the second half of the nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth–serving as a lens for looking at the larger stories of American expansion westward and Europe’s scramble for Africa.
Kemper successfully pieces together Burnham’s life from limited (and sometimes controversial) resources–a challenge that he never tries to gloss over, but that he handles with such skill that it is easy to forget . He sets his splendid savage firmly in historical contexts that include Indian wars and range feuds in the American Southwest, the Anglo-Boer wars, mining camps in south Africa, the Mexican sierras and the Yukon, Wall Street booms and busts, and London high society.
As Kemper says in the prologue, “Other men of his era had a few such adventures, but Burnham had them all.'” If you like real life historical adventure with a complicated, larger-than-life hero, A Splendid Savage will be your cup of bush tea.
And now, welcome Steve Kemper:
Burnham was a well-known figure in his lifetime, but is largely forgotten today. What led you to Burnham?
I was researching a magazine story about hyenas and came across a remark by the African hunter and explorer Frederick Courteney Selous, who said that he had never met anyone who knew as much woodcraft as the famous American scout Frederick Russell Burnham. I’ve been fascinated by American scouts and frontiersmen since boyhood, but Burnham’s name was new to me. A famous scout? In Africa? And he knew more woodcraft than the celebrated Selous?
Naturally I Googled him, and naturally he had a Wikipedia entry. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I tracked down his two memoirs. Reading them encouraged me to keep digging, including a visit to the rich Burnham archive at Yale. It seemed incredible that no one had written his biography. I felt a bit like Barbara Tuchman after she stumbled across “Czar Reed” in her research for The Proud Tower. Reed was so “writable,” she said in her essay “Biography as a Prism of History,” that it seemed impossible no one had written about him, and she started worrying that another writer might beat her to the punch. I understood the feeling.
Your titles are always wonderful. Can you tell me where you got the title A Splendid Savage?
It’s from a letter Burnham wrote to his mother in October 1903 as he was about to leave colonial East Africa for Britain. The letter sounds like a farewell both to Africa and to the frontier way of life that he loved. Here’s a portion:
The wildest and sweetest land I have ever seen. It is I fear passing from me forever. Sometimes I wish I had never learned to read or form any conception of duty, civilization, religion, for I would have been and am at heart a splendid savage, nothing more, and now I am to return to London—to swallowtails, the club, soft carpets, soft food, soft life, soft men and women.
One of the things that fascinated me most about the book was Burnham’s relationship with his wife, Blanche. They clearly loved each other, but her life as his wife could not have been easy.** You made the unusual and, to me at least, very appealing decision to include her experiences even when they were apart, instead of simply using her as a source for details about his life. What led you to make this choice?
Blanch was enormously important to Burnham, so their love story became a strong element in the book. Burnham was incapable of resting peacefully in domestic life, yet he depended on Blanche’s support and admiration. She was his partner, his psychological ballast, and his dream-catcher.
She was also an eyewitness to Burnham’s story. Her hundreds of letters to Burnham and other family members gave me invaluable intimate material.
Blanche was also fascinating in her own right. She enthusiastically accompanied Burnham to start new lives in rough places. She was strong, tough, and feminine, as adept with a pistol as with a decorative peacock feather. She was often deeply lonely because of Burnham’s prolonged absences. Her experiences and perspective let me illuminate Burnham from a different angle and illustrate the emotional costs of attaching oneself to a human whirlwind.
It seems like Burnham spent time at every frontier that opened in the second half of the nineteenth century, sometimes as a scout, sometimes as a prospector. What would you say was the driving force in his “restless life”?
No single force can explain his drive, but I think there were three main ones: a desire for risky action, for the possibility of financial fortune, and for the chance to influence the direction of history. Burnham loved frontiers because they offered the prospect of all three.
You deal very well with one of the hardest aspects of writing about nineteenth century travelers, adventurers, etc.: the question of racial attitudes. Could you talk a little bit about the complexity of Burnham’s position on race, and how you decided to deal with it?
As I got deeper into the research and learned more about Burnham, this worried me, not only because many of his racial attitudes now strike us as deplorable, but also because I wasn’t sure I could do justice to both this explosive issue and to Burnham. In other words, I had to figure out a way to be honest about Burnham’s racial attitudes without reducing him to them or having them overshadow everything else about him.
Wrestling with this forced me to expand my views and my understanding of the past, and to acknowledge the deep connections between Burnham’s time and ours. We’re still arguing about how to do this—witness the recent demonstrations at various universities about Cecil Rhodes, Woodrow Wilson, and John C. Calhoun.
I found a quotation from the historical novelist Hillary Mantel that helped: ”Learn to tolerate strange worldviews. Don’t pervert the values of the past. Women in former eras were downtrodden and frequently assented to it. Generally speaking, our ancestors were not tolerant, liberal or democratic. Your characters probably did not read The Guardian, and very likely believed in hellfire, beating children and hanging malefactors. Can you live with that?”
I could. My solution was to describe the forces that shaped Burnham within his historical context, while always keeping in mind that those forces had consequences for both good and ill, often simultaneously. I wrote an op-ed about this dilemma that might interest your readers: http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/162159.
*One of the benefits of knowing other writers is that you learn about books long before they come out. Of course, then you have to wait.
** In her own words: “It seems as though two tragedies and three wars were enough for any poor woman to bear.”