Miles Harvey's Painter in a Savage Land.

Reading between the lines.
June 23 2008 8:10 AM

Why Implausibility Sells

The strange quest to write history in the absence of evidence.

Painter in a Savage Land

Nonfiction has to be true, of course, but it doesn't have to be believable, which may help explain why so many recent best-sellers are of the Ripley's variety. Coincidences that no novelist could get away with happen all the time in "real life." And while characters in fiction have to be consistent, people rarely are. A man wakes up at 50 after a quiet life in the suburbs and goes on a shooting spree or, a better option, decides to climb Mount Everest. Another leaves his wife and moves a few blocks away, buys a wig, and spies on her for 20 years—oops, no, that's Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Wakefield," a work of fiction purportedly based on a newspaper article.

Whole genres of nonfiction have sprung from this "stranger-than-fiction" terrain. There's "true crime," an odd moniker when you think about it, and all those perilous journeys such as Into Thin Air, A Voyage Long and Strange, and The Perfect Storm. And then there's the harder-to-name category of tales of intellectual eccentricity, sometimes with a crime thrown in, which Simon Winchester and Dava Sobel have made their own. Such books often have subtitles beginning with "the true story of" (Sobel's Longitude and Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm) or "the fantastic story of" (Winchester's The Man Who Loved China), as though implausibility is itself the major selling point.

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Miles Harvey, a former writer for Outside magazine, had a best-seller in 2000 with The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime, in which he managed to combine all three of the genres—true crime, perilous voyage, and tale of intellectual eccentricity—in the story of the enigmatic Gilbert Bland (a name you couldn't get away with in a novel), who razored rare maps from American libraries and sold them to unscrupulous dealers. In Painter in a Savage Land: The Strange Saga of the First European Artist in North America, he has done it again in a book that could bear a further subtitle: "The Strange Quest for a 'True' Saga When There Isn't Enough Evidence To Go On."

Maps, dealers in antiquities, and an enigmatic protagonist also figure in Painter in a Savage Land, which goes in search of new information about a shadowy 16th-century French Huguenot painter named Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, best known for his detailed botanical renderings of blossoms and fruit. "His story, I would learn, was stranger than fiction and sometimes more thrilling," Harvey writes, "a tale replete with shipwrecks, mutinies, religious wars, political intrigues, pirate raids, Indian attacks, famines, hurricanes, and mass murders." Whether Le Moyne's own life was "replete" with such high drama is less clear; the manuscript of the "riveting narrative of his adventures in the New World," as Harvey concedes, "has long since disappeared, leaving only Latin and German translations of questionable accuracy." Harvey's quest for plausible speculations amounts to a daring exploit—and one that inspires vivid prose but ends up putting a strain on the author himself, not just on the patience of his readers.

In 1564, Le Moyne accompanied a party of roughly 300 other French Protestants to found a colony, Fort Caroline, near present-day Jacksonville, Fla. He was apparently (if we believe the patchy visual documentation) an eyewitness to negotiations and altercations with local Indians, and he survived the destruction of the colony, the following year, by Spanish forces. Whether Le Moyne's drawings survived remains a mystery; engravings supposedly based on his watercolor sketches of the Timucua people were later published in Germany. Mannerist in style, the prints make the idealized Indians, with their sculpted limbs and flowing locks, look like they've stepped out of Michelangelo's Garden of Eden. Like so much else in his life, Le Moyne's original artwork has vanished, however, and inconsistencies in the engravings—the Indians brandish Brazilian weapons and wield European farm implements—suggest that he may have made later drawings from memory after his return to France or that the engraver "improved" on his originals. It's legitimate to wonder whether there actually were originals.

The missing paintings are just one of many "gaps" in the biographical record. Nothing is known of Le Moyne's 30 years of life before his departure for the New World, nor do we know what he did during the 15 years after his return, wounded and wretched after a near-miraculous Atlantic crossing without a pilot or sufficient food and water. What we do know is that the late-16th century was a dangerous time for French Protestants, when religious wars erupted into periodic fits of ethnic cleansing. Drawing on research of previous scholars, especially art historian Paul Hulton, Harvey picks up the trail when Le Moyne has moved his base of operations to London circa 1580, where he becomes an adviser to the great Sir Walter Raleigh, who had New World schemes of his own.

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