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.

More than once Harvey compares Le Moyne's journey into unknown territory with his own "quest" in search of Le Moyne, and he keeps the reader guessing with a few too many suspense-creating clauses: "Their visit had lasted only three days. It would change the world." Harvey is a master of injecting suspense even into admissions of ignorance, which he turns into occasions for flamboyant prose and speculative improvisation, as in this "portrait" of the artist as a young man:

No portrait survives of the painter, then about 30 years old. We do not know whether he was slim or burly, tall or short, handsome or disfigured, his voice deep or nasal, his complexion olive or fair. We know only that he was thick-skinned, that some combination of good genes and good luck bestowed on him a genius for survival. We have no idea what a lover would have remembered about his touch or a fortuneteller would have discovered in his palm, yet we can guess that his hands were strong and nimble, skilled at crafting illustrations of infinitesimal detail yet also adept at handling a harquebus, the unwieldy predecessor to the musket. We cannot say whether he inherited dark eyes from the Gauls or blue from the Normans, but the more we learn about him, the more we are convinced that those eyes, whatever their color, took everything in and gave very little away.

Faced with so much uncertainty, Harvey does some legwork of his own, tracking down a possible relative of Le Moyne's who served as embroiderer to Mary Queen of Scots, and arguing that Le Moyne's art may be more closely tied to embroidery patterns than has been thought. Harvey fills out his own blank pages with accounts of the Florida congressman (and Ripley's Believe It or Not! contributor) who pushed through legislation to protect the supposed site of the original Fort Caroline, the archeologists who have tried in vain to find its foundations, and the successful bidder for a recently discovered book of Le Moyne's botanical images, who immediately razored them out, a la Bland, for quick sale.

Such space-filling ends up feeling strained and far-fetched, a bit like the unicorns and gold-filled mountains in maps of the terra incognita of the New World. Harvey aims to draw on our sense that truth is strange and bizarre things happen. And yet he ends up making it all seem contrived—rather than, as in life, fortuitous. To make all of this—well—embroidery seem worth the effort, Harvey does what he can to puff what he calls the "extraordinary career" of a relatively minor artist, reaching for words like stunning and sublime and uncanny to describe rather conventional work. Or what sounds like rather conventional work: Since little of it exists, it's actually rather hard to know just how to assess Le Moyne's work, which is why he is an ideal subject for an enterprise such as this.

Our recent literary history is notorious for uneasy trafficking along the badly policed borders of fact and fiction, with illicit memoirs and historical fiction that, like The Da Vinci Code, play fast and loose with the past. Harvey isn't remotely guilty of trying to pull a fabrication; he's all too upfront about what a fabrication it all is. Along the way he has, perhaps unwittingly, stumbled onto a genre of its own, the biography built of gaps: A.J.A. Symons' The Quest for Corvo is a masterpiece of this kind; another is poet Muriel Rukeyser's The Traces of Thomas Hariot, about an enigmatic intimate of Walter Raleigh (who happens to make a cameo appearance in Painter in a Strange Land).

The trick in such books is to preserve the gaps, letting the mystery open up until it's a metaphor for our troubled access to other lives, past and present. The appeal, when it's successful, is that it manages to make the most of the obduracy of fact and the artistry of fiction, creating a blend in which we're aware of the unpredictable mix of coincidence, unseen connections, and melodramatic juxtapositions that go into creating the messiness of life. Harvey's nervous attempt to fill the gaps defeats his purpose. Painter in a Savage Land ends up seeming dogged and contrived where it should be light and suggestive. By the end of the book, Harvey himself seems exhausted by the sheer effort of piecing together a plausible tale of Le Moyne's "long strange odyssey." "I confess," he writes, "that I've finally grown tired of him, too."

Christopher Benfey is Mellon professor of English at Mount Holyoke. His latest book, A Summer of Hummingbirds, about writers and artists in Gilded Age America, has just been published by the Penguin Press.

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