In October of 1869, a "cruel, sexist, racist, degenerate, alcoholic" newspaper publisher--"a monster in the making"--received a young reporter in his Paris offices.
The reporter, painstakingly selected for one of the most harebrained commissions in the history of yellow journalism, has been variously described as a "half-mad, self-righteously brutal, paranoid, sado-masochistic professional liar." On his good days.
His assignment, if he chose to accept it: to locate, in the shrouded center of an untracked continent, an itinerant, self-styled man of God, himself called "mendacious," "violent" and "a colossal failure."
In November of 1871, the search--perhaps the highest adventure in an age of explorer as superstar--culminated in a simple, somewhat fatuous greeting:
"Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"
The one-convert missionary, of course, was the eccentric David Livingstone.
The publisher was James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald, a pampered, thoroughly unbalanced mogul who once terminated an engagement by urinating into the fireplace of his fiancee's parents.
The journalist/explorer was Henry Morton Stanley, quite simply the toughest man who ever lived.
Together--and by way of wildly divergent motives--the unlikely trio engendered profound changes in the future of Africa, and indeed of the world.
Through the publicly scorned but privately scarfed pages of Bennett's journal, Stanley relayed the "lost" missionary's elemental message of base cruelty and bartered souls. The ensuing sensation played a major role in arresting, then eliminating the slave trade.
Conversely, Stanley's dispatches and books led to the opening of the "Dark Continent" to the civilizing forces of 19th-Century Europe--a civilization from which Africa is only now beginning to recover.
None lived to see the mixed blessing of their collaboration. Livingstone died, kneeling, in his beloved Africa, his heart buried under a tree and his body--cured, dried and wrapped in bark--carried to the coast by two faithful servants in an astonishing nine-month trek. Bennett, having dissipated a $30 million inheritance, finally made his own obit page, to no discernible gnashing of teeth.
Stanley, whose two subsequent expeditions were perilous beyond the comprehension of our padded age, was buried in England under a headstone engraved in Swahili: Bula Matari (Smasher of Rocks).
It was Stanley's favorite epithet--grander to him than his knighthood at the hands of Queen Victoria, grander than the medals and plaudits of a planet--but it was not enough. No honor would ever compensate for that other title, the one bestowed at birth in the registry of a Welsh village:
"John Rowlands, Bastard."
It is the flaming rage between bastardy and burial--the combustion that fueled Stanley's preternatural determination--that has lured biographers for more than a century. And as too many contemporaries learned at the side of Stanley, it remains a fatal attraction.
Two more authors this year, each with his own chutzpah, break their lances on the legend. Frank McLynn's way is virtually a nonstop condemnation of the preposterous little Welshman, albeit a damnation delivered in slack-jawed wonder. John Bierman's approach is easier on both writer and reader, a rousing narrative that makes Homer's yarns look like spun wool.
Both authors agree in fact but differ in interpretation. The Stanley of McLynn, who finds a deviate under every hippo chip, is a latent homosexual of sado-masochistic outlet. Bierman's explorer suffered from "innate sexual ambivalence" bordering on the prudish. While Bierman lauds Stanley's love of literature, McLynn cavils at "a fetishist regard for books."
Both agree, however, that Stanley's implacable challenge to life was formed--calloused beyond balm--by a mortifying childhood, perhaps by one day in particular.
Stanley was born in 1841 to a Welsh servant girl (of "a degree of promiscuity bordering on amateur prostitution," adds the ever-helpful McLynn). His father remains unknown, though it was certainly not John Rowlands, the town drunk who lent his name for the price of a pint.
Unwanted by any relative (least of all his mother), he was bounced among them until 1847 when the boy, barely 6, was told he was being brought to his Aunt Mary's farm to live. Instead, he was deposited at St. Asaph's workhouse. The iron gate clanged shut. No one ever paid him a visit. He remained there until he was 15.
If there was anything worse than being in an 1840s workhouse--with its attendant floggings, prostitution, sodomy--it was being a bastard in a workhouse. For Stanley: "Cain's hellish mark was stamped on my forehead."