Time Reading Program: The Sea and the Jungle

Cover illustration by Leo & Diane Dillon.

Cover illustration by Leo & Diane Dillon, a prolific husband and wife illustrator team. The Dillons won numerous awards for their illustrations of both chapter and picture books in their long 50-year career, including the Caldecott (twice) and the Hugo.

My latest read from my ever-growing pile of Time Reading Program books is a travelogue, The Sea and the Jungle by H. M. Tomlinson. Written in 1912, it recounts the journey of the author from the drudgery of his rainy, gray London life across the stormy and unpredictable Atlantic on a steam ship to Brazil, where he then travels 2,000 miles by same ship up the Amazon into the jungle. The route he took was a malarial hotbed and many did not survive this particular stretch of river. Luckily, he lived to tell about it.

As I read, I marveled at how the cover on this book illustrates the journey and the author’s state of mind. From left (the back of the book), the author/man in his tidy suit is perfectly unengaged and disinterested with the looming city and industry behind him. He looks directly at us as his journey has not yet begun.

But once on the ship and crossing the Atlantic, he is utterly swept into the elements and his experience. I love how his clothing are rendered in motion along with the water, and you can see how rough the sea voyage was. The entire frame in motion and the man’s face looks to the right, towards his destination, with the wind in his face gripping the rail in determination. Somehow these eyeless figures carved in wood manage to convey the emotion of the man.

In the next frame on the cover, he arrives in Brazil. I see this frame as his first landing in the town of Para, at the mouth of the Amazon. He looks hesitant and unsure the way he holds his luggage, like a curious but cautious new arrival. The sun and its intense tropical heat dominate the image as it does throughout the entire second half of the book. Again, he looks to the right towards his destination.

Lastly, he faces us. He has arrived in the heart of the Amazon. Instead of the city, his backdrop is dense, nearly impenetrable jungle. Unlike the man who faced us in the beginning, his clothes are wrinkled into folds that mimic the vegetation. He is one with his environment–he even holds a branch that is nearly camouflaged with this jacket. His face looks satisfied if a bit weary and jaded, and you can tell the journey is complete.

What brilliant illustration! Several of the TRP covers are by the Dillons, though all remarkably different. This cover, from 1964, is one of their earliest chapter book covers.

Tomlinson is witty, erudite writer. His style harkens more to the 19th century than to the 20th. His prose is dense and circuitous, and you have to read closely to follow his train of thought. He is an avid and excellent user of the semi-colon, and boasts a vocabulary that had me turning to my dictionary more than once (and noting some good Scrabble words to boot). Despite the intense close reading his style requires, you are rewarded with clever insight and keen observation.

I am always bracing myself in an early 20th century encounters with a white man and “natives” for ugly prejudices and commentary to arise, but Tomlinson avoided these entirely. He wasn’t disinterested in the inhabitants of the villages he found on the Amazon, but he also didn’t play amateur anthropologist. If anything, he was more interested in recounting the tales of fellow white travelers or seamen, or his observations of natural phenomena which dominated his experience and the book.

A few memorable passages or lines:

I will never believe again the sea was ever loved by anyone whose life was married to it. It is the creation of Omnipotence, which is not of human kind and understandable, and so the springs of its behavior are hidden. The sea does not assume its royal blue to please you. It’s brute and dark desolation is not raised to overwhelm you; you disappear then because you happen to be there. It carries the lucky foolish to fortune, and drags the calculating wise to strewn bones.

If I could sing, I would sing the banana. It has the loveliest leaf I know…A world could not be old on which such a plant grows. It is sure evidence of earth’s vitality.

I suppose in a few years those remote wilds will be cleared of Indian, jungle, and malaria–though  I do not see how it can be done–will have no further interest for us, because it will possess many of the common disadvantages of civilizations benefits: it will be a point on a regular route of commerce.

 Here on the Madeira, I had instead a vision of the earth as a great and shining sphere. There were no fences and private bounds. I saw for the first time an horizon as an arc suggesting how wide is our ambit. That bare shoulder of the world effaced regions and constellations in the sky. Our earth had a celestial magnitude. It was warm, a living body.

3.5/5
personal copy
First published 1912, E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
Reprinted 1964 by Time Incorporated

 

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