Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Highly Civilized Man

What set him apart was his restless determination to extend the reach of his experience to ever more diverse pockets of humanity and to draw insights from those increasingly varied encounters in order to advance the larger epistemological quest to understand, explain, and classify the difference. The vast corpus of written work he produced during his lifetime constitutes a remarkable monument to that quest.
- The Highly Civilized Man, Dane Kennedy, p 270

Dane Kennedy's biography of Richard Burton, subtitled Richard Burton and the Victorian World, is a sympathetic yet dispassionate portrayal of a larger than life character who has been both over-romanticised and vilified in various biographies and elsewhere for more than a century since his death. The explorer and author, Sir Richard Francis Burton, is best remembered today for his clandestine visit to the holy city of Mecca and his later translations of the Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra. Kennedy, a historian at George Washington University, examines eight phases of Burton's public image, from "the Gypsy" to "the sexologist," with a keen eye for psychological detail. He shows how extensively Burton (1821–1890) worked to shape his own reputation by presenting himself as more of an outsider than he really was, and speculates with insight into the tension between Burton's embrace of exotic civilizations and his desire to be honored as a British hero. The book's chronological sequence has some pitfalls; for instance, a discussion of Burton's later anti-Semitic writings is separated from a long, thoughtful chapter on his pervasive racism, centered primarily on his experiences as a British consul in Africa. Many of his biographers have tended to portray Burton in Nietzschean terms as a heroic, independent spirit operating outside the bounds of social convention. Kennedy, however, sets out to counter this picture of isolation and, further, to provide insight into Burton's Victorian world. This reader sees the author achieving both aims. In seven short chapters (and an eighth called 'Afterlife'), Kennedy chronologically views Burton's peripatetic career as gypsy, Orientalist, impersonator, explorer, racist, relativist and sexologist. Burton emerges from Kennedy's biography as a man whose contribution the body of knowledge of other peoples during the Victorian era was considerable. Kennedy explains the reasons for Burton's almost manic immersion in other cultures and allows us to comprehend the concerns that characterised the Victorian engagement with difference. The result is a compact (less than three hundred pages) guide to Burton's life and his enduring image. I found the commentary on the changes in this image for better and worse over the years one of the best aspect of this biography. It has encouraged me to explore Burton's work further on my own.

The Highly Civilized Man by Dane Kennedy. Harvard University Press, Cambridge. 2005.

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