Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Weird Tales-The Gorilla Connection

In 1924, a young girl of Chicago discovered science fiction in the pages of Weird Tales magazine. She had already seen a real-life fantasy land. Her mother had written about it:

     We were in a fairy forest, trees gray with lichen and green with cushioning moss, trees dripping with ferns and garlanded with vines. When the sun shone through that forest the moss gleamed with golden richness. There were trees with sharp, down-pointed leaves, a russet glow at the leaf stalk that hung like a jeweled filagree against the tropic blue of the sky. There were clouds of pink, orchid seeming flowers, that were not parasites, like orchids, but grew in silver green bushes, and everywhere were snowy reaches of wild carrot and wild parsley, and the familiar pungency of crushed catnip.

    There are no words to describe that forest. Pictures can give but faint clews. It was a magic spot. Arthur Rackham has dreamed of some of its moods, some of its wizard trees with long, curved arms, its crooked, outspread groves, like magicians in flight; but its color, its delicacy, the infinite fragility of its moods, the seduction of every line, the subtle revelation of its lights, are beyond dreams.

Joseph Faus and James Bennett Wooding wrote the first gorilla story, "The Extraordinary Experiment of Dr. Calgroni," in Weird Tales. It was published in March 1923, in the year before that little girl of Chicago first came upon the magazine. I speculated last time that gorillas made their way into popular fiction by way of the Tarzan stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the first of which was published in 1912. I wondered, though: could gorillas have been in the news in 1922, in the run-up to the issuing of "The Unique Magazine"? I did a search, and the answer is yes, they were. I can't say that gorillas in the news were an inspiration for Faus and Wooding. But I found something more definitive and much more interesting.

The mother of that young reader of Weird Tales was American author, traveler, and later war correspondent Mary Hastings Bradley (1882-1976). In 1921-1922, Mary traveled in Africa with her husband, Herbert Edwin Bradley (1871-1961), a big game hunter in Africa and a real estate developer in Chicago, and her uncle, the taxidermist, explorer, naturalist, and conservationist Carl E. Akeley (1864-1926). The purpose of their trip was to learn about gorillas in their natural habitat in the Virunga Mountains of East Africa and the Belgian Congo. In her travels, Mary Hastings Bradley returned dispatches for syndication in newspapers in the United States. In 1922, her book On the Gorilla Trail was published.

Mary and Herbert Bradley took their six-year-old daughter with them on their 1,000-mile trip through Africa. There are pictures of her in old newspapers, sometimes dressed as a little explorer, posing with the chief of the Kikuyu, standing next to the Congo River, seated on a reel of cable on board ship on the return of the party to the United States. There are several pictures of her in On the Gorilla Trail as well. Her name was Alice Hastings Bradley. Born on August 24, 1915, she was, like her mother, an author. She wasn't known by her unmarried name, though, nor even by her married name, Alice Bradley Sheldon, sometimes just plain Alice Sheldon. Instead the world knew her--and knows her still--as the science fiction author James Tiptree, Jr.

A snippet of a newspaper feature article, "Studying Man's Big Brother in His Jungle Home," syndicated in American newspapers in early 1922. This version is from the San Francisco Examiner, January 29, 1922, whole page number 86. Shown here are Mary Hastings Bradley, her daughter Alice Hastings Bradley, and her uncle, Carl E. Akeley. There are more pictures in this article. I have left them out, for they show gorillas that had been shot in the course of the expedition. During this expedition, Akeley is supposed to have come over to the idea that gorillas should be protected rather than hunted. He helped to persuade King Albert I of Belgium to establish the first national park in Africa for just that purpose. It is still in existence as Virunga National Park.

Original text copyright 2023 Terence E. Hanley

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