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The Lost City of Z

David Grann follows the lost trail of Amazon explorer Percy Fawcett.

By Jeremy Kutner / February 25, 2009



Fawcett Expedition: To Penetrate Land Whence None Returned.” The year was 1925 and the press was rabid with anticipation: Someone was setting off to conquer the Amazon.

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At the time, the rainforest was one of the world’s few remaining mysteries: a magical site believed to be teeming with danger, savage natives, boundless riches, and ancient civilizations. So when the strapping British explorer Col. Percy Harrison Fawcett – accompanied by his 21-year-old son Jack and Jack’s best friend Raleigh – plunged into the Amazon in search of a golden treasure city known only as Z, it seemed the stuff of legends.

But Fawcett and his party never returned.

In his first book, New Yorker journalist David Grann, relies on Fawcett’s never-before published diaries to pick up the trail of one of the most enduring mysteries of the early 20th century. In the gripping The Lost City of Z, Grann toggles between a biographic portrait of the near-mythic figure of Fawcett and his own modern-day attempt to reconstruct the ill-fated expedition.

Long before Fawcett’s death in the Amazon, he had emerged as the ultimate Victorian man. Tall, strong, and fearless, he entered his prime soon after the turn of the 20th century. It was a time, Grann writes, when, “Britain, with the death of Queen Victoria and the rise of Germany, had grown anxious about its empire.” Fawcett was seized upon by the British press as “the perfect counter point to the national crisis of confidence.”

He had earned his countrymen’s awe by not only bravely charting courses through unexplored land in South America, but by doing it fast, and doing it in style.

Fawcett was a consummate scientist, a loyal servant of the crown, a heroic veteran of World War I, and a man who “rarely, if ever, seemed to get sick.” He scoffed at specialists and reviled those who could not keep their composure in the face of an anaconda attack.

He was, in Grann’s words, an English gentleman, of the old school and of the highest order.

But underlying such reverence, Grann notes, are the sad strains of Europe’s colonialist impulses.

Exploration, in the English sense, entailed taming and civilizing. In the Amazon, this work had long-lasting consequences – the conversion of the natives by missionaries, the introduction of industry (especially rubber), the exploitation of natural resources – all marked by the notion of making “modern” that which was “savage.”

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