Where have all the heroic men gone? U.S. travel journalist Julian Smith may have unearthed a compelling subject in Ewart “the Leopard” Grogan, a 19th-century British adventurer, yet it leaves one longing for a contemporary equivalent.
Grogan’s epic walk from Cape Town to Cairo to win the hand of his true love, Gertrude, is a heroic odyssey. The recently engaged Smith embarks on a solo trip through Burundi, the Congo, Rwanda and Sudan to combine Grogan’s 1898 trek with his own take on Africa and romantic courtship. Smith opts to navigate contemporary Africa in just two months by bus, plane, motorbike and boat. En route, he pauses in urban locales to respond to emails from Laura, his anxious fiancée. In contrast, Grogan was incommunicado with Gertrude for over two years.
This bisected narrative begs comparison between the two men: Grogan’s bold personality eclipses his timid stalker, Smith, who is afraid to leave his passport with a government clerk. When Grogan was at Cambridge, “he refused to run with either the intellectual ‘smugs’ or the sporty ‘pigs.’ When the Fabian Society invited him to join, he told them he wanted nothing to do with such a ‘very unwholesome gang of chinless men and bosomless women.’ ” Grogan experimented with art school, scaled mountain ranges and signed up to protect the British colony of Rhodesia. In Africa, the die was cast.
The vicarious nature of Smith’s narrative leaves one curious to seek out Grogan’s From Cape to Cairo: The First Traverse of Africa From South to North. Smith’s only insurmountable obstacle—pre-wedding jitters—is more akin to the anxious Vince Vaughn sizing up the nearest exit in Wedding Crashers than the unwavering Grogan facing down a bull elephant, battling cannibals or white-knuckling it with malaria.
The postmodern tendency to retrace the steps of bolder, braver and more iconoclastic characters reflects a serious crisis in contemporary masculinity. Smith’s urge to resist a compatible marriage may be the only territory left for this declawed male to conquer.