Danger in the Congo! The unexplored Amazon! Long perceived as a place of mystery and danger, and more recently as a fragile system requiring our protection, the tropical forest captivated America for over a century. In The Maximum of Wilderness, Kelly Enright traces the representation of tropical forests–what Americans have typically thought of as “jungles”–and their place in both our perception of “wildness” and the globalization of the environmental movement.
In the early twentieth century, jungle adventure–as depicted by countless books and films, from Burroughs’ Tarzan novels to King Kong–had enormous mass appeal. Concurrent with the proliferation of a popular image of the jungle that masked many of its truths was the work of American naturalists who sought to represent an “authentic” view of tropical nature through museums, zoological and botanical gardens, books, and film. Enright examines the relationship between popular and scientific representations of the forest through the lives and work of Martin and Osa Johnson (who with films such as Congorilla and Simba blended authenticity with adventure), as well as renowned naturalists John Muir, William Beebe, David Fairchild, and Richard Evans Schultes. The author goes on to explore a startling shift at midcentury in the perception of the tropical forest–from the “jungle,” a place that endangers human life, to the “rain forest,” a place that is itself endangered.