As I noted in the previous post, I was invited to attend the latest Thurber House Evening with Authors event featuring Carl Hoffman last night. Hoffman is the author of Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art:
The mysterious disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in New Guinea in 1961 has kept the world and his powerful, influential family guessing for years. Now, Carl Hoffman uncovers startling new evidence that finally tells the full, astonishing story.
Despite exhaustive searches, no trace of Rockefeller was ever found. Soon after his disappearance, rumors surfaced that he’d been killed and ceremonially eaten by the local Asmat—a native tribe of warriors whose complex culture was built around sacred, reciprocal violence, head hunting, and ritual cannibalism. The Dutch government and the Rockefeller family denied the story, and Michael’s death was officially ruled a drowning. Yet doubts lingered. Sensational rumors and stories circulated, fueling speculation and intrigue for decades. The real story has long waited to be told—until now.
Retracing Rockefeller’s steps, award-winning journalist Carl Hoffman traveled to the jungles of New Guinea, immersing himself in a world of headhunters and cannibals, secret spirits and customs, and getting to know generations of Asmat. Through exhaustive archival research, he uncovered never-before-seen original documents and located witnesses willing to speak publicly after fifty years.
In Savage Harvest he finally solves this decades-old mystery and illuminates a culture transformed by years of colonial rule, whose people continue to be shaped by ancient customs and lore. Combining history, art, colonialism, adventure, and ethnography, Savage Harvest is a mesmerizing whodunit, and a fascinating portrait of the clash between two civilizations that resulted in the death of one of America’s richest and most powerful scions.
Interesting, right? So I headed over to the Columbus Museum of Art to catch the event. I was prepared for a somewhat brief introduction of the book and what led to its being written followed by a reading. But instead what Hoffman presented was more of a an audio-visual report on the work that led to the book and why he wrote it the way he did. He presented photographs, documents, and his own video snippets to explain the story at the center of the book and his journey to tell it. In a theater setting with a large screen it was quite interesting and engaging.
Of course, the mystery at the heart of the story is pretty compelling by itself but I thought it was a creative and very engaging way to get the audience to care about the book and to better experience the story (this is the key to persuasion, BTW). By the end of the night, you really wanted to read the book so you could fill in all the tantalizing details Hoffman purposefully left out. Tricky, no?
It was also a very interesting perspective on the sort of immersive journalism Hoffman practices. After his first visit to Asmat, he realized he couldn’t just drop into this culture and people and get them to tell him their secrets and history. Not only would it not work but it wouldn’t be respectful of the people involved and their culture. So he took a crash course in Indonesian and learned as much about their culture as he could before spending a month living with them. It was only after spending this much time immersed in their lives, habits and rituals that he could attempt to tell their story and communicate with them, and they with him. In a sense, Hoffman had to approach this final aspect of the mystery through anthropology first and then journalism.
This video trailer will give you a taste:
Anyone with an interest in historical mysteries, the intersection of primitive art and colonialism, or just long form journalistic storytelling should check this one out.