The former executive editor of its magazine provides a candid history of the National Geographic Society’s vision and politics.
In 1888, wealthy Washington lawyer Gardiner Greene Hubbard gathered together a group of men and suggested forming a society to advance popular geographical knowledge through lectures and a magazine. He sowed the seeds of the National Geographic Society, but its crucial bearings were set after Hubbard’s death, when son-in-law Alexander Graham Bell reluctantly assumed the society’s presidency, extended the organization beyond the clubby confines of Washington, and pushed the magazine to the forefront of operations, championing pictorial content as a vital element of popular appeal. In this gratifyingly evenhanded chronicle of the society’s personalities and initiatives, Poole fairly and thoroughly profiles its leading figures, their strengths and many weaknesses, the positive and negative role played by nepotism. (Bell’s son-in-law, Gilbert H. Grosvenor, and grandson Melville Grosvenor ran the magazine and the society through the late 1960s.) The author also details the society’s sponsorship of such figures as Jane Goodall and the Leakeys, and the evolution of the magazine. Changes did not come quickly to the institution, least of all to the editorial content of the magazine; Poole frankly refers to lackluster prose and drifts into racism and anti-Semitism (which were institutional problems as well) that led in 1937 to a pro-Nazi article, “the biggest embarrassment in the history of the National Geographic Society.” Life at National Geographic got hopping in the 1980s, with a whole new group of editors and writers, among them Poole; although he writes with sureness of the organization’s past, it is in covering the past 20 years, with all the clashing of wills, that Poole guides readers with special acumen through the mazelike backroom politics.
A natty tour of the society’s house: closets, skeletons, and all.