NEH Grant for Book That Explores Little-known Brazilian Expedition 

movie poster Matt Grosso

Photo credit: Penn Museum.

David Cline, history professor and director of the Center for Public and Oral History, was awarded one of 25 NEH Public Scholar grants that support publication for authors of popular, well-researched nonfiction books aimed at a broad public audience.

Cline’s forthcoming book “The Last Great Trip to Nowhere: A True Story of the Brazilian Jungle and the Final Gasps of the Victorian Age of Exploration” about a little-known 1931 Matto Grosso Expedition to Brazil, examines and highlights a true story that, Cline said, “is both incredible and ridiculous — thus my attraction to it.”

This book is the first full historical account of the expedition and adventure trip into the Brazilian jungle, along with an ill-fated and somewhat baffling scientific film. It takes place in the same part of Brazil famously explored by Col. Percy Fawcett and Theodore Roosevelt. The book features an eccentric mix of characters gathered together by the desire to film an ethnographic movie and make serious scientific inquiries “while also capturing the action of a jungle hunt worthy of a Tarzan film.”

“The book tells the story of the wild adventures that ensued throughout the expedition, but it also places them within the context of the Victorian age of exploration and the realities of early 20th century modern industrialized society,” Cline stated. 

It is a timely rumination on otherness, globalization, science, and wonder. “It highlights the kinds of discoveries being made that capture the human imagination,” Cline said. “The subject taps into a timeless universal need for fantasy and the imagining of other worlds.”

In 2017, Cline began exploring the subject while he was working with a grad student at Virginia Tech. The student, upon finishing his master’s, agreed that Cline continue with the project.

Cline has done significant research at the Penn Museum. He used a summer research grant from the College of Arts and Letters to spend time in the University of Pennsylvania archives as well as at Brandeis University. 

The NEH grant provides an opportunity for Cline to complete the manuscript. “I feel it is a culmination of what I’ve been leading toward for a very long time — to have the freedom to write something in a creative way,” Cline said. “When I went into history, my approach from the beginning was that I wanted to do research that wasn't simply sitting on a shelf. I want my work to be accessible.” 

Cline will travel to Brazil in 2022 to visit the site from where the expedition launched — at a former cattle ranch on the Paraguay River. “The ranch is still there, but it has been reclaimed by the jungle — and possibly a few ghosts,” Cline said.