E
Jan/Feb 2007 Reviews & Interviews

Searching the Hearts of Explorers

Review by Colleen Mondor


Buy now from Amazon! For his incisive history of the search for the Northwest Passage, author Martin Sandler latched onto a little known hook concerning the lost explorer John Franklin. Although Franklin's tragic expedition and the many mysteries surrounding it are relatively well known to polar history fans, the fate of the H.M.S. Resolute, one of the ships sent to rescue him, will likely come as a surprise. Sandler uses the discovery of the ghost ship as a jumping off point to discuss not only Franklin's possible motivations but a whole host of missions sent both before and after his death. Quite remarkably, the author manages to give a thorough and highly readable report on Arctic history in 270 pages (with detailed chapter notes!). It's a very impressive accomplishment and makes Resolute one of the best books you can find for armchair explorers.

Sandler begins with the 1855 discovery by an American whaling ship of the Resolute, which had broken free of the ice and set adrift a year after its crew was ordered to leave it behind. The ship ends up serving as a symbol of American and British loyalty, extending up to the present day after it was eventually broken apart and wood from its decks was used to construct a desk that was presented to President Rutherford B. Hayes and later most famously used by President John Kennedy. President Clinton had it returned to the Oval Office and it remains there today. The Resolute is only one small part of the story here though, as Sandler jumps back more than thirty years to show when the hunt for the Northwest Passage began in earnest. He narrows his focus to the men engaged in that exploration, both those who raised funds and organized expeditions and more significantly, those who embarked on them. He writes:

"They were a special breed, these men who sought the passage. They wanted to be heroes and for the most part, they were. Driven by a noble obsession, they were willing to leave homes, wives and families behind for the credit of finding something new. Most had no choice. 'They cannot help it,' England's former Lord Chancellor, Lord Henry Brougham explained. 'It is in the blood.'"

Whatever their reasons, there was a long line of men willing to brave the elements in search of the fastest way to Asia. Whether it is more impressive that they did this while largely disdaining the methods of survival practiced for centuries by the people who actually lived in the Arctic is questionable, (at some point one wonders almost if being British means by definition being absurdly stubborn), but reading about their trials and tribulations is thrilling stuff. Sandler keeps the narrative moving but spends enough time with each major player to give the reader a solid picture of who they were and they differed from each other. Franklin, of course, becomes the most memorable as so many others became obsessed with him. His wife Lady Jane Franklin is also a gripping character in her own right and one wonders in the end just how much blood (American and British) she was willing to risk to find the bodies of her husband and her crew. She had plenty of volunteers to go looking for those graves though and in truth, as Sandler shows, there are still historians and scientists who wouldn't mind finding that last bit of evidence that would explain just what went wrong the doomed expedition.

As a picture of 19th century exploration, polar or otherwise, Resolute is hard to beat. The author is never bogged down in details or minutia and readers will be hard pressed not to be caught up in the ideals and conflicts of each of the expeditions. Sandler also provides a quick final chapter explaining what happened to all of the memorable personalities he covers in the book, something readers will appreciate. (I've often wondered why more historians don't do this—readers get caught up in the lives of all of the men and what to know how they lived after their moments of fame and fortune.) In the long list of polar titles I own, Resolute would easily be one of the first I would loan out to the curious reader. It's interesting, involving and smartly written. This is an author at the top of his game and one who knows how to make history come alive.

Simon Nasht brings scientist and explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins to life in is his biography, The Last Explorer. Wilkins has been woefully overlooked by most polar studies, largely because he did his great work in the twentieth century and was Australian, thus leaving him out of the fervent period of Northwest Passage voyages celebrated by authors like Sandler. The other thing about Wilkins is that he wasn't interested in breaking records or being first—this was no Robert Peary looking for a place to drop a flag. Wilkins wanted to find ways to better understand and research meteorology, a subject dear to his heart after growing up in drought-stricken and devastating conditions. His exploration was always and only for the purposes of science, which makes him a very unusual man in polar exploration history.

Even for readers completely unfamiliar with Wilkins's polar exploits, which included the first flights over the Arctic and Antarctic with Alaskan pilot Ben Eielson, Nasht's book will quickly become irresistible. Wilkins is a very compelling subject as he lived the kind of life that makes nonfiction read like the best of novels. As a young man he worked as a cameraman touring distant parts of the world to make newsreels for an exotic starved public (this was in 1911 and 1912, as the movie age was in its infancy). He traveled from Africa to Russia and ended up on Vihjalmur Stefansson's tragic polar expedition where he moved up from photographer to one of the lead positions in the group. This was his first taste of the north and it captivated him from the very beginning.

The timing was off for any sort of expedition of his own however, as Wilkins soon found himself at war along with most of the rest of the world, photographing the horrors of the Western Front. He was highly decorated for his actions in France and gained an enormous amount of respect from his fellow soldiers. Nasht's attention to these parts of his early life—all of which occurred before he found worldwide fame—is refreshing in an exploration biography. The temptation is often too great for biographers to resist focusing only on the discoveries and thus give only literary lip service to the periods before that. Wilkins was a complex man though, not just an explorer (exploration was part of his life—not his whole life), and Nasht is clearly interested in every part of who he was, which frankly makes this book that much more fascinating to read.

From the first flights over the Arctic to the first submarine voyage beneath it, Wilkins was fearless in all the ways his fellow explorers would deem necessary, but also determinedly focused on the scientific goals which were all too often discarded by his contemporaries. (Even Robert Scott's party who are to be lauded for carrying their precious rocks to the final moments still sacrificed all in a rush to be first to the South Pole. If they had focused on the scientific achievements to be found rather than the record, then tragedy might not have been forever linked to their names.) Make no mistake, Wilkins did some very dangerous things (even crazy when you consider that submarine trip) but the reward he sought was always tangible and significant; he wanted to better understand the weather and use that knowledge to change the world. That's a level of permanence no record can equal and Wilkins and the men who traveled with him knew that, and it was part of why all of them were so dedicated to their goals.

In a lot of ways I would consider Hubert Wilkins the classic twentieth century Renaissance man. He was clearly smart and brave and determined but also possessed the admirable ability to embrace chance and modernization as necessary to achieve his goals. (Airplanes instead of sled dogs!) It is tempting to say that he is such a fascinating subject that anyone could make a good book out of his life, but that would not be fair to the talents of Mr. Nasht. The amount of research he has done to pull this book together (with its photos, endnotes and thorough index) is impressive. Nasht must have lived and breathed the life of Hubert Wilkins for years to pull this off but even that is not what makes it such a page turner. This is a classic case of an extremely interesting subject meeting an interested and talented biographer who does his job well. Wilkins is a largely forgotten man but Nasht makes the best sort of case for why he should be studied on the same level as Scott, Shackleton, Peary and most certainly, Franklin. Armchair explorers take note; this is a gem of a book that should not be missed.

In The Coldest Crucible, author Michael Robinson has a very specific goal: to uncover just why and how Americans became so obsessed with Arctic exploration. By focusing on the period from Elisha Kent Kane's first voyage in 1850 until the controversy surrounding Peary's journey to the North Pole in 1909, Robinson reveals the shift in American thinking from scientific achievement to conquering the wilderness. It's a fascinating look at an aspect of exploration history that has largely been overlooked by others. Few northern historians have asked what larger issues of American culture might have been at work to change popular interest in northern exploration from an avid scientific curiosity about the people and landscape into a desire simply to go further faster than anyone else.

When did all this become about latitude over everything else?

In his introduction, Robinson explains that in the beginning science was important for explorers as scientists provided valuable connections with politicians and wealthy benefactors to the explorers. One could not happen without the other and together they achieved some great things for science. What the explorers might not have realized however was that by wrapping themselves in the mantle of great science they also achieved a level of credibility they would not obtained otherwise. It gave them, Robinson writes, "...credibility as men of character." This is most obvious in the heroic rise of Elisha Kent Kane, a man who did not achieve much in his two voyages to the Arctic yet was lauded with one of the biggest funerals in American history when he died a young man after a long illness. (In the 19th century only Abraham Lincoln's funeral was bigger.) Conversely, when Peary and his opponent Frederick Cook came to odds over who reached the Pole first, Cook won many earlier supporters with his courtly manner while Peary seemed like a crass opportunist. Neither one of them was able to call on the scientific community for support and in the end Cook was soundly discredited while Peary failed to ever receive the laudatory acknowledgement he craved. (And yet somehow both men are better known than Wilkins—go figure.)

The problem, of course, was that neither had taken appropriate scientific readings that would prove they actually reached the Pole. Although Peary has been credited with it, questions have lingered for nearly 100 years and his story is always told with Cook's; they are the two men who said they reached the Pole but had only their word to offer as proof.

Robinson looks into many other expeditions than Kane, Peary and Cook however. He delves into the voyages of Isaac Hayes, Charles Francis Hall (who is well covered in Resolute as well), Walter Wellman and Adolphus Greely. Hayes struggled to bridge the gap between science and the macho aesthetic by publishing a melodramatic book about his journey which did not win over fans or critics; it seemed he couldn't win no matter what he tried although that was probably due to the timing of his trip (during the Civil War) rather than anything else. Hall was killed by members of his crew which then went on to split up in horrible weather and later get separately rescued in the sort of sensational story that seems more likely to be fiction than truth. (Read Steve Heighton's Afterlands for an excellent novel about Hall's Polaris expedition.) Both men did have some modicum of success however—Hayes found supporters in the scientific community although the wider public was less than impressed while Hall appealed to the common man from the beginning and won many of them over. That didn't help when he died however and the disaster of his expedition overshadowed the fact that he had gotten further north to date than anyone else.

Robinson moves from one of these journeys to the next in his narrative, considering the men who led them, their motives and the motives of their sponsors. It's an interesting thesis he explores, a new way of looking at exploration history that will surprise longtime readers of northern studies most of all. What's really nice about The Coldest Crucible though is that readers do not have to know a lot about the explorers profiled within to understand the larger theme Robinson is considering. We all know about the frontier myth, about American ideals of strength and virility versus goals of scientific achievement. In many ways Arctic expeditions were simply the Space race of their day and just as we have struggled to classify men like Neil Armstrong and Alan Shepherd as men of science over men of adventure, so too did the Arctic explorers struggle to be who Americans wanted them to be. In the end it is their personal motivations that are the most clouded in Robinson's book; even he does not seem to know for sure why each of them went north (other than Peary, who was pretty obvious about it). Did they just want to be the first, the farthest, and thus the very best, or did they hope to enlighten us? Robinson doesn't know, and he doesn't know what Americans wanted more either. He just gives us all the facts of these journeys and leaves the rest for the reader to decide; which really is the way I like my history to be told.

 

The Coldest Crucible
By Michael Robinson
University of Chicago 2006
ISBN 0226721841
160 pages

Resolute
By Martin W. Sandler
Sterling 2007
ISBN 1-4027-4085-9
280 pages

The Last Explorer
By Simon Nasht
Arcade 2006
ISBN 1559708255
316 pages

 

Previous Piece Next Piece