At one time returning explorers could expect a hearty welcome back home: good press, medals of honor, product endorsements, and lecture halls filled to capacity. Times have changed. Since the late nineteenth century, the press and public have been tougher on explorers, challenging their missions, their claims of discovery, and their behavior in the field.
Certainly there are still moments when the public’s knees get wobbly: the orbital flights of Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn and Armstrong’s touchdown on the moon. But even national pride cannot quite extinguish the feeling that we are watching some kind of carnival attraction, that things are not what they seem, that the dog-faced boy will reveal himself to be a carny in make-up.
The proof? It’s not just lemon-faced academics who are writing skeptically about travelers and explorers. Critics now come at the subject from all sides. Adventure writers such as Jon Krackauer psychoanalyze the ethos of the “go it alone” explorer in books like Into the Wild while explorers themselves hurl slings and arrows at each other on ExplorersWeb. Reading one of the glibby heroic biographies of Robert Peary or Elisha Kane is a bit like drinking coffee with lots of syrup: too sweet, no bite.
Still there are areas where criticism remains muted or under-reported, where one can read heroic narratives of old and ignore for a while the nattering nabobs of negativism. Mostly I see this in books on women and indigenous explorers.
It’s understandable. For hundreds of years, women and native peoples were routinely written out of explorer narratives. When they managed to make it in, they were usually playing set characters that readers would understand: the women who travel in the footsteps of intrepid husbands, the noble savages and their thievish brethren, all of them children of one sort or another. No surprise that as social mores have changed, we see attempts to bring these two-dimensional characters to life. In the past twenty years, there have been scores of books on women explorers alone. The Boston Public Library’s list of “Adventurous Women: Explorers and Travelers” gives a taste of this literature. Indeed, the fact that the BPL felt compelled to create this list for its patrons says something about popular demand.
Many books on women explorers hew closely to the heroic model of biography that was popular in the nineteenth century. Of her choice of subjects for the book Women of Discovery, author Milbry Polk said:
So in the end, we chose about 84 women that covered 2,000 years of history, more than a dozen different nationalities. And their endeavors crossed a wide swath of interests from every kind of science to our geography and painting. And, honestly, we chose most of them because we really liked them.
I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with an author liking his or her subjects, as long as it doesn’t interfere with reporting the less noble aspects of the subject’s actions. Many women explorers, often white, well-educated, and upper-class, were just as racist and vain-glorious as their male counterparts (Josephine Peary comes to mind here). A number of them did not rail against “sexism,” in our parlance, but accepted the conventional attitude that men and women were inherently different. Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of women travelers is the degree to which they were able to turn these conventional attitudes to their own advantage. For example, Americans were transfixed by Nelly Bly’s bid to travel around the world in eighty days . . . not because she aspired to be look or act as tough as the boys but because she seemed so, well, girly.
This does not take away from the impressiveness of her accomplishments or others. Indeed, it makes the story of these women all the more interesting. More often than not, they did not buck a system of rigid gender roles…rather they used the system to make a space for themselves. Certainly this was not the exclusive strategy of women explorers. Frances Willard, Jane Addams, and other women of consequence did the same.
So I think it’s a shame that many biographies play up the idea of heroic women overcoming adversity through sheer strength of will. It’s a simplistic story that doesn’t do them justice. As a result, these books read very much like nineteenth-century biographies of their male counterparts.
Not that all work on women explorers fits into this category. In her account of Mary Kingsley, British explorer of West Africa, Alison Blunt warns of the dangers of placing women travelers on pedestals. Says Blunt:
Recent interest in white women in colonial settings has often taken the form of romantic, nostalgic imagery in literature, television, and film, notably since the 1980s…These approaches isolate and often celebrate individual “heroic” women rather than question constructions of gender… [Travel, Gender, and Imperialism: Mary Kingsley in West Africa, 5-6]
So where do we turn for good work on women and non-white explorers? Here’s a short list of favorites. Patricia Erikson’s current work on Josephine Peary promises a new, nuanced take on this controversial and complicated explorer. Dierdre Stam’s work on Matthew Henson also will provide some balance and context to the U.S.’s most famous African-American explorer. These are works in progress, so in the interim, you might want to read these:
Patricia M.E. Lorcin’s essay on women’s travel writing which offers a good overview of the field as well as some great secondary sources.
Patricia Gilmartin’s excellent essay on women and exploration in the Oxford Companion to World Exploration (which I reviewed here). Also see Gilmartin’s website for a more complete bibliography of her work.
Lisa Bloom’s controversial, pathbreaking book Gender On Ice which discusses the gender construction of Arctic narratives in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Carla Ulloa Inostroza’s excellent blog on the history of women’s travel Mujeres Viajeras
Laura Kay’s course reading list at Barnard.
If all of this gets a bit wonky for you, head over to the Victorian Women Writers Project where you can read the chronicles of Isabella Bird as she travels through the Rocky Mountains and the islands of Hawaii in the 1870s.