Archive for Explorers
I’m at the University of Delaware this week to give some lectures related to my book, The Coldest Crucible. My Wednesday night talk will be simulcast on the web (and on Second Life, a world I have never visited). The lecture starts at 7:30 EST and goes for about an hour. I think the webcast will be archived if you have something more pressing to attend to at 7:30 like open heart surgery. For everyone else, I expect to see you there. Wish me luck!
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.
There is a freedom that comes with studying dead people. We, the historians of the not-so-recent, learn about our subjects in archives and newspaper columns, from photos, maps, and bank statements. We reveal what we’ve learned, personal and perhaps unflattering, knowing that the people we’ve researched cannot talk back to us, sue us, or toss rocks through our windows. (This is work best left to other historians). Still there are times when I meet my subjects sort of. I often talk shop with modern-day explorers at meeting and lectures, some of whom share the goals and sensibilities of the people I study. This is always a welcome experience for me, but one that often feels a bit strange, since I look at the work of past explorers with such a critical eye. What has been refreshing to find, however, is how self-aware and historically-minded many modern day travelers and explorers are.
For example, take the site ExplorersWeb.com, a clearinghouse of information about extreme travel in the polar regions, the oceans, mountains, and space. It is the brainchild of Tom and Tina Sjogren, two Swedish uber-travelers, who provide daily updates about expeditions in the field as well as their own exposes of expeditionary bad-behavior, from selfish guides, and faulty equipment manufacturers, to climbers who fib about their summit climbs. The reports of Explorersweb have not been without controversy, particularly from veteran mountaineers who’ve been the object of scrutiny. Nevertheless, it’s worth taking a look at.
Two thousand years ago, a new innovative culture emerged in the world, one which established large, wide-ranging settlements and networks of long distance trade. Between 500 and 1500 CE, this culture began to expand, developing new technologies which allowed it to move into other regions thousands of miles from its place of origin. Ultimately, these technological advancements allowed it to dominate and displace the native peoples who lived there. By 1000, it had establishing a place for itself in a new system of trans-Atlantic trade.
I speak not of Romans or Vikings but of the Inuit, who developed from the Old Bering Sea people two thousand years ago on the coast of Alaska. The Old Bering Sea people lived in large, year round settlements and established long-distance trading networks. They developed or acquired the bow and arrow as well as the means to hunt bowhead whales. Shortly thereafter, they began moving northeast, towards the Arctic shores of North America, displacing the Tuniit, an Arctic culture that predated them by hundreds of years. It is not clear what drew the Old Bering Sea people east, but evidence suggests that they were eager to acquire metal impliments brought by Norse peoples who began to occupy Greenland.
All of this information comes from Robert McGhee’s new book “The Last Imaginary Place: A Human History of the Arctic World.” McGhee’s Arctic is no wintery wasteland, but a dynamic place, the crossroads of many different cultures: Asian, American, and European. At 270 pages, McGhee can hardly be comprehensive. But he manages to tell his stories of Arctic history with an impressive cast of characters: Inuit, Tuniit, European, and Siberian.
One of the goals of McGhee’s analysis is to destroy the myths that still haunt our image of the Arctic and its peoples. For centuries, Europeans described the Inuit as the primitive children of nature, a timeless people who scratched out a living in the same manner as their stone-age ancestors did thousands of years before. In truth they had much in common with their European counterparts. They were expansionist, adaptive, and quick to exploit the resources of their environment.
McGhee also manages to link his broader points to personal experience. On the Inuit for example he states:
The realization that the Inuit are not a peripheral people was forced on my mind one night on the coast of Chukotka, as I climbed by myself over the remains of the ancient community at Ekven. A few kilometers up the coast, the low night-time sun was throwing an orange glow on the rocks of Cape Dezhneva, the most easterly point of Asia, and on Great Diomede Island halfway across the Bering Strait to Alaska. In the bright calm night I suddenly had the overwhelming sense that I was not standing at the distant margin of a world, the end of the earth, as far as one could travel from Europe. Instead I was standing at the very heart of another world, a nexus that for millenia had linked the peoples and cultures of Asia and America. It was a world in which many nations and cultures had flourished, among them the Inuit and their way of life.
This is a terrific book. I’ll be writing a more formal review of it soon for The Historian.
I’m very happy to have Russell Potter, author of Arctic Spectacles, give us his views of the current search for missing British explorer Sir John Franklin. Russell’s impressive book Arctic Spectacles: The Frozen North in Visual Culture, 1818-1885 came out last year with the University of Washington Press. He has also recently been profiled by the PBS series NOVA which aired the program Arctic Passage on the Franklin search. If this blog post whets your appetite for more, check out Russell’s website and Google “knol” on Arctic Exploration.
I have been burning the candle at both ends this summer. I just finished an article about Lewis and Clark & Alexander von Humboldt two weeks ago, wrote a review of Graham Burnett’s book, Trying Leviathan, started a review of Robert McGhee’s book, The Last Imaginary Place, and have started a new article on the work of Frederick Cook. That this seemed an excellent time to pick up blogging says something about me, I’m not sure what exactly, but it would involve words such as hubristic and harebrained. I’ve loved writing the blog to be honest…but on days like today there’s no gas left in the tank. So no grand thoughts tonight, just pictures.
I have been making up a list of visual archives. Here are three of my favorites. Bentley Beetham was a British traveler and photographer who got hooked on mountain climbing in the 1910s. His path converged with the Mount Everest Committee in the 1920s and led to his inclusion on the 1924 Everest Expedition. Mallory never returned from the mountain, but Beetham did, bringing with him hundreds of photographs of the mountains, climbers, and Tibetan life. The Bentley Beetham Collection offers 2000 of his works, a combination of brilliant lantern slides and photo prints.
NASA gets beat up a lot here at Time to Eat the Dogs. As much as I complain about its policies, though, I admit to some weak-knee moments when I see images of the Saturn V hurling itself into space. The NASA Johnson Space Center has archived nine thousand images of the manned space program online on the JSC Digital Image Collection. It represents half a century of human missions, from Mercury to the Space Shuttle.
BibliOdyessey is a digital cabinet of curiousities authored by the Australian “PK”. PK must be in good with the Sydney archivists. Not only has he gotten some serious archive time, he’s also managed to bring his hi-def scanner along with him. BibliOdyessey offers stunning scans of the amazing, the obscure, and the bizarre. These are usually good tags for voyages of exploration – which are also well represented here.
I’ll be on the road for the next few weeks updating when I can. Happy Voyages.
Of Victorian England’s perambulating naturalists, Charles Darwin is the most celebrated. But he was only one of many, a throng of young men and women who left British shores for places unknown including Joseph Banks, Alfred Russell Wallace, Thomas Huxley, Mary Kingsley, and Henry Walter Bates. These were not foppish lads and doe-eyed ingénues on vacation. They followed new, dangerous itineraries: into the Pacific and Polar Regions, the interiors of South America and Africa, and the islands and archipelagos of the Indian Ocean. This was not some logical extension of the European Grand Tour; these men and women sought to bring home information that would shape science, and, no doubt, further their careers.
One of the most important of these ranks was Joseph Dalton Hooker, doctor, naval surgeon, mountain climber, and botanist. Hooker traveled to the Antarctic with James Ross, dug for fossils in Wales, and tromped up the Himalayas in search of botanical specimens (interested in, among other things, testing Darwin’s theories of biogeography and isolation).
If this whets your appetite, check out Jim Endersby’s Joseph Dalton Hooker Website, a nicely designed site with biographical pages, extensive extracts of Hooker’s writings, and a list of collectors who helped him in the field. If this is not enough for the obsessive-compulsive Hookerologist in you, Endersby has also provided a list of archives and secondary literature on Hooker to keep you occupied until the bicentennial of Hooker’s birth in 2017.