Archive for Historiography
The word “Frontier” lives a double-life. In the public world of bookstores and Star Trek episodes, it carries itself with bearing, symbolizing something wild and lawless, a place of promise, adventure, and renewal. Within the Academy, however, “frontier” carries the whiff of the disreputable, a word that has fallen into disuse. Once praised and powerful, it now stoops on stair-landings to rest.
The decline of the “frontier” within the Academy has been long and precipitous. Made famous by Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” it’s been the inspiration of dozens of books and hundreds of articles.
Why? Because Turner linked the frontier to the story of American progress, arguing that it rejuvenated American culture by placing pioneers into contact with the wild, savage world at the edges of civilization. In the process, pioneers had to break from the strictures of the civilization they left behind and re-imagine life from the ground up. In the process, Turner argued, they recapitulated the long arc of human society from savagery to civilization, infusing American society with the energy of their innovations.
The frontier thesis was (and in some quarters, still is) seen as a compelling story of American uniqueness. In it, supporters found a story to justify a view of Americans as a special, exceptional people.
Still, the frontier thesis found itself under attack from many quarters. In the 1980s, New Western Historians argued that the frontier thesis did not accurately present the progression of changes in the West, nor did it explain the broader arc of American progress. Moreover, frontier was a word that privileged one perspective in the story of the West: the pioneers who viewed these lands as wild and savage rather than the indigenous peoples who called them home.
Between those supporting the thesis and those criticizing it, discussion of the Frontier Thesis seemed to be everywhere, a subject so fecund that it threatened to overwhelm all other subjects within the discipline. All of this ultimately led historian Patricia Limerick to label “frontier” as the F-Word, a term that had become a hindrance, rather than a help, to historian scholarship.
What to do? In her 1992 book Imperial Eyes, Mary Louise Pratt abandoned the term frontier, replacing it instead with the phrase “contact zone,” a less loaded term for the place of encounters between indigenous peoples and Euro-Americans.
I see the wisdom in Limerick and Pratt’s decisions. And yet still, I think there’s still a place for frontier, particularly within the field of the history of exploration. Limerick is right to argue that frontier is a loaded term, one that brings with it a particular tilt. It shares this ground with other loaded terms such as “discovery” and “exploration,” concepts which only make sense from the perspective travelers rather than natives.
Yet by definition, stories of exploration adopt the perspective of people traveling into the field. For expeditionary scientists — such as Alexander von Humboldt, Joseph Banks, Charles Darwin, and Alfred Russell Wallace — the grand stage of global travel did represent frontiers, places of profound mystery, inspiration, and otherness.
That their perspective represented a limited frame of reference is clear. Still, within this frame of reference, we see powerful transformations of thought and identity. Expeditionary letters and field sketches express the weight of these events, the frontiers of new experience.
On February 6 2000, Guy Waterman drove his Subaru Impreza to Franconia Notch in New Hampshire, hiked up Mt Lafayette, and in the windy -16 degree night, let himself die of exposure.
Waterman was a man of many gifts and torments, a climber, writer, and environmentalist who lived for thirty years with his wife Laura Waterman off-the-grid in Vermont.
Of these torments, which drove him into deeper and deeper isolation, Waterman said little. Yet he wrote about them through the characters of literature. He was Shakespeare’s Ariel battling the witch-child Caliban. He was Milton’s proud Satan. He was tragic Prometheus. He was Melville’s Ahab.
Ahab. As I read Laura Waterman’s spare, graceful memoir, Losing the Garden: The Story of a Marriage , it seemed an appropriate metaphor for Guy Waterman.
Then, this morning, reading Maria Coffey’s book, Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow: The Dark Side of Extreme Adventure, Ahab surfaced once again. Near the summit of Everest in 1996, David Breashears and Ed Viesturs come across a body near the Hillary Step.
They found [Bruce] Herrod’s body clipped on to fixed ropes with a figure-eight rappel breake. He was hanging upside down, his arms dangling, his mouth open, and his skin black. “Like Captain Ahab,” Breashears later wrote, “lashed to his white whale.” [Coffey, 118]
It made me pause. One hears different many different literary metaphors for explorers and adventurers, but rarely Ahab.
Successful explorers find comparison to Odysseus, the brilliant, cock-sure hero of Homer’s Odyssey. (Confined to the scurvy-ridden cabin of Advance over the long winter of 1854, Arctic explorer Elisha Kane would keep up the spirits of his men by reading them Alfred Tennyson’s Odyssean poem “Ulysses”) Those explorers who perish are commonly portrayed as Icarus, a boy whose joy with altitude overcame good judgment, causing him to fall to earth.
Both of these are figures are imperfect but bright of heart. Ahab is a different creature, a man of darker spirit, a figure turned in upon himself. Ahab’s travels to the ends of the earth bring no discovery or enlightenment; he sees only the white whale. Ultimately his obsession brings tragedy to all, not only Ahab, but to those who follow him.
Is Ahab the true spirit of extreme adventure? You would not think so reading most adventure literature. While these books reveal some of the dirty laundry of expeditionary life, they mostly chronicle struggle and attainment, heroism and transcendence. Indeed, elite climbers often speak of the transcendent moment as the Holy Grail of high-altitude climbing, that thing which brings them back, time and time again, to the most dangerous mountains in the world.
Yet transcendence, going beyond oneself, is the opposite of obsession, a psychic tunneling-in so extreme that it diminishes or excludes everything around it: Golem’s ring, Ahab’s whale, Herrod’s mountain.
Grim metaphors indeed. Perhaps the legions of 8000-meter peak baggers and Seven-Summiters should read Moby-Dick, digest the moral of Ahab, and then turn their attention to the Ahab’s Quaker First Mate Starbuck:
[H]is far-away domestic memories of his young Cape wife and child, tend[ed] to bend him … from the original ruggedness of his nature, and open him still further to those latent influences which, in some honest-hearted men, restrain the gush of dare-devil daring, so often evinced by others in the more perilous vicissitudes of the fishery. “I will have no man in my boat,” said Starbuck, “who is not afraid of a whale.” By this, he seemed to mean, not only that the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward. [Melville, Moby-Dick]
If this seems too tame or Quakerish for the modern climber, perhaps they’d learn more from a more modern Starbuck, the character Kara “Starbuck” Thrace of the Sci-Fi channel’s Battlestar Gallactica. Thrace is a woman of many demons, of violent appetites. Her thirst for transcendent experience has no limits. But ultimately she channels her dare-devilry into objects of common interest, the search for Earth, the return home.
Why do people climb 8000-meter mountains? Free-solo the Eiger? BASE jump the Eiffel Tower? Motives are tricky things.
My work on Arctic explorers gave me a way to think about it.
Nineteenth-century explorers had their own answers to the “why” question. In the 1850s, when U.S. exploration of the Arctic began, explorers defended their missions by describing all of the commercial benefits that would accrue from their expeditions: new routes to Asia, new whale fisheries, new technological innovations in ship design. (Interestingly, NASA features a similar-sounding set of commercial benefits when it justifies its current plan to return humans to the Moon and Mars).
Then, in the 1880s, explorers changed course, justifying their exploits by anti-commercial motives: we explore because it is impractical. We explore to escape the strictures of the civilized world. We explore for the sake of exploring. Or, in George Mallory’s translation for mountain climbing, “because it’s there.”
In the language of day, the explorer had succumbed to “Arctic fever,” a term used over and over again in the last decades of the nineteenth century to describe the seemingly irrational behavior of explorers in putting themselves at risk:
“The northern bacilli were in my system, the arctic fever in my veins, never to be eradicated.” Robert Peary, 1898
“The polar virus was in [my husband's] blood and would not let him rest.” Emma DeLong, 1884
Explorers are ” infected with the same spirit.” Frederick Cook, undated
“Arctic enthusiasm is an intermittent fever, returning in almost epidemic form after intervals of normal indifference.” McClure’s Magazine, 1893
As I tried to make sense of “Arctic Fever” for my book Coldest Crucible, I concluded that all of this talk of fevers was just another means to show purity of motive:
The disease may seem to be nothing but a playful literary metaphor, but it had serious functions. Arctic fever located the urge to explore in the human passions. It was a condition that afflicted the heart against the better judgement of the mind, operating beyond conscious control. Why should anyone attempt to reach the North Pole when it served no useful or scientific function? Because -explorers claimed- they felt irrationally compelled. In this way, Arctic fever masked rational motives for voyaging north, namely, the promise of celebrity and financial reward.
While explorers spoke about their irresistible compulsions, they were simultaneously working out huge publishing contracts, product endorsements, and lecture fees. At the time I wrote my book, it seemed to me that all of this talk of instinct, true spirit, experience of the sublime, etc. was just a matter of bait-and-switch: finding motives that would impress paying audiences and would hide the true, mercenary motives behind them.
I haven’t abandoned this line of thinking entirely, but after reading the first chapter in Maria Coffey’s book, Where the Mountain Cast Its Shadow, I think I need to revise it.
Coffey’s book is about the effects of extreme adventure on the people left behind: spouses, parents, and children who have to come to terms with the loss of loved ones. She starts her book with interviews of adventurers who talk about their motives in putting themselves at such risk.
“Endurance, fear, suffering cold, and the state between survival and death are such strong experiences that we want them again and again. We become addicted. Strangely, we strive to come back safely; and being back, we seek to return, once more to danger.” Reinhold Messner
“I was totally possessed. The experience was like some inner explosion. I knew it would somehow mark the rest of my life.” Wanda Rutkiewicz
Coffey’s list of climbers who speak about this compulsion is impressive. It extends beyond the elite, celebrity climbers such as Messner and Rutkiewicz to include those who do not have agents, publishing contracts, or product endorsements.
I am realizing that it’s not enough to label this exploration “fever” as merely a savvy form of marketing. It is clearly a psychological manifestation too, one that Coffey links to the impact of extreme risk on biological factors such as adrenaline and dopamine.
Coffey also describes the way that such extreme experience can have, ironically, a quieting effect on adventurists, making them feel less moody, more even-keeled, more able to focus on the present moment. Indeed, more than one climber described climbing as an escape from distraction, a way to concentrate on the task at hand, to live in the moment, to experience things more fully.
At times, it made me wonder if there a common psychological profile for elite climbers. The frequency of people referring to attention and distraction sounded very similar to interviews conducted by Dr. Edward Hallowell in his book, Driven to Distraction, a book about attention deficit disorder (ADD).
The point here is not to throw out one label in order to replace it with another. But Coffey’s book is making me realize that my work on the history of exploration should not only play out at the level of nations, empires, commerce, and popular culture. I need to make room for the individual, a tangled world of emotion, experience, and behavior.
I know that many of you are thinking “No duh! This is standard stuff for climbing books.” True enough: Will power, spirit, fear, endurance, ecstasy: the meat and potatoes of adventure literature. But cultural historians are trained to think of personal motives as ultimately unknowable, a black box that should not be opened. To psychoanalyze the historical subject is like touching the third rail in the subway. Dangerous terrain.
It’s raining deadlines here in Hartford: grant proposals, course proposals, exhibition labels, article drafts, etc. All of it due this week or next. On top of it all, tomorrow’s the first day of classes. Time to polish up the syllabus, de-lint the sweater, iron the button-downs.
I just submitted a proposal to teach an honors course here (see below). The course grows out of my work in the history of exploration. I would love your feedback about the topic, how you think it coheres (or digresses), readings that you think improve the course, areas unexplored or under-explored in the syllabus.
HONB 110: The Search for Authentic Experience
Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick once said that all of his writings circled around two questions: “what is real?” and “what is human?” Dick’s questions extend beyond science fiction. Indeed, they traverse the scale of human history. If we traveled back in time to the fifth century BCE and asked Plato what sorts of things were on his mind, I suspect he would tell us much the same thing as Dick. Where does one look for the true reality of the world? And once located, how does one reach it?
These are the questions that structure HONB 110: The Search for Authentic Experience, a course that examines the long quest to discover what’s real and the processes by which people try to attain it. Questions of truth usually reside in the domain of philosophy, and debates about “what is real” could easily fit within an epistemology course from Parmenides to Karl Popper. Yet the point of Authentic Experience is to show how such lofty, stratospheric ideas play out on the muddy terrain of human culture. After all, it is not some esoteric exercise in metaphysics that inspires people to search for what’s real: it’s because people sense, in a deeply personal way, that what they experience is not real enough.
For example, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which students read during the first week of the course, can be viewed as a purely metaphysical parable in which a prisoner comes to realize that his life in the shadows of a cave is a poor imitation of the reality of the world above. Yet Plato’s allegory is not merely a thought experiment. It is also a specific critique of life in Athens, a society that feared the ideas of Socrates enough to make him a prisoner, eventually executing him.
This dance between philosophical ideas and specific cultural concerns frames the first five weeks of Authentic Experience. In particular, this section of the course examines the issue of worldliness and asceticism across cultures. Material luxuries — silks, spices, opium – have long been seen as enhancements to sense experience. Moreover, they have often served as a measuring stick of refinement and cultural progress. Yet others have seen them in darker terms, as distractions, leading people off the narrow path of enlightenment. Do such luxuries enhance our lives as Democritus and the Epicureans argue? Or are they the subtle gloss that separates us from the vibrancy of raw experience as St Francis of Assisi and Siddhārtha Gautama warn us?
The second section of the course takes up “the journey” in the pursuit of authentic experience. In his book on comparative mythology The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell identifies the quest as a key component in hero stories across cultures, including those of Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Osiris, Moses, Budda, and Christ. Campbell noted that heroes prove themselves not simply by achieving their goals at the end of the quest, but by undergoing a transformation during the quest itself. The arduous journey is not merely the literary prop of myths and legends. It is a part of the real world, having been adopted by many cultures as a means of purification and enlightenment. In addition to reading excerpts from Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, the Bible, students will also read about ritualized journeys such as Christian pilgrimages and the Muslim Hajj.
The final section of the course looks at the search for authentic experience in the modern world, starting with 19th century Romantics who sought to move beyond the boundaries of empirical reason to achieve an experience of the sublime. Students will examine the landscapes of Frederic Church and his contemporaries, artists who traveled to the wild places of the world in hopes that it would get under their skin, alter their perceptions, and infuse their works with something unique. Finally, the course will consider twentieth-century quests for the real, such as the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s which sought self-actualization through music and hallucinogenic drugs. It will end by examining the current “Age of Adventurism” in which trekkers, climbers, and jumpers attempt increasingly risky, death-defying feats as the means for escaping the quotidian drudgeries of modern life.
The course will include two field trips: to the Wadsworth Athenaeum to view the collection of Hudson River School landscapes, and to Mt. Monadnock in Southern New Hampshire for a day-hike to the summit. It will also feature guest lectures by Steph Davis, elite climber and author of High Infatuation: A Climber’s Guide to Love and Gravity, as well as local scholars Heidi Gehman of the Hartford Seminary and Bill Major of Hillyer College.
It is sunny, cold, and quiet here in Hartford. No one is out. Everyone, it seems, is waiting for the big storm that will roll through this afternoon. It seemed a good opportunity to sit down with Laura Waterman’s book, Losing the Garden, a memoir about Waterman marriage to Guy Waterman and the events leading up to his suicide on Mt Lafayette in 2000. I didn’t even make it to the first page, though, because I was rather struck by Stephen Dobyns’ epigraph:
It is hard for me to say what is precisely true. Memory distorts. Psychology, emotions, good health or bad — all drag their feet across events. The details that I might remember one day are not those that I might remember on another day. And certainly my memory has its own agenda — to show me off this way or that. My subjectivity is the smudgy window through which I squint. [Stephen Dobyns, quoted in Laura Waterman's Losing the Garden]
In this simple, elegant paragraph, Dobyns expresses an idea that is at the core of academic history: the perils of subjective experience.
For historians, there are two parts to this.
The first: beware the recollections of your subject. People remember events in ways that are selective and distorted. Often these distortions of memory increase over time. Oral historians often find that subjects interviewed forty or fifty years after a particular event remember it in ways largely at odds with the records they kept at the time.
The second: beware the distortions of the storyteller. Many of my students think of history as a fixed series of events that have been culled from the documents, dutifully analyzed, and then set down in stone (or in their case, textbook) for the ages to admire.
Historians, however, are much more aware of history as a living thing, something in continual motion, pushed, pulled, or turned upside-down by scholars of the present. These changes do not emerge from the discovery of new historical data (although this happens too), rather because historians cannot help but bring their own interests, beliefs, and preoccupations to the subjects they study. As culture changes, so do historians and the histories they write.
One sees the dangers here. If one carries too much of ones beliefs back into the past, it will dominate one’s thinking. We could write a factual, empirically rigorous book called George Washington: Our Racist, Sexist, Non-vegan Founding Father.
But such a book would be of limited value because these labels tell us little about Washington as a unique figure. Washington’s ideas about race, sex, vegetables, etc were broadly shared in the 18th century, enough to be seen as social norms in his society.
Focused on the chasm of difference between Washington and modern society, such a book would miss the subtle textures of past itself, the differences that mattered to people of the day. In the profession, we even have a name for this sin of modern bias which is called “Whig History.”
Yet the historian cannot leave modern influences at the outer door of the archive. Nor should she. As much as a historian’s ideas and beliefs are a hazard, they are also the engine of historical creativity, the force which keeps history fresh and ever-changing, even when the events we hope to understand are long ended.
To offer one example: until the 1950s, historians tended to emphasize politics and economics events, focusing on the roles of kings, ministers, and generals.
Yet the social revolutions of the 1960s made a deep impression on historians (and other academics) who became aware of the way that certain groups — women, minorities, colonial subjects — had been excluded from public discourse. Many historians took this revolution to heart, asking questions about these groups in the past.
The result was a proliferation of new kinds of histories, of peoples who had largely been ignored by earlier generations of historians. If my hypothetical book about George Washington is an example of the present’s influence on history at its worst, Lauren Thatcher Ulrich’s book A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard is an example of it at its best.
Working on the project in the 1980s at a time when women’s history had come into its own, Ulrich saw the potential of Ballard’s story to change the way we thought about gender, culture, and economics in colonial America. But to offer this story, Ulrich faced a difficult choice, one she writes about the in her own diary of 1982:
The trick would be to write something more accessible than the diary itself. Is this midwifery or bastardy– to borrow a metaphor from Mrs. Ballard’s world? Am I giving her life to the world or substituting an “illegitimate” book for a real book–hers.
Ulrich thought her book would be more valuable is she – and not Ballard – served as the ultimate storyteller. And an amazing story it is, one that illustrates Ballard’s industry and Ulrich’s genius. Yet it is also a book of its day, made possible by changes in the culture of the late 20th century. It is an example of the beauty of the present in history, of history’s undeniable subjectivity. It is the force that makes history art and not science, ever fallible, never finished, always new.