Archive for Digital Archive
Posts seem tidy things when they see the light of day, capped by neat titles, tucked into single columns. But bloggers everywhere share a dirty secret: this sort of writing is a messy business, profligate in its use of words and images, throwing off bits and scraps faster than the butcher’s apprentice. Seventy posts have left me with all sorts of unfinished business: links that never make it to the right hand column, half-written posts that remain unpublished, category listings that do not get updated. So I have done some housecleaning today. Mostly you can see the work on column to the far right. There is a new category of links: Online Archives which have primary source materials on travel and exploration. There are a number of Library of Congress collections here, some travel writings by Isabella Bird, the NOAA archive on 19th century oceanography books, and some visual archives including David Rumsey’s online map collection and the JPL’s NASA image archive. The “Complete List of Posts” has been updated through yesterday and I’ve added some links to my online research and talks on the “About” page.
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.
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.
I have worked on Arctic exploration for over a decade and have been feeling lately that it’s time for a change. I like exploration too much to leave it as a field of study (as is probably obvious from this blog), so I have been digging into the literature on another love of mine, mountains, specifically the role of mountains in the work of nineteenth-century scientists.
I don’t have any method for starting new research projects. I have a “if time, pursue this” file, but most of these ideas feel stale by the time I get back to them. So I usually set off into the literature much the way less-than-smart dogs take to being off the leash: running around sniffing randomly until they find something good, chasing it till it runs out, then running some more until they something else. I pursue this approach until I find food. Methodological rigor comes later, usually about the time I need to apply for a grant.
In any event, I was in my dog phase a few months ago, when I started to realize something about the secondary literature on mountains. There are some divisions I expected to find according to discipline (lots of material in art history, for example, not that much in the history of science). But there were also some divisions I didn’t expect, namely differences according to nationality. In particular, it seemed to me that French scholarship on the intellectual history of mountains was very well developed whereas Anglo-American literature was still getting off the ground.
How much do we miss by not wading into the literature of other languages, other countries? It depends upon the research question obviously. But in my case, it’s something I need to do. I can read French, with effort, fingers gripped to the side of my desk. This too must change. I have been on the lookout in the last few weeks for serious exploration blogs or sites outside of the U.S and the U.K.
One of the best that I’ve found is the Centre de Recherche sur la Littérature des Voyages (CRLV). This site has been around for a while, offers an impressive, searchable bibliography of primary literature on exploration (by author and location), a list of CRLV publications, schedule of conferences, and series of conference podcasts, some of which have abstracts and transcripts. Impressive.
I’ve been happy to note more traffic here from other countries, particularly Scandinavia. If you think I should be aware of exploration-related sites, please drop me a line.
Gardner’s Comparative Heights of Mountains and Rivers, 1823
When I was a young, baby-faced graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I had the good fortune of attending a series of lectures by Simon Schama on his new book Landscape and Memory. Schama presented a cultural history of landscape in Europe (mountains, rivers, forests). He was compelling as a lecturer, impressive in his arguments. But man, did he have good slides. I had already begun to settle into the history of exploration as my thesis area. But I had always imagined that I would approaching this material from the world of text: logs, journals, scientific monographs, etc. As Schama delivered his lectures (they took place over three days), his slides were more than eye-candy, they were arguments. This may sound silly, but I never thought about the visual artifacts of exploration as evidence until that moment. In any event, I am always on the lookout for good expeditionary photos, engravings, etc. Over the next few posts, I hope to share some sites with good pickings for those of you who are visually inclined.
David Rumsey started digitalizing his map collection twenty years ago. He now has over 17,000 of them scanned, online, free of access to all. There are some amazing maps here, authored by Lewis and Clark, James Cook, and Alexander von Humboldt among others. You will need to download one of the specialized browsers on his site, but once this is set up you can view thousands of exploration maps in all of their hi-def grandeur and download them too. One of the best features is the document notes available with each map. Sometimes these offer secondary source notes useful for explaining context, etc.
Have fun: http://www.davidrumsey.com/
As someone more familiar with explorers from this side of the pond, my encounters with David Livingtone, British missionary and African explorer, have been mediated by others: biographers, Henry Morton Stanley, or the press reports of the New York Herald. No longer is this the case. Professor Christopher Lawrence of the Wellcome Trust Centre of the History of Medicine has established Livingstone Online, a place where you can read Livingstone’s own words, primarily letters from the holdings of Wellcome and other archives in the UK. Livingstone Online also offers good contextual background on science and medicine in 19th century British society. Taken together with Google Book’s collection of full text Livingstone works (including Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa), we now have the key sources to uncover the man (if not, alas, the Nile).