Archive for Interviews
Writing is lonely work. But it is not always solitary. Despite the isolation that I sometimes feel pounding out text on my laptop, I work in the presence of an audience, or rather, a perceived audience. The perceived audience is a tough crowd usually, tougher than the real one. It is with me as I write this — sitting at the oak table at the Eastham Public Library– watching me.
My perceived audience is made up of three groups: academics who work on the same subject as me (I know their names and see their faces), academics who work in the same or overlapping disciplines (hazier) and everybody else: non-specialists who are interested in the Arctic, or exploration, or who typed in the wrong search term on Google.
In graduate school, I paid attention to the first two groups. In particular, I tried to interpret the reactions of the specialists. Nothing that I wrote, at that point, seemed likely to find its way into the hands of lay readers, so I didn’t trouble myself with them.
Mapping out a graduate essay was like planning a war game: anticipating threats and finding tactical responses. I became adept at different weapon systems. My arsenal included the obscure, the arcane, and the highly theoretical.
This has changed over the last decade as I have started writing and lecturing for a broader audience. The lay audience that once sat at the back of the room has edged closer to the front. This is not simply because they make up a larger percentage of my readership.
It is because they ask the best questions.
For example, last week I was a guest on WNPR’s Where We Live show about exploration. No one who produced or called in to the show was a specialist or an academic. Nor was the host, John Dankosky, an exploration expert (although he’s a whip-smart journalist).
Yet the questions were tough and incisive. “At the beginning of the 21st century, what’s left to explore?” “Do Americans have a special relationship with exploration?”
Dankosky raised one of the best questions after the show was over. “Why do politicians defend human space flight as a jobs program for engineers and astronauts? Aren’t these the windfalls of discovery rather than the heart? Would we defend money given to artists through National Endowments for the Arts as a great way to employ artists?
A very good question.
You can listen to the full show here.
The history of exploration does not have its own departments in universities. It does not really exist as a historical sub-discipline either, at least in the way that formalized fields such as labor history, women’s history and political history do. Instead, the history of exploration is a disciplinary interloper, a subject taken up by many fields such as literary studies, anthropology, geography, and the history of science. Each brings its own unique perspective and methods. Each has its own preoccupations and biases.
All of which makes the work of Felix Driver, professor of human geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, especially important. While Driver has covered many of the meat-and-potatoes subjects in exploration: navigation, shipwrecks, and biographical subjects such as Henry Morton Stanley and David Livingstone, he has framed them in the broadest context: through the visual arts, postmodern theory, social history, and historical geography.
He is the author of many books and articles including Geography Militant: Cultures of Exploration and Empire. He is also the co-editor of Tropical Visions in an Age of Empire which came out with University of Chicago Press in 2005.
At the same time, Driver has worked to bring these subjects to the attention of the public, supervising the new Royal Geographical Society exhibition, Hidden Histories of Exploration. The exhibition, which opened on October 15, “offers a new perspective on the Society’s Collections, highlighting the role of local inhabitants and intermediaries in the history of exploration.”
Driver took some time to speak with me about the exhibition and his work on exploration.
Welcome Felix Driver.
What inspired the Hidden Histories exhibition?
A conviction that the history of exploration was about a wider, collective experience of work and imagination rather than simply a story of lone individuals fighting against the odds. The idea of ‘hidden histories’ has an innate appeal – it suggests stories that have not been heard, which have been hidden from history, waiting to be uncovered. It has already provided the RGS with a model for a series of exhibitions linking aspects of their Collections with communities in London. The Society’s strong commitment to public engagement in recent years provided an opportunity for a more research-oriented exhibition which asked a simple question: can we think about exploration differently, using these same Collections which have inspired such great stories about heroic individuals? This was a kind of experiment, in which the Collections themselves were our field site: together with Lowri Jones, a researcher on the project, we set out to explore its contours, trying to make these other histories more visible.
Hidden Histories uses RGS collections to look at “role of local peoples and intermediaries in the history of global exploration.” Those of us who study exploration get excited by this, but how do you pitch it to the general public? How do you engage the exploration buff interested only in Peary, Stanley, or Columbus?
That’s a good question. The exploration publishing industry has returned over and over to the same stories. The lives of great explorers continue to sell well, and that is one aspect of the continuing vitality of what I call our culture of exploration. Still, recent developments in the field and in popular science publishing have encouraged authors and readers to shift the focus somewhat, turning the spotlight on lesser known individuals whose experiences have been overshadowed. Consider for example the success of some terrific popular works on the theme of exploration and travel such as Robert Whitaker’s The Mapmaker’s Wife, or Matthew Kneale’s novel English Passengers, which are all about large and complex issues of language, translation, misunderstanding and exchange. That gives you a bit of hope that actually readers are looking for something new, so long as there is a good story there! Of course it is not easy – so much simpler to tread the path of our predecessors. Sometimes it requires an exploring spirit to venture further from the beaten track….
What first drew you to the history of exploration? Is there particular question or theme that guides your research? How have your interests changed over time?
What drew me first to the history of exploration was a growing realization that the subject was more important to my own academic field – geography – than my teachers in the 1970s were prepared to admit. I was interested in the worldly role and impact of geographical knowledge, socially, economically and politically. When I was at school and college, ‘relevance’ was in the air and geographers were turning their attention to questions of policy and politics. My point was that geographical knowledge has been and continued to be hugely significant in the world beyond the academic, from travel writing to military mapping, and exploration provided one way into this. There were other ways into this worldly presence, of course, and the work of my PhD supervisor Derek Gregory has had a lasting influence.
Much of my own writing has focused strongly on the long nineteenth century, partly because this was a period in which I immersed myself for my PhD and first teaching (my first post was a joint appointment in history and geography). However, I was drawn to the work of social historians – at first EP Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class, later work influenced by new models of cultural history. Partly because of my appointment on the borders of two disciplines, I found myself increasingly attracted to fields – such as Victorian studies or the history of science – that were in a sense already interdisciplinary. In both these cases, an interest in space and location has had a strong impact on the best writing in the field. Historians like Jim Secord and Dorinda Outram, as well as geographers such as David N. Livingstone and Charles Withers, taught me a lot about the ways in which ideas about exploration circulate, and why it is important to think of knowledge in practical as well as intellectual terms.
My interest in the visual culture of exploration and travel reflects the strong focus on the visual has shaped the work of geographers in this area, pre-eminently Stephen Daniels and Denis Cosgrove. My interests developed through work with James Ryan, whose book on the photographic collections of the RGS remains a seminal work. Later I worked with Luciana Martins on a project on British images of the tropical world in which we were particularly concerned with the observational skills of ordinary seamen and humble collectors rather than the grand theorists of nature. In retrospect, this project paved the way for some of the themes in the hidden histories of exploration exhibition. But this exhibition also represents a departure for me as the focus is squarely on the work of non-Europeans. There is an interesting discussion to be had here about whether turning figures like Nain Singh or Jacob Wainwright into ‘heroes’, just like Stanley or Livingstone, is the way to go. Perhaps we can’t think of exploration without heroes, and it’s a matter of re-thinking what we mean by heroism. Or perhaps we historians need to do more than ruminate on the vices and virtues of particular explorers, by considering the networks and institutions which made their voyages possible and gave them a wider significance.
In Geography Militant, you warned that scholars were focusing on exploration too much as an “imperial will-to-power”  ignoring the unique and contingent qualities of each expeditionary encounter. You developed this argument further in Tropical Visions in an Age of Empire. Do you think scholars are now moving away from an “empire-is-everywhere” world view? If so, what do you think we are moving towards?
This is not an original view. Many of the best known historians and literary critics writing on empire have made similar points: I am thinking of Peter Hulme, Catherine Hall and Nicholas Thomas. What I take from them is a deep sense of what colonialism and empire meant – not just at the level of trumpets and gunboats, but in the very making of our sense of ourselves and our place in the world, past and present. At the same time, I have wanted to highlight the fractured, diverse nature of the colonial experience and I have never been happy with lumpen versions of ‘colonial discourse’ which used to be advanced within some versions of postcolonial theory. This interest in difference is reflected in my interest in moments of controversy and crisis, points where the uncertainties and tensions come to the surface (as in controversies over the expeditions of Henry Morton Stanley). You can’t work on exploration for long without realizing the strong emotional pull of the subject on explorers and their publics; and the fact quite simply that they were always arguing, either with ‘armchair geographers’ (those much maligned stay-at-homes) or with their peers. If these arguments were frequently staged if not orchestrated by others, that is part of the point: these controversies were more than simply the product of disputatious personalities, they were built in to the fabric of the culture which produced them.
What’s your next project?
In recent years I have worked on a variety of smaller projects on collectors and collecting, involving everything from insects to textiles. What I would like to do next is a book on the visual culture of exploration, drawing on a wide variety of materials from sketch-books to film. Some of these materials are represented in the hidden histories exhibition, notably the sketchbooks of John Linton Palmer and the 1922 Everest film featured on the website. But there is much left to explore!
Thanks for speaking with me.
Steph Davis climbs such outrageously steep things that one wonders whether sorcery is involved, that perhaps her gifts extend beyond climbing to include the manipulation of physics. She has put up first ascents on the world’s most frightening big-walls, from mountains in Pakistan and Baffin Island to Kyrgyzstan.
Davis is the first woman to free climb the Salathe Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite and to summit Torre Egger in Patagonia. She has also become an expert in BASE jumping (the acronym stands for Building, Antenna, Span, and Earth), a wild and unforgiving off-shoot of skydiving.
Yet Davis is also a scholar and accomplished writer. Her masters degree in literature focused on the canon of mountaineering literature. In her book, High Infatuation, Davis asks difficult questions about high-risk climbing, examining her own motives, personal relationships, and the broader meanings of her life’s work.
Welcome Steph Davis.
You’ve done some amazingly dangerous climbs, from Mt Fitztroy in Patagonia to the Salathe Wall on El Capitan. When you pursue projects like these, how do think through the risks? Is there a red line that you won’t cross? Or does the line change as you climb?
Climbing varies a lot with risk. For example, free climbing el cap is really difficult, but is much less risky than climbing in the mountains, even if the peak is technically easier to climb. So every style of climbing presents different challenges, in terms of difficult and danger, with lots of blurred lines too. I feel very aware of those elements, and at times I am pulled more towards pushing difficulty, and at other times more pulled toward negotiating risk.
For your masters thesis at Colorado State University, you studied mountaineering literature. Could you talk a bit about your project?
I was in the literature graduate program at CSU, and when the time came to do a master’s project, I tried to think of areas that would interest me. Finally I went to my committee and asked them if I could do the project on mountaineering literature. At the time, this didn’t exist as a field of study there. They were really receptive, and told me if I could write up a bibliography of works with short descriptions as part of the project, they would accept it. I chose a selection of mountaineering and climbing books I found canonical and made the bibliography, and then wrote a thesis project called “the reality of experience in mountaineering literature,” about the ways in which reality can be so disparate and shifting for each individual who is living through extreme experiences. I framed the project as a personal essay, around a summer spent climbing on the Longs Peak Diamond in Colorado, because that was a writing style I was studying a lot.
Do you identify with any particular explorer or mountaineer?
I will always be in awe of Ernest Shackleton, and what he accomplished.
When Darwin went to Patagonia, he carried a copy of Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative with him, an account of Humboldt’s own journeys through South America. Do you bring books with you on your climbs? Do you ever have other climbers’ experiences in mind as you make your ascent?
When I go on an expedition, I choose carefully since weight allowances force me to limit the books I bring, and I read very fast. So it‘s impossible to bring enough books for a whole trip. I usually try to bring some very thick, dense novels, also some books about natural science. I also bring one or two books in French or Spanish with a dictionary, because those can be entertaining for days. On actual climbs, I can barely spare the weight to bring food, much less books….but if I am climbing big wall style, I will always bring a journal.
You’ve written about the challenges of being a woman rock-climber in a male-dominated sport. Male climbers didn’t always take you seriously or belittled your accomplishments. Has that changed with your success as a climber or do you still feel like you are treated differently?
It has changed. I wrote about that phase in my book, because it was a strange experience for me. As time has gone by, that phase is over, and I’m relieved, because I didn’t appreciate it.
Do you think being a elite women climber affects the way you are treated by sponsors, fans, or the general public?
That is hard for me to answer. I have been climbing for 18 years, half my life, and have been climbing at a high level for a long time. So I don’t have much perspective versus not being that way. People I meet do tell me that they are inspired or motivated by things I’ve done, and that makes me feel good. But I also feel that doing all these things is not really so unique or special. Everyone I meet has done amazing things in life, they just might not have the same sense of drama attached.
Many people can identify with your struggle to balance family relationships with your work. Yet even by these standards, it seems that you spend a great deal of time away from your friends, family, and dog Fletcher. How do you find the balance point in your life between climbing and these relationships?
Living a simple life is really difficult sometimes, oddly enough. For me, the hardest challenge right now is balancing travel with climbing. Travel is about the worst thing I can do for climbing fitness, but sometimes it‘s necessary for work or certain climbing or jumping plans. When I am at home, on a schedule of working out, and living a simple life, I can climb my best. Being in cars and airplanes and not climbing regularly just doesn’t work….so it can be tricky. In recent years I started base jumping and wing suit flying. Now when I am traveling a lot, I take advantage of being in good jumping places, and focus on jumping instead. Which is great. It is also interesting right now, with Fletcher being 15 and very arthritic. She does not travel well, and mostly needs to be at home where she is comfortable since she can’t walk as well. I definitely prefer to do things which don’t require a lot of walking (certain climbing areas with short approaches where I can carry her and good campsites, skydiving at the local airport where she can be at the landing field, base jumps where she can hang out at the landing site) right now. I sometimes have to force myself to go running, because I really miss her when I run. And I worry a lot when I go on a trip for several weeks, right now.
After successfully free-climbing the Salathe Wall, you experienced a period of depression and self-doubt. As I understand it, you were trying to reconcile your beliefs in a philosophy of acceptance and mindfulness with the sometimes obsessive, single-focused determination you needed as a climber to reach your goals. Could you speak a bit about this? Does this conflict still affect you or have you come to terms with it?
The Salathe experience was pretty severe for me, partly because the climb took so much out of me. I was also dealing with a lot of challenges in my marriage, which made things even harder and raised a lot of questions about partnership, support, and giving. So the experience forced me into a lot of self-examination, and also eventually led me to conclude that there are positive ways to organize personal projects, without having to feel like a burden on others. So I feel very happy now when I get enthusiastic about a project, because I have found there are fun ways to involve others, without the sense of imbalanced giving or taking which is so often the characteristic of a major, individual climbing project, and that makes the entire experience very fulfilling.
It seems to me that the conflict you experienced after climbing the Salathe has parallels in the climbing community where some climbers seek some kind of inner peace or connection with nature whereas others are interested in peak-bagging and new ascents. Could you speak a bit about the culture of elite climbers? Is there a common set of values or is everyone different?
One of the best things about climbing is the fact that people can experience it in so many different ways.
What is your next big project?
Something involving free soloing!
Thanks Steph, good luck and safe travels.
History of exploration was just becoming a hot topic in the Academy when I started my graduate work in the mid-1990s. Academic interest attached itself to post-colonial studies, focusing on regions of the globe where Europeans and Euro-Americans had done most of their empire-building: Asia, Africa, and the Atlantic World.
The world of Polar exploration, however, remained quiet, a terra incognita of historical scholarship. Meanwhile, non-academic historians were churning out polar books in droves, on Robert Peary, Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton and others. I suspect that all of this attention caused academic historians to shy away even further, to view polar exploration as suspect, a popular rather than serious subject of inquiry.
It was in this environment that Beau Riffenburgh published his pathbreaking book Myth of the Explorer. Here was a scholarly approach to a “popular” subject, in this case a behind-the-scenes look at the most sensational explorers of the Victorian World. Riffenburgh’s book shattered explorers’ claims to be men of a different world, men built of a different mold. It showed how deeply embedded these men were in the world they left behind, in their values, their careers, and their financial dealings.
Myth of the Explorer thus offered academic historians a bridge to the other side, a way of approaching the sensational explorers with a different set of aims, a different list of questions. Although it is now out of print, Myth of the Explorer remains an essential resource for historians of Victorian exploration and it is cited in the works of Robert Kohler, Felix Driver, Graham Burnett, and Felipe-Fernandez Armesto. Its influence certainly extends to my own book Coldest Crucible.
It is a pleasure to welcome Beau Riffenburgh to Time to Eat the Dogs.
Your first book Myth of the Explorer looked beyond the heroic images of explorers slogging it out in the field to examine explorers’ actions back home, particularly their financial dealings with the popular press. This was a very different kind of exploration book when it came out in 1993. What led you to the project and your approach to it?
I long had been fascinated by exploration, particularly of the polar regions and Africa. I decided after working a number of years in publishing to go back for a PhD just because I wanted to spend several years researching something that really interested me. I had previously earned an MA in journalism, and also had strong interest in the history of the press. My PhD thesis, upon which Myth of the Explorer was based, allowed me to use these two interests to look at the other. Since the press played a significant role in sponsoring, promoting, and creating an interest in exploration, it seemed logical to use the press of the time as a vehicle through which to view exploration. At the same time exploration could be a subject by which to test several hypotheses that I had about the way the growth and use of sensational journalism is generally presented in studies of the history and development of the press.
How was it received?
In general, the book was received very well by reviewers. It was published by a small publisher, but it interested Oxford University Press enough that they sought it out to publish in paperback. I would like to think that it helped influence a number of scholars who have done studies since then.
You served as Publication director for the NFL in the 1980s, writing a variety of books about American football. Did your work for the NFL reveal to you any links between modern sports and 19th century exploration?
I was the senior writer for NFL Properties, the publishing and licensing branch of the NFL, and I essentially was director of historical research. I can’t say that my work there revealed any particular links between sports and exploration, but the switch between the two is not as bizarre as it initially sounds. I was one of several people around the country who conducted a good deal of research on what was sometimes known as the Ohio League, the informal grouping of professional football teams in Ohio and a few surrounding states before the founding of the NFL in 1920. This included many of the teams that went on to join the NFL, such as the Canton Bulldogs. I would like to say that the foremost scholar in this field, and one who is a marvellous researcher, is Bob Carroll, an independent researcher who lives in Pennsylvania and was the key founder of the Pro Football Researchers Association.
Anyway, the main point here is that much of this research was carried out by carefully going through old newspaper accounts of football games in order to obtain data held there but seemingly otherwise lost. When I began my PhD, I continued using nineteenth-century newspapers as my primary data source, and was able to use essentially the same collection methods. In other words, although my subject matter changed dramatically as I went to exploration, my methods remained similar, so it was not a huge change in what I had done before.
In recent years, you have published a number of trade books on exploration. Your latest book, Exploration Experience: The Heroic Exploits of the World’s Greatest Explorers (National Geographic Society, 2008) combines your essays with reproduced documents, photos, and artifacts from famous expeditions. How did the experience of writing Exploration Experience and these exploration books differ from writing Myth of the Explorer?
My two major books of the past five years have been Nimrod (published in the US as Shackleton’s Forgotten Expedition) in 2004 and Racing With Death in 2008. The first was the first account of the first expedition led by Ernest Shackleton, the British Antarctic Expedition (1907-09), on which he attained a farthest south. The second is an account of Douglas Mawson’s Antarctic expeditions, primarily his Australasian Antarctic Expedition (1911-14), on which he made perhaps the most amazing Antarctic journey ever. Both of these are scholarly books, written after extensive research in the archives where original materials are held, but, hopefully, written in a manner than will appeal to a general reader. I believe strongly that there is nothing stopping a book from being both scholarly and interestingly written.
Exploration Experience is a different type of book, in that it is heavily illustrated and contains, as you mention, memorabilia from numerous expeditions. Moreover, it is an attempt to give a look at the overall history of exploration, touching on the highlights rather than giving extensive detail about any one expedition. It was fun to write because it includes accounts of exploration in Asia, South America, Australia, and other areas that I had not written extensively about previously. The text is not one long narrative, but rather shorter highlights about different expeditions, so it is a totally different — but equally enjoyable — writing technique.
These differed from Myth of the Explorer in that they were more aimed at a general audience, whereas all along I felt that Myth of the Explorer would be more appropriate for a more specialist audience. I would like to think that all of them are enjoyable reads, but I think it is safe to say that Myth of the Explorer was not something that would grab the exploration enthusiast so easily as my more recent books.
Myth of the Explorer offered a sober, often critical portrait of Victorian explorers. Trade books on exploration, however, tend to be more forgiving of explorers’ motives and actions. Do you feel any tension in moving from one genre of writing to the other?
No, I try to follow the academic process throughout. I collect and analyze data and then present it in a fashion that I feel is fair, hopefully unbiased, and hopefully interesting. Nimrod, once to the ice, is, I hope, an exciting tale of adventure, but the materials for it were still compiled carefully and following the same “rules” of research as Myth of the Explorer. Since I have been writing and editing for a living for more than 25 years, stylistic changes in books are not excessively difficult to make, as shown by the fact that I have written a different book on a different aspect of the Mawson story in a different style. I hope it will be coming out in a year or so.
As an American living in England, you’ve had ample opportunity to compare national cultures. Do Britons and Americans think differently about exploration?
I can’t say that I think folks in Britain and the us think differently about the processes of exploration, but there tends to be a different emphasis perhaps. Regarding the polar regions, older generations in the UK grew up with the story of Robert Falcon Scott as something that everyone knew, and he was a great imperial hero, along the lines of Livingstone or Gordon. Perhaps because of this, and because of the Shackleton connection, in recent decades the Antarctic tends to have been a stronger general interest than the Arctic. The greatest American polar hero, on the other hand, was Robert E. Peary, an Arctic explorer. So although this is a huge generalization with all of the weaknesses that can be expected to accompany it, one finds a bit more Antarctic interest and knowledge in the UK and a bit more Arctic interest and knowledge in the US. This has somewhat changed with the Shackleton-mania that swept through the US and with the growth of tourism to the Antarctic, but it is at least a broad difference. And none of this is to say that neither country had any interests in the other region, as obviously Byrd was a great American hero and the British had any number of Arctic expeditions. Similarly, most Americans will learn more about Lewis and Clark and other explorers of North America, while many folks over here will be much more familiar with African exploration, for which many British explorers were key figures, such as Livingstone, Burton, Baker, etc.
What do you think about the United States’ current Vision for Space Exploration, a plan to send astronauts back to the Moon and ultimately to Mars?
I think that space exploration is very exciting. However, I do think that it is a totally different process than the exploration that was carried out in the nineteenth century. Then, to a great extent, it was based on man’s heart, will, and personal strength and determination. Now the man going into outer space would play a key role, but a very different role, since he is a part of a much larger package that requires a great deal more technological involvement. I think that much of the shift has been from man’s inner strength to his intellect.
What’s your next project?
I am currently working on a follow-uo to Exploration Experience that concentrates on polar exploration, using the same format. I am also hoping to write a lengthy book about an explorer in a totally new (for me) area of the world, but I have been asked by the potential publishers not to discuss it at this time.
A mystery to whet the appetite. Beau, thanks for speaking with us.