Monday, January 9, 2017

Polaris: The Chief Scientist's Recollections of the American North Pole Expedition, 1871-73

Polaris: The Chief Scientist's Recollections of the American North Pole Expedition, 1871-73

Translated and Edited by William Barr

U. Calgary Press $44.95 (ebook free)

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

Since it's already been the subject of quite a number of books -- Chauncey Loomis's Weird and Tragic Shores, not to mention dueling exposés by Bruce Henderson (Fatal North) and Richard Parry (Trial by Ice), one might be forgiven for thinking that there's not much new to be learned about the ill-fated Polaris expedition to the North Pole commanded by Charles Francis Hall in 1871. One would be wrong, of course.

The expedition's doctor, Emil Bessels, published his own account of the voyage in Germany in 1879 under the title Die Amerikanische Nordpol-Expedition, but until now, there has been no English translation of his memoir. Thankfully, William Barr has undertaken this invaluable project, as he did earlier with Heinrich Klutschak's account of the Schwatka expedition, and this edition has all the customary hallmarks of his care and erudition. And, as Barr notes in an Epilogue, there's a new reason to take an interest in Bessels' version of events, since evidence has recently emerged giving him a powerful motive to have murdered his commander.

Those expecting such a book to have a lurid element will, however, be disappointed. Bessels, whatever his human failings, turns out to have been quite a good writer, seasoning his account with humor, relating events dispassionately, and demonstrating substantial knowledge of previous polar exploration. Early on, in giving his account of Isaac Israel Hayes's claim of a new furthest north, along with the sighting of an "open polar sea," Bessels offers an acute analysis, showing that Hayes's observations are completely inconsistent with both claims. Of course, it helped that the Polaris had just sailed through, and beyond, this purported open sea, but the clarity of his assessment is still impressive.

A few pages later, we're treated to one of the more wryly delightful accounts of the frustrations of shipboard dining in the frozen north that I know:
The food that was served up hot suffered a more significant cooling on its trip from the platter to the plate, and from the latter to the mouth, than the crust of the earth did at the start of the Ice Age; and food that came cold to the table became even colder there, before it could be eaten. Mayonnaise attained the consistency that properly prepared arrowroot ought to possess; English mustard reached the degree of hardness that a sculptor gives his modelling clay, and butter acquired the consistency of air-dried Swiss cheese.  Anyone who had a feeling heart beating in his breast would be moved to deep sadness by the sight of the sour pickled cucumbers. Half a dozen cycles of thawing and freezing which they had experienced in succession had etched massive wrinkles in their youthfully green skins which covered the wrinkled, shrunken flesh in folds. Surrounded by plump onions, slender beans and crisp heads of cauliflower that swam in crisping vinegar, they formed the saddest component that any still-life ever incorporated. 
Through passages such as these, the reader, quite naturally, begins to trust Bessels' account, and so of course wonders how he will treat of the death of his commander -- but here he or she will be disappointed. Hall's sickness and death are dealt with in very plain and prosaic manner, a bit surprising for someone who as the ship's doctor might feel that his readers would expect a greater degree of medical detail. There is, however, a telling moment after Bessels describes Hall's burial; he offers as his elegy a stanza from Canto 32 of Dante's Inferno.  The passage, which he may have chosen for its evocative imagery of sinners buried up to their necks in ice, has another significance: it's from that particular circle of Hell where those who have been treacherous to kin and country are punished.

Tookoolito at Hall's Grave (from a sketch by Bessels)
For there can be little doubt that Bessels possessed not only the means, but the motive for murdering Hall. As Barr notes, letters written by him to the young sculptress Vinnie Ream, with whom both he and Hall dined on several occasions before sailing, show that he was infatuated with her; my own research revealed that Hall, too, had special feelings for Ream (though his may have well been merely platonic). Bessels couldn't have helped but have noticed the gifts for Hall, including a miniature copy of her famous bust of Abraham Lincoln, that arrived by steamer at the Polaris's last stop at Upernavik, which were prominently displayed in his cabin. Jealousy, it seems, got the best of him, and augmented by the general resentment against Hall felt by others of the German scientific staff, led him to poison the captain's coffee with arsenic, with additional injections as "treatment" (Bessels claimed these were quinine), leading to the slow painful death of the one man who might, had he lived, have managed a sledge-trip to the pole.

Yet despite our knowledge of his crime, Bessels remains an observant and even charming narrator, and as Hall's death recedes into the background, the tale takes on, once again, the general descriptive tones of exploration narrative. As Barr notes, there's considerable information about climate, flora, and fauna, not to mention early Inuit settlements, that is elsewhere unavailable. Among these passages, though, there are some which raise still another concern.  According to the testimony given at the board of inquiry, the logbooks and journals from the Polaris were lost -- and yet Bessels, oblivious to this (or perhaps thinking his German readers would be unacquainted with the circumstances), seems at places to be drawing from them. It raises suspicions as to whether Bessels might have absconded with some of the missing logbooks, which might well have contained material he thought could incriminate him.

One gets the impression that Bessels was a methodial, efficient man who took pride in his scientific work, and hoped that his association with the disastrous expedition would not impede his overall career. If so, his hopes were largely unfulfilled; although a participant in some minor expeditions in the years after Polaris, the more ambitious ones he sought were postponed or cancelled due to difficulties with funding and other support. Along the way, he lost his office at the Smithsonian, and a fire destroyed his home near Washington D.C. (and with it, one supposes, any evidence for malfeasance there might have been among his papers); his last few years were marked by illness and instability, and he died of a heart attack at the age of forty-one.

William Barr, as ever, has produced a well-translated and throughly annotated edition. Extensive footnotes clarify many of Bessels' more obscure references, and the end-matter of the book includes a note on the new evidence as to his motive for murdering Hall, an account of the finding of the Board of Inquiry in his case, brief biographies of the senior members of the Polaris expedition, and a thorough bibliography. The University of Calgary Press has done the scholarly world a favor by making the book available as a free .pdf, but the printed version is well worth it; the quality of its production is high, and it's a book that deserves to be on the shelf beside any other accounts of the Polaris affair. It balances them, both with what it adds -- and what we know it withholds -- from that tragic story.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

At the End of the World: A True Story of Murder in the Arctic

At the End of the World: A True Story of Murder in the Arctic

By Lawrence Millman

St. Martin's Press, 2017

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

The Arctic has been the theme of many a book – tales of  lost explorers, stories of oddball nothern "characters," and ecological parables of that bellwether northern zone. And yet some, though true in every particular to that portion of the earth which is their theme, have had a deep and profound resonance throughout a far wider swathe of our human experience. Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams, and John McPhee's Coming Into the Country come to mind. Lawrence Millman's At the End of the World is one of these.

Millman's central story – that of a fit of religiously-inflected madness in which a number of Inuit on the remote Belcher Islands in Hudson Bay set upon their neighbors, whom they regarded as incarnations of  "Satan" –  is the main, but in a sense only partial theme of this book. Our solid-seeming world may end in any of a great number of ways, not just a bang or a whimper – and Millman's genius here is a matter of sensing out the proportions. In the Belcher Islands, the whole universe might be condensed into a single village, one by the name of Sanikiluaq  from which vantage-point, during the author's visit there, the rest of the world was but a phantom on a glowing box. It's often observed that we southerners have little notion of the day-to-day nature of life in the Arctic, but the reverse may also apply – and so it was, that when by chance the destruction of the World Trade towers took place in the midst of Millman's visit, its image on the television became even more surreal. The Inuit residents were at first inclined to change the channel to something more amusing, like a Road Runner cartoon, but switched it back when one man observed "There's an American here, and his country is falling down."

But that's just one "end" of one world. The other had come sixty years earlier, and the Belcher Islands had been its epicenter. It came in the form of a shooting star, which persuaded many Inuit there that perhaps the "end times" they'd read about in their syllabic Bibles were at hand. Its chief apocalyptic horseman was one Peter Sala, a local hunter who decided one day that he was God, and that anyone who didn't like that idea was probably Satan. Another man, Charlie Ouyerack, soon decided that he was Jesus, and God and Jesus joined forces to destroy the evil among them and prepare for the Second Coming. No rough beast ever slouched quite as low as these men, who began beating people to death and shooting them. Yet despite their depravity, their acts paled before those of Sala's sister Mina, whose mind gave way under the enormous pressure to conform to these new deities. She declared that Jesus was coming – right away – and summoned everyone out onto the ice. At her behest, many of them shed their fur clothing; the idea was that one should go to meet one's maker naked as the day one was born.

Of course nearly all of them died. One woman, the only one who had stayed behind, came out to those on the ice, and managed to get several of them, including Mina and two children, to return to the village, if not to their senses, but six others remained and soon froze to death. The aftermath of these deaths, which were belatedly investigated by the RCMP, is its own story, fraught with all the issues of religion, local culture, and the line between murderous intent and mental illness, and Millman tells it well. But despite the book's subtitle, these stories, though at the heart of the book, are only one of its interwoven themes. From the glowing box in the house in 2001 in Sanikiluaq, we move back and forth – back to Robert Flaherty's filming of Nanook of the North in 1921, and forward to our own moment, and our own ubiquitous portable glowing screens. We have, in Millman's view, become our own islands, disconnected from any sense of ourselves as much or more than this isolated Inuit village is from the rest of the world. We have lost, in his view, something more profound than perspective -- we have lost our essential humanity, becoming the servants of the machines we built to serve us.

It's a potent meditation, the more so for its dual anchors in the two worlds traversed by the book, and its resonance reaches far and wide. It remains possible, the reader discovers, for a single person in a small place to discover something about ourselves that the rest of us never stopped to notice. It's happened before – with Thoreau at Walden, Muir in his woods, or Rachel Carson in her office at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries – but it doesn't happen often. Millman's epigrammatic style – a departure from the straightforward (but no less lyrical) one of his many previous books – is its own sly benefactor; under its spell, we become open to insights that neither simple storytelling nor argumentative diatribes could have brought us.

In the final chapter of Walden, Thoreau exhorts his readers to turn away from earthly exploration, to "be rather the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clark and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans; explore your own higher latitudes." In this book, Lawrence Millman shows us that it's possible to travel to both places -- the ends of the earth and our interior poles -- at the same time.

Monday, December 19, 2016

A Wretched and Precarious Situation

A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In Search of the Last Arctic Frontier

by David Welky

New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017 [2016].

Reviewed by Kenn Harper

In late June of 1906 Robert Peary stood on a mountain top on Ellesmere Island and surveyed Nansen Sound, still ice-covered, to the west, and beyond it a land that he called Jesup’s Land, which we know today as Axel Heiberg Island. And to the northwest? Much later he wrote, “… northwest it was with a thrill that my glasses revealed the faint white summits of a distant land…”

A few days later, having crossed Nansen Sound with his two guides, Iggiannguaq and Ulloriaq, he climbed Cape Thomas Hubbard. From there, he later wrote, “… with the glasses I could make out apparently a little more distinctly, the snow-clad summits of the distant land in the north-west, above the ice horizon…. in fancy I trod its shores and climbed its summits, even though I knew that that pleasure could be only for another in another season.”

Thus, on Robert Peary’s penultimate northern expedition, was born the legend of Crocker Land.

In 1913, another expedition left the United States, bound for northwestern Greenland. Two young men, George Borup and Donald MacMillan, were to have been its co-leaders, but Borup drowned accidentally in Long Island Sound some months before the expedition’s departure. In 1908-09 both had been tenderfeet on Peary’s last expedition, in which he claimed to have reached the North Pole. Both worshipped Peary. They knew that he would never return to the Arctic. But even before their return to America, they determined that they would come back – together they would find Crocker Land. The pleasure of “another in another season” would be theirs. After Borup’s untimely death, the mantle of leadership for the expedition they had planned, sponsored in the main by the American Museum of Natural History, fell on MacMillan.

David Welky, a historian with the University of Central Alabama, has written a history of the Crocker Land Expedition. A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In Search of the Last Arctic Frontier is a welcome, indeed long-overdue, contribution to Arctic history. At 502 pages, it is an exhaustive (but not exhausting) look at the expedition, its successes (few) and failings (many).

MacMillan’s expedition was planned to last two years. For some of its participants, it lasted four; others managed to leave the Arctic after three. MacMillan’s personal failure happened in the first year of the expedition. In the spring of 1914 he and Fitzhugh Green, an ensign in the United States Navy, crossed Ellesmere Island by way of Beitstad Fiord, then sledded north up Eureka and Nansen sounds to Cape Thomas Hubbard on Axel Heiberg Island, from where Peary had claimed his second sighting of Crocker Land almost eight years earlier. Accompanied by two experienced Inuit, Piugaattoq and Ittukusuk, they travelled northwest over the ice surface. On April 21, MacMillan sighted his goal, a huge island, complete with “hills, valleys, snow-capped peaks extending through at least one hundred and twenty degrees of the horizon.” He was ecstatic.

But there was nothing there. Piugaattoq told him it was nothing but pujoq – mist. MacMillan couldn’t believe him. For five days, they chased their phantom island – perhaps a continent – over increasingly dangerous sea ice. But finally MacMillan conceded defeat. “My dreams of the last four years were merely dreams, my hopes had ended in bitter disappointment,” he wrote. It was a “will-o’-the-wisp, ever receding, ever changing, ever beckoning.” He had been tricked by an Arctic mirage, a deceit of the atmospheric conditions of springtime and the shifting sea ice. Crocker Land was an illusion.

Welky delves deep into the origins of the Crocker Land myth. Peary, it turns out, had made no mention of his sighting of land to the northwest of Axel Heiberg Island in his diary entries made at the time, nor in the cairn records he left on site. Nor did he mention it on his return to New York, not even at a meeting of the Peary Arctic Club in December of 1906, at which George Crocker was in attendance. And not even in the draft of his book, Nearest the Pole. The name makes its first appearance in the published version of that book, and even there it does not appear in the text, but only on the accompanying map. The text, and that of a magazine article published at about the same time, refers only to the “faint white summits” and “snow-clad summits” of the distant land. What was Peary’s motivation in deciding, sometime between writing the draft and the final text of the book, that he would claim to have seen land far out in the Arctic sea? Simply this: His 1906-7 expedition was a disaster that had produced no tangible results, but he would need some result in order to secure funds for yet another expedition. Welky concludes, as have many others, that Peary was not averse to lying. He had “lied about reaching Greenland’s north shore” in 1892, and he was lying again when he “… saw a fata morgana…” and should have known that he was witnessing a mirage. “Nothing worth writing about in his cache notes or diary, but convincing enough to inspire a story about new land,” writes Welky. “Then he inserted the remarkable tale into his book in order to raise money.”

Welky sums up MacMillan’s (and Borup’s) belief in their mentor succinctly: “Crocker Land was an illusion that grew into a lie that took on a life of its own. Borup and MacMillan turned the lie into a dream…” But even in defeat, MacMillan maintained his belief in Peary. Welky writes, “When Crocker Land evaporated, he was convinced that the Arctic had deceived Peary, not that Peary had deceived him.”

The Crocker Land Expedition shattered more than MacMillan’s dream. One participant was, or became, a madman who literally got away with murder. This was Fitzhugh Green, scientist and would-be poet, who was the only white man with MacMillan on the actual search for Crocker Land. On the return leg, the two men took separate routes, each travelling with his own guide along the shores of Axel Heiberg Island. During a storm, Green misunderstood the actions of his guide, Piugaattoq, who forced the American to walk behind the sled to keep his toes from freezing. Green complained that he could not keep up, but Piugaattoq knew that keeping a steady pace was imperative. Green, feeling that his guide was abandoning him, shot the man, recording matter-of-factly in his journal, “I shot once in the air. He did not stop. I then killed him with a shot through the shoulder and another through the head.” Green confessed his deed to MacMillan. He was never charged nor punished. But the other white men of the expedition learned of it, and it drove a wedge through the camp.

All this within the first year. During the rest of the expedition, MacMillan managed to do some surveying, and Ekblaw made some heroic trips. But the early camaraderie disintegrated after the murder of Piugaatoq, and MacMillan proved himself an ineffective leader. One might expect the rest of the book to be anticlimactic, as it might well have been in the hands of a less skillful author. But Welky is a superb writer, and he mines the interpersonal relationships of the expedition’s participants – the loyalties, the friendships grown or torn asunder, the cultural insensitivities – as effectively as he describes the travel, the exploration into unknown territory, and the constant flirtation with death at the hands of the elements.

A less skilled author might have been tempted to focus on the heroism of the search for Crocker Land – for a journey over unpredictable ice in often-blizzard conditions, whether the objective is reached or not, or real or not, is heroism nonetheless and makes a compelling tale – and then relegate the denouement to a final chapter or two. But Welky has not taken this easy way out. He unwinds the expedition as meticulously as he had set it up. MacMillan’s party does not even reach northwestern Greenland until page 134 of this book – the author sets the stage for the expedition, its inspiration, the administrivia of its organization, the backgrounds of its personnel, in considerable detail. Similarly, he meticulously documents the last two years of the expedition, a stay in northern Greenland prolonged by the failure of relief ships to arrive or even be seaworthy. One bright point in what for some participants was a time of despair and boredom was MacMillan’s trip of pure exploration with only Inuit companions to the unknown region west of Axel Heiberg Island.

The illustrations for this book are well-chosen. One map shows the area and most of the relevant place names, but the reader might have benefited by the inclusion of more maps with more detail of the 1914 Crocker Land attempt and MacMillan’s 1916 journey. Welky has wisely avoided the use of the out-dated word Eskimo in his text, opting instead for the self-designation of the people of northwestern Greenland, the word Inughuit; this is a plural word, a variant of the more general Inuit, and the singular form for both is Inuk. But it can be a daunting task for the writer who does not speak Inuktun, the language of the Polar Inuit, to keep this nomenclature straight. On occasion Welky slips up and refers to “an Inughuit” or “a true Inughuit” – an impossibility – but is generally consistent in using Inuk as the singular form. In a footnote on page 461, he is in unfamiliar territory when he refers to McClure’s abandoned ship, Investigator, providing the Inughuit with a source of metal; but these were people in the western Canadian Arctic, who do not describe themselves as Inughuit – the proper term should simply be Inuit. He also uses the term Polar Inuit in reference to the people once known as Polar Eskimos. Welky has consistently used the spelling Battle Harbor for the telegraph station on the Labrador coast, but this is incorrect for it is an official place name and should be spelled in the Canadian manner as Battle Harbour. But these are minor quibbles in a book this good.

As the long centennial of the Crocker Land Expedition finally draws to a close in 2017, a reading of A Wretched and Precarious Situation would be an appropriate way to celebrate this little-known and much-misunderstood expedition.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Lines in the Ice

Lines in the Ice: Exploring the Roof of the World

by Philip Hatfield

Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2016

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

Over the years, the staff here at the Arctic Book Review have seen more than our share of large-format pictorial books about the Arctic, its explorers, and inhabitants. Yet until now, no single book has so richly brought together all the historical, cultural, and geographical aspects of the frozen zone in quite the way that Philip Hatfield's Lines in the Ice manages. From Hakluyt's charts in the sixteenth century to the very latest in digital maps, we see here, in  panoramic procession, the full panoply of our predilection with the Earth's vast, yet far from trackless northern regions.

Part of this is by design; the book is, in essence, an extended, expanded catalogue of an exhibition of the same name at the British Library, whose resources in this, as in other areas of visual culture, are enormous. The differences between this and your typical exhibition book are, however, significant; not only does each image or group of images receive an astute curatorial commentary, but these individual sections are woven, with considerable care, into a larger narrative which goes well beyond the usual scope of a simple exhibition. Hatfield's text is, in essence, a series of micro-histories which illustrate the macro-history of our human encounters with, and conceptions of, the Arctic. This approach lends itself to casual browsing, but repays the reader who undertakes a further journey with richer rewards.

There are many highlights: woodcuts from Kaladlit Okalluktuallait (Greenland Legends, 1859); color plates from Gerrit de Veer's 1598 account of William Barents' voyages, William Scoresby's etchings of individual snowflakes, and full-page plates from 1850's Illustrated Arctic News. Many of these will be familiar to Arctic aficionados, but there are also some quite striking images that have seldom been reproduced before, or so well: a double-page image of the wearable inflatable "Halkett Boat"; a three-color map from Maxim Gorky's book extolling the promise of the White Sea--Baltic Canal; Rockwell Kent's lithographic frontispiece to Salamina; or Moses Pitt's illuminated maps of the "North Pole" and Lapland from his 1680 English Atlas. For myself, always looking for Franklin-related images, I was delighted to see three pages from my friend John Harrington's hand-illuminated journals of his Franklin searches in the 1990's. The book concludes, indeed, with the golden sonar image of HMS "Erebus," as she was discovered by Parks Canada's underwater archaeologists in 2014 -- a fitting reminder of the limits of human endeavor, and yet also of the value of human curiosity.

In short, Hatfield's book offers everything the armchair explorer might want, but it does not hold back from showing the uglier side of the Arctic: the disruption of the lives of its native peoples, the exploitation of its natural resources, or its place as the site of numerous Soviet-era prison camps and gulags (see the White Sea--Baltic Canal above). Along the way it provides, for a region too often regarded as blank, cold and monotonous, a rich and fully-dimensional counterpoint: these lines in the ice are our lines, and its histories are as germane to our own modern identity as those of any of the Earth's more temperate regions.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Minds of Winter

Minds of Winter

by Ed O'Loughlin

London: riverrun, 2016

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

Over the years here at the ABR we've reviewed quite a few novels inspired by one or another aspect of the lost Arctic expedition commanded by Sir John Franklin. Since 1990, when Mordecai Richler 'broke the ice,' as it were, with Solomon Gursky Was Here, there have been at least twenty of them, and in their pages we have had just about every version of Franklin one can imagine. As Margaret Atwood whimsically prophesied in a CBC documentary in 1994, we've gone all the way from 'Franklin the dolt' to 'Franklin the mystic' -- and many other versions in-between. Franklin's seconds have not been neglected (Crozier and Fitzjames having a novel apiece), nor have his Dene and Inuit guides, the prisoners he oversaw in Van Diemen's Land, or his persevering, long-searching wife.

And now we have Ed O'Loughlin's Minds of Winter -- which may well be the Franklin novel to end all Franklin novels. Never have so many different narrative threads been taken up and twined together; the cast of characters here includes Crozier, Joseph René Bellot, William Kennedy, Joe Ebierbing, Jack London, Cecil Meares, Roald Amundsen, and even Albert Johnson, the "Mad Trapper of Rat River." It would seem a daunting task to connect so many historical figures in a single volume, something like trapping demons in a cursed box, but the talisman that O'Loughlin employs is deceptively modest: a single marine chronometer, Arnold 294, which showed up intact at a 2009 auction in the UK when it was supposed to have been issued to Franklin's ships 164 years previously.

There is a frame narrative -- though in a house as crowded with giants as this one is, its structure at times seems almost too slight for it to stand. It centers on Nelson Nilsson and Fay Morgan, two young people with curious family connections to the Arctic, who encounter one another by chance at the airport in Inuvik, Northwest Territories. Fay is retracing the steps of her grandfather who once worked on the D.E.W. line, while Nelson is seeking his older, smarter brother Bert, who seems -- before his disappearance -- to have been an avid polar history buff. We read the historical chapters of the novel, as it were, over their shoulders as they poke around in Bert's files, but for us the dry documents expand into vivid visions, as though experienced in a Potterian "pensieve."

And so it is that the protagonist of this book, in one sense, is neither Nelson nor Fay nor any of the many far-faring men and women whose peregrinations perturb the incompletely-explored world -- it is we ourselves. We are the ones who must struggle to render meaning, must weigh and measure the value of many lives, must chart our own course through the narrative labyrinth.

And at times, along with the explorers, we too become lost. And just then, somewhere in each tale, hidden away in a box, a drawer, or a rucksack, we find the chronometer, or it finds us. With its aid, we hitch a series of rides to the ends of the earth, passing from the era of one explorer to another. Time and distance, measured in its chronometric ticks, become the same thing, and we grow accustomed to moving in quantum leaps. And finally, in the end, although confronted with both sublime and mundane explanations of it all, we're extended a curious kind of subatomic-particle possibility: that perhaps, in the novel's alternate universe, everything that is beautiful is true.
BONUS: Read our interview with the author, Ed O'Loughlin.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Greatest Show in the Arctic

The greatest show in the Arctic: The American exploration of Franz Josef Land, 1898-1905.

By P. J. Capelotti.
University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.
ISBN 978-0-8061-5222-6

Reviewed by William Barr.

The American contribution to the exploration of Franz Josef Land, the Russian archipelago north of the Barents Sea, occurred during what were effectively three separate expeditions – the expeditions which are the focus of Capelotti’s book – over the period 1898-1905. The aim of all three expeditions was to reach the North Pole; ironically, however, none of them attained any significant distance north of Rudolf Island, the northernmost island of that archipelago. The irony was that during this same period a party from the Duke of the Abruzzi’s expedition, led by Cagni Umberto and starting from Rudolf Island, reached the record high latitude of 86° 34’N (Amedeo of Savoy 1903)! On the other hand the Americans did contribute significantly to the exploration of the archipelago.  The first of these expeditions, in 1898-99 was that of journalist Walter Wellman.  He had previously mounted an attempt at the Pole from Svalbard, using sledges and aluminum boats in 1894; it, however came to grief when the expedition ship Ragnvald Jarl was wrecked by the ice off Waldenøya north of Nordaustlandet.

Undaunted by this, in 1898 Wellman tried again, this time from Franz Josef Land.  This time he headed north in a chartered steamer, Frithjof, from Tromsø. Incomprehensibly, he had made no arrangements for a relief vessel to come to retrieve the expedition members the following year,  assuming simply that a Norwegian  sealing or whaling vessel might visit Franz Josef Land in 1899 and that its captain could be persuaded to take him and his men back south.  He sent a message to his brother by the returning Frithjof to make the necessary arrangements. Wellman’s team consisted of both Americans and Norwegians. Second-in-command was Evelyn Briggs Baldwin, an employee of the U.S. Weather Service, with no previous Arctic experience.

After calling at Cape Flora on Northbrook Island, where one of the buildings left by the earlier British expedition of Frederick George Jackson  (Jackson 1899) was dismantled and loaded  aboard to act as the expedition’s main base,  Fritjhof probed the south coasts of the archipelago but was everywhere blocked by ice.  Wellman therefore decided to establish  his main base at Cape Tegetthoff at the southern tip of Hall Island; it was named Harmsworth House. Once the base was established Wellman remained there, dispatching Baldwin with a sledge-and-boat party consisting of three Norwegians, Paul Bjørvig, Bent Bentsen and Emil Ellefsen to head north as far as possible, preferably to Rudolf Island, in order to establish an advance base. They travelled with 48 dogs, two sledges, a wooden boat and a canvas boat. At Cape Frankfurt, at the eastern tip of Hall Island they found that the ice in Austrian Sound had broken up completely.  While Wellman himself remained comfortably at Cape Frankfurt he ordered the Norwegians to make repeated trips (a total of eight) in their small oared boats across the potentially dangerous open waters of Austrian Sound – and this on extremely limited rations.

Ultimately, with Baldwin they reached Cape Heller at the northwest end of Wilczek Land and there built a stone hut which they named Fort McKinley.  This was to be the advance base. Relations between Baldwin and the Norwegians were by this time  almost at breaking point.  Baldwin then returned south to the relative comfort of Harmsworth House from which Wellman had still not stirred, leaving Bjørvik and Bentsen to spend the winter at Fort McKinley with most of the dogs. Bentsen fell ill and died on January 1899. Bjørvik complied with his wishes that his body not be moved outside where it might be  molested by foxes or bears and thereafter Bjørvik shared his sleeping bag with the frozen corpse for the rest of the winter.  He was relieved by a party led by Wellman on 27 February 1899.  Once Bentsen had been buried Wellman and party continued north and by 21 March had reached the eastern end of Rudolf Island.  At this point Wellman caught his leg in a crack in  the ice and fractured his shin.  Unable to walk he abandoned his polar attempt; by 9 April 1899 the party was back at Harmsworth House.

As if to compensate for this failure on 26 April Baldwin set off with four Norwegians to explore the eastern boundaries of the archipelago. On 4 May the party reached a large unknown island which was named Graham Bell Land.  They skirted around its eastern and northern sides before returning to Harmsworth House.  On 27 July 1899 the surviving expedition members were picked up by the sealing vessel Capella and by 20 August they were back in Tromsø.  By 8 October Wellman was back in New York.

On his return to the United States Baldwin resigned his position with the U.S. Weather Service but negotiated a special contract to write up the meteorological and auroral results from the year on Franz Josef Land.  But he became fascinated by the fate of Salomon Andrée the Swede who, with two companions had disappeared in the Arctic in an attempt to reach the North Poole in a hydrogen balloon Ornen in 1897, and became obsessed with the idea of mounting a search for Andrée and his companions, in combination with a further attempt of his own from Franz Josef  Land, clearly undismayed by his earlier failure.  By pure luck he was able to interest a well-heeled sponsor in this idea: William Ziegler a multi-millionaire who had initially made his fortune in the Royal Baking Powder Company.  By October 1900 Ziegler had committed himself to funding another polar attempt.  Baldwin chartered the Dundee whaling ship, Esquimaux which he renamed America. Under a Swedish sailing master, Carl Johanson, and with a Swedish crew, it sailed from Dundee on 28 June 1901, initially to Tromsø; there it made rendezvous with another vessel, Belgica which had been chartered to establish a depot on northeast Greenland in case Baldwin returned south by that route. On board America were 15 Americans and double that number of men of other nations.  At Honningsvaag  America was joined by a third vessel, Frithjof, also laden with a vast quantity of expedition equipment, supplies and provisions.  First the two ships called at Arkhangelsk where they took aboard 428 dogs, 15 ponies  and 6 Russian dog-drivers and pony handlers. From there the two vessels headed north to Franz Josef Land.

Although Baldwin had hoped to establish his base as far north in the archipelago as possible, he found all the channels between the islands blocked with ice and elected instead to establish his base on Alger Island, one of the most southerly islands, which America reached on 18 August.  Unloading from both ships proceeded immediately; the base was named Camp Ziegler.  Frithjof then returned south. Baldwin then procrastinated for two months, allegedly hoping to take America further north, but allegedly blocked by ice on each attempt; he prevaricated by establishing a second base, West Camp Ziegler on Alger Island and making further trips east to the south end of Austrian Channel, which was still blocked with ice.  America then became frozen in off Alger Island.

Frictions between Baldwin and sailing master Johanson, who considered himself the ship’s captain, and indeed between Baldwin and almost every member of the expedition, rapidly developed over the winter.  However they all optimistically assumed that he was still serious about trying to reach the North Pole.  The first sledge party, using dogs and ponies, left East Camp Ziegler on 3 April 1902, bound for a halfway station, Kane Lodge on Greely Island, almost in the center of the archipelago.  Then in April Baldwin established a further depot on Coburg Island and finally, on 3 April managed to reach Rudolf Island, where the northernmost depot was established just short of Cape Auk on the west coast of the island. On 3 May Baldwin tried to reach Teplitz Bay, the site of the Duke of the Abruzzi’s main base in 1898-99, but was stopped by open water.  Thus his depot at what Baldwin called Boulder Depot would be the most northerly point reached by the Baldwin-Ziegler expedition. Baldwin started back south on 5 May.  From Kane Lodge he made a side-trip west to Jackson Island where he found the primitive stone hut in which Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen had “hibernated” over the winter of 1895-96 after they had left the icebound Fram in an attempt to reach the North Pole (Nansen 1897).  He found a message which Nansen had left before continuing south to a fortunate encounter with Frederick Jackson at Cape Flora.  During this side-trip and on the final lap south to Alger Island Baldwin did make a useful contribution to unraveling the complex geography of the central part of the archipelago.  He was back on board America by 21 May 1902.

On 25 June the ice around America began to break up and the ship drifted away from Alger Island.  For two weeks the ship tried to fight clear of the ice and during one bout of ice pressure on 15 July there were serious fears that the ship would be crushed and/or lose its rudder, already damaged in the ice.  On the 18th the ship broke out of Aberdare Channel.  Inexplicably Baldwin then proposed heading west to Cape Flora.  Ice pilot Magnus Arnesen and engineer Henry Hartt disobeyed his order to this effect and turned the ship south.  It emerged into open water on 28 July and, with less than two tons of coal left, reached Honningsvaag, northern Norway on 1 August.

As the American members of the expedition returned to the United States assorted newspaper articles began to appear, revealing the almost total failure of the expedition in terms of its stated objective. Summoned to Ziegler’s office on his return to New York Baldwin was raked over the coals by the multi-millionaire.  What particularly enraged Ziegler was that Baldwin had forced eight of the men to stay for the winter at Camp Ziegler, while he returned south (a plan which he quickly abandoned) and worst of all, had made them sign a contract of service to him personally rather than to Ziegler.  This was the last straw and Ziegler relieved Baldwin of command of the expedition. He replaced him as leader of yet another attempt at reaching the North Pole, starting in 1903, with the photographer from the previous expedition, Anthony Fiala (Fiala 1906). On 23 June 1903, under the command of Edward Coffiin, an experienced American whaling captain, and with Henry Hartt again in charge of the engines, America put to sea from Trondheim, where  it had been undergoing repairs.  After calling at Tromsø and Arkhangelsk the ship finally sailed from Vardø on 10 July with 39 men, 218 dogs and 30 ponies on board.  This time Ziegler’s agent, William Champ, had made arrangements for a relief vessel to call at Cape Flora in the summer of 1904.

America reached Cape Flora on 12 August and from there fought its way north through ice-infested British Channel.  It passed Cape Auk and Teplitz Bay on the evening of 30 August but was finally brought to a halt by heavy polar pack at 82° 13’ 50”N – the highest north latitude reached during any of the three expeditions.  Fiala then retreated to Teplitz Bay.  Coffin recommended that the ship winter at Coburg Island but Fiala overruled him and insisted that the ship winter in dangerously exposed Teplitz Bay. Ponies, dogs,  and cargo were unloaded and the vast quantity of pemmican and provisions previously hauled north to Boulder Depot was retrieved while a large tent was erected on shore and named Camp Abruzzi and a stable for the ponies raised next to it.  The expedition then settled down for the winter with the 15 members of the expedition (scientists and support staff) in Camp Abruzzi, and the ship’s crew on board America, locked in the fast ice about 1500 m offshore. But in the early hours of 12 November the ship was severely damaged by the ice and was finally crushed and abandoned on the 21st, although still supported by the ice.  The entire crew and all the expedition personnel were then housed on shore at Camp Abruzzi.  During a storm on 22 January 1904  the ship, along with a large cache of coal and half the expedition’s provisions which had been left on the fast ice, disappeared.  There were barely 60 bags of coal left.

Nonetheless Fiala planned for a sledge expedition to the Pole involving 26 men, 16 ponies and nine dog teams, which would leave on 20 February, later postponed to 1 March.  The expedition finally set off on the morning of the 7th, but, having reached only Cape Fligely, only some 7 miles away, on 8 March Fiala ordered the expedition back to Camp Abruzzi, allegedly due to five or six men being disabled.   A smaller group which set out on 24 March attained barely a mile north from Cape Fligely before having to turn back, defeated by chaotic pressure ice.

On the evening of 1 May 1904 some 25 members of the expedition, including Fiala, began a retreat south to Cape Flora, arriving there on the 16th.  There they found abundant supplies left by Frederick Jackson and by the Duke of the Abruzzi; the party settled down in Elmwood, Jackson’s main building and in one of his subsidiary buildings.  As prearranged Champ chartered Frithof  and over the summer that vessel made two attempts to reach Cape Flora but on each occasion was blocked by ice, in one case only 40 miles south of that cape. . Resignedly the occupants of Cape Flora and Camp Abruzzi settled down to spend a second winter in the Arctic. Interpersonal frictions, already widespread and serious, and a general dislike or even contempt for Fiala became exacerbated.  But, allegedly with a view to making a final attempt at the pole, leaving 23 men at Cape Flora, on 27 September 1904 Fiala started back north for Camp Abruzzi; due to various delays he did not arrive there until 20 November.  He set off on his forlorn final attempt at reaching the Pole on 17 March 1905. He turned back, thwarted by a wide lead, on 23 March at 81° 55’N, with Rudolf Island still plainly in sight. He and his party were back at Camp Abruzzi by 1 April.  That base was then abandoned and its occupants headed south to Cape Flora.  Champ arrived on board Terra Nova and evacuated the entire expedition on 1 August; Champ brought with him the news that Ziegler had died on 24 May 1905.  With that the bizarre history of the American attempts at reaching the North Pole from Franz Josef Land, inevitably came to an end. Despite the vast amounts of money which had been invested in them, not one of the various sledge expeditions , optimistically aiming for the North pole, had advanced more than a few kilometers north of Rudolf Island  On the plus side, however,  the vast island of Graham Bell Island had been added to the map of the archipelago and, particularly due to the efforts of Russell Porter, the complexities of the geography of the center of the archipelago had been largely unraveled.

The above summary represents just the bare bones of the story of the three expeditions to Franz Josef Land and barely hints at the bizarre decisions and procrastinations of the leaders, especially Baldwin and Fiala, at the complexities of the interpersonal frictions, and at the endless to-ings and fro-ings within the archipelago.  The frictions, of course, are carefully concealed in the published works of the leaders such as those of Wellman (1899) and Fiala (1906). By dint of his usual painstaking research, based on the journals and papers of at least four of the individuals involved, housed in three different repositories, plus one collection in private hands Capelotti has uncovered the remarkable intricacies of the less-than-admirable behaviour and the often incomprehensible decisions made by all three leaders.

While Capelotti clearly has an impressive command of the details of this particular phase of exploration in this area of the Arctic, there are some errors with regard to general geography  and history of the Arctic. With reference to p. 9, para 1, l. 2, the USS Jeannette became beset in the ice just northeast of Wrangell Island, not north of the New Siberian Islands. With reference to p. 12, para 3, l. 2, the Tegetthoff became beset off the northwest coast of Novaya Zemlya not “northeast of  Spitsbergen”.  Also, with reference to p. 12 (para 3, l. 3) that ship’s engineer, Otto Krisch, was buried on small Wilczek Island, not on the much larger Wiczek Land (Payer 1876), although the juxtaposition of these two almost identical names must have confused many over the years, and not just Capelotti.  And finally -- a simple error of arithmetic (p. 89, para 5, l. 4): 600 nautical miles equals 1132 km, not 850 km. Such errors, however are really peripheral to the main themes of the book and do not detract significantly from a thoroughly-researched and well-written study of a previously little-known aspect of Arctic exploration history.


Amedeo of Savoy, Luigi. 1903. On the “Polar Star” in the Arctic Sea. London: Hutchinson.
Fiala, A. 1906. Fighting the polar ice. New York: Doubleday, Page and Co.
Jackson, F.G. 1899. A thousand days in the Arctic. London: Harper and Brothers.
Nansen, F. 1897. Farthest north. London: Constable.
Payer, J. 1876. New lands within the Arctic Circle. London: Macmillan
Wellman,W. 1899. The Wellman Polar Expedition. National Geographic 10(12): 481-505.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Writing Arctic Disaster

Writing Arctic Disaster: Authorship and Exploration

by Adriana Craciun

Cambridge: Cambridge UP, $120 (hardcover); $70 (Kindle)

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

In the wake of the renewed interest in the history of the Franklin expedition and those who searched for it, we are beginning to see two different  -- yet complementary -- phenomena: First, a fresh effort to better understand what went wrong, and with it why the search still inspires such passionate feeling; and second, an emerging body of scholarship that points the way to a more critical consideration of the larger mythos of Franklin, and of Arctic exploration generally. Adriana Craciun's Writing Arctic Disaster is, as it were, the flagship of this second fleet, gathering together recent scholarly work and using it as the foundation for a reconsideration of the old myths and counter-myths that have, at times, trapped scholarly perspectives in an icy tomb just as unchanging and sterile as the graves of Franklin's men on Beechey Island. Sartain's engraving of these graves, based on a watercolor by James Hamilton (based in turn on a sketch by Dr. Elisha Kent Kane), fittingly appears on the cover of this new study.

Craciun opens her book with a reference to Nietzsche's (in)famous consideration of historiography, in which he distinguishes three sorts of history: the monumental, the archaeological, and the critical. Each, in its extremes, has its flaws: the monumental 'leaps from mountain-top to mountain-top,' often missing the complexities of the valleys in its urge to hammer out a race of heroes; the archaeological can get lost in minutiæ, becoming only the 'restless raking-together of everything that has been thought and said.' It's the last sort -- the critical -- 'history which judges, and condemns' -- that Craciun seeks to pursue, though not to such an extent that it damages the previous two (Nietzsche's prescription, after all, was for a balance of all three forms).

Craciun argues that, for too long, we have experienced the Franklin story, along with others of explorers in extremis, in a manner rather too similar to that of our Victorian forebears. Like them, we read the explorers' original narratives, letting the woodcuts and engravings with which they were illustrated carry us north on imaginary wings; like them, we dote over relics, seeking amidst spoons and eyeglasses the vital clues which might solve it all; like them, we take it for granted that exploration is a vital human impulse, as old as time, and dating back to the first moment that the earliest women and men wondered what was over the next hill.

She's right, of course. And so, as a remedy to this head-ache of anachronistic proportions, she alternately applies the salve of the archaeological and the sharp astringency of the critical, both to good effect. The enmeshment of exploration in the culture of print, and in the nineteenth-century's vast expansions of literacy and utility, is aptly observed; drawing here upon work such as Janice Cavell's Tracing the Connected Narrative, as well as upon the theoretical work of de Certeau and Foucault, she gives us, as it were, a genealogy of the fascination with Arctic disaster.

Her first chapter, "Arctic Archives: Victorian Relics, Sites, Collections," is the most exemplary of these; where others have seen the Franklin relics mainly as clues in a detective story about loss, she emphasizes their ambiguity, uncertainty, and hybridity:
Beginning with the earliest collections of Franklin disaster debris, not only the message but the relics themselves were indistinct and unstable artifacts verging on ecofacts, further losing ontological cohesion and categorical integrity as searches proliferated more objects and they in turn more questions.
As instances of this, she notes the many items that had been repurposed by Inuit, some still showing the maker's marks of their British manufacturers; here was the Empire not merely ended, but mended, turned to native purposes and verging on the sort of anthropological artifaction that might attend a Kwakiutl mask or a Samoan spear. Each new search, of course, added to this store, but this accumulation of relics failed to clear up the mystery, offering instead only a "broken syntax" that could never be assembled into a coherent sentence.

The chapter following takes a step further back in time, to Franklin's first land expedition, which -- with its resulting narrative, published as were to be nearly all others, in a quarto edition by John Murray -- she sees as the cornerstone of what she calls 'polar print culture.' She includes Mary Shelley's Frankenstein among these texts, and demonstrates how, in one sense, Franklin's failure in his first foray was shadowed by his "perpetual disappointment with the land's bewildering resistance to [his] aesthetic expectations." And yet, in the end, the illustrated edition of his narrative reiterated those expectations, omitting to depict those incidents of starvation and cannibalism beside which boot-eating was merely a minor sin.

Chapters 3 & 4 take us further back still, to the era prior to Barrow's flurry of Naval expeditions, when gentleman adventurers (the latter a word which originally referred to the venturing of capital, not lives) first sailed into uncharted waters. The central section of this chapter offers a critical account of James Knight's prior Arctic disaster. Knight, of course, was looking for copper, and so his demise pre-dates the ideology of the disinterested scientific 'explorer,' but it certainly laid some of the foundation. These chapters also feature some quite remarkable images, both of the elaborate manuscripts that the Hudson's Bay men prepared, and their inscriptions upon stone, each of which with their bold serifs seemed almost willing to claim pre-eminence by letterform alone.

Of more particular interest to those who approach this book with a Franklin fascination, Chapter 5 offers a fresh consideration of Frobisher's voyages, along with Hall's recovery of relics from sites identified by the Baffin Island Inuit. Many have dismissed Hall's discoveries there, and as Craciun notes, the items he brought back had "none of the photogenic and affective power of the personal effects and scientific instruments found by the Franklin searches." Nevertheless, they formed an important connection, what she calls the 'rediscovery' of early modern voyages, that dovetailed perfectly with the emergent interest in writing the backstory of exploration, and of establishments such as the Hakluyt Society.

The book concludes with an epilogue in which Craciun turns her critical faculties upon what she calls the "twenty-first century reinvention of Franklin's legacy." Much of it, including the support of the former Harper government and petrochemical companies, she views dimly, seeing a sad admixture of "Imperial nostalgia" and a return to a new, yet no less false monumental sense of history. There's certainly some truth to this, but I don't agree with her that the Franklin story is, ultimately, a distraction (though if so, 'tis a pleasant one). As an embodiment of the ultimate question of why we explore -- past, present, and future -- Franklin's disaster seems to me to offer a stark reminder of risk, rather than a rear-view mirror of lionization. And it's that element of willing risk -- of lives, of time, of materiel -- that is, in the end, the vital part of discovery. Still, Craciun is right to remind us that that word -- discovery -- along with (ad)venture -- is always in danger of being collapsed back into a merely capitalistic exercise. In both senses, it's a cautionary tale.

NB: The book is printed in a large octavo format, on moderately high-surface paper, which shows the numerous well-reproduced illustrations to good effect. Cambridge University Press, so far, has made this book available only as a hardcover priced for the library market at $120, with a Kindle version available for $70. While the academic language of the book may initially pose a challenge for some readers, the book is nevertheless of broad interest, and it's to be hoped that, before too long, an affordable trade paperback will be made available, or the price of the e-book reduced.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Life Among the Qallunaat


Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.   2015

Reviewed by Lawrence Millman

Mini Aodla Freeman is the granddaughter of Weetalltuk, a legendary Inuit boat-builder, guide, and map-maker who remained a healthy member of his own culture despite hanging out for lengthy periods of time with qallunaat (white people). Whatever genes Weetalltuk possessed that allowed him to inhabit two dramatically different ways of life, he seems to have passed them along to his granddaughter.  Her book Life Among the Qallunaat could just as readily been called Life Among Both the Qallunaat and My Fellow Inuit.

Mini, whose surname comes from her marriage to Canadian anthropologist Milton Freeman, was born in 1936 on Cape Hope Island in James Bay. She grew up thinking of qallunaat as being no less exotic than those qallunaat regarded the Inuit. The first portion of the book describes her experiences in Ottawa, where she’d been sent as a translator. A man she meets tells her that he’d just learned how to drive.  She think that’s odd, because she knew how to hitch a dog team when she was five years old.  Restaurants astonish her: why do their occupants eat with cutlery rather than with their hands, as her people do?  She loves riding street cars, but doesn’t know how to request a stop, so she often ends up at the end of the line. Asked what she thought about the Vietnam War, she writes: “I did not know what to say because I had never known war.”

Her backstory comes next. Her two grandfathers, her wisdom-filled grandmother, her nose-rubbing father, her occasionally naughty brother — all are put within the seasonal context that defined Inuit life for millennia. Hardly more than a toddler, she fetches water and firewood (Cape Hope Island is below the tree line); she also sews and chews skins. In the mornings, her grandmother will often say to her, “Mini, you will bear unhealthy children if you stay in bed any longer. Get out and look at the world.”

Her way of life changed when she was sent to a residential school in Old Factory, Quebec, and then to another one in Moose Factory, Ontario. Both of these schools were included in the 2006 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, whereby thousands of former students were compensated for the indignities that they had suffered at these schools. A few examples of indignities: girls were sexually abused; boys were forced to masturbate in front of a priest or minister; and children were required to eat their own vomit.

When Life Among the Qallunaat was first published in 1978, half of its print run was seized by the Canada’s Department of Indian and Northern Affairs on the  assumption that the author had badmouthed residential schools. Yet her account of her experiences in these schools is surprisingly mild. Yes, she was obliged to attend early morning religious services as well as wash vast amounts of laundry, but her ability to regard such activities as examples of qallunaat exoticism probably saved her from suffering more than she did. Her inherent sense of whimsy may have saved her as well.  Consider what she refers to as “my novelty.”  This is her first menstrual period, and since no one had given her advance notice of it, she seems to delight in imagining what it might be.

Apparently, Mini wrote Life Among the Qallunaat directly on her typewriter, with no early, middle, or late drafts.   Thus her memoir has a quite spontaneous feel to it. But her spontaneity is of the quiet sort. Rather than pointing an accustory finger at, for example, a haughty nun, she steps back and regards that nun as a highly unusual species. The result is a significant addition to Canadian indigenous literature and, what’s more, a splendid read.  

Friday, March 11, 2016

Heroic Failure and the British

Heroic Failure and the British

by Stephanie Barczewski

New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

When it comes to 'heroic failure,' the phrase today seems somehow already associated with Britain -- or, at least, with popular notions about British history and attitudes. And yet the phrase rings American, and indeed among its earliest uses is in reference to John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry. Since then, it's come to be used more in sarcasm than in seriousness, casting aspersions upon those who seem to fit its mold, as well as sealing off any consideration of what impulses or values might lie behind it.

That is, until now. Stephanie Barczewski's new volume collects and considers many of the most iconic moments to which this seemingly oxymoronic phrase has been applied, and does so with gusto. In an age when we trade other peoples' "epic fail" moments on Facebook, and take shelter in schadenfreude, we are perhaps in need of a refresher course in the higher stakes for which humans were, once upon a time, willing to find admiration in disaster.

Ms. Barczewski offers us a sort of 'greatest hits' of such events -- the Battle of Chillianwallah, the Charge of the Light Brigade, General Gordon's occupation of Khartoum, and the 'last stand' at Isandlwana in the Zulu War. And, extending the stakes of war into the peaceful endeavors of explorers, she adds Sir John Franklin, David Livingstone, and Robert Falcon Scott to her list. It's a complex, widely historically-spaced series of stories to tell, and a less energetic writer might not have managed it; Barczewski's success is due in large part to her skill at seizing the essentials of each story, while building on the general resonance of her theme until it reaches 1812-overture proportions.

But this energy also has its drawbacks. Taking just her account of Sir John Franklin's final Arctic voyage, the chapter is sprinkled with sundry errors of detail, from describing the area into which he ventured in 1845 as "Canada" (which only came into being in 1867), to mis-numbering his men (130, rather than 129), to representing a conjectural account of Francis Crozier's actions in the expedition's final months as though it were settled fact. The account is not helped by the fact that a portrait of James Clark Ross is misidentified as Franklin's, or that the Franklin memorial in the chapel at Greenwich is repeatedly stated to be in the Painted Hall instead. And yet, despite these issues (which will probably not trouble non-specialist readers), she gets the essential feel of the expedition right, noting how, as the mystery of its disappearance deepened, the quest for the Northwest Passage was moved to the back burner, until its heroic, yet fatal completion by Franklin came to serve the larger myth. Along the way, she illustrates her account with some lovely lesser-known bits of Frankliniana, including the execrable poem in his memory penned by Owen Alexander Vidal, whose prize from Oxford can only be explained by the fervor felt by the public for some immediate gratification of their warm spirits.

And it's these warm spirits, in the end, that Barczewski's main explanation -- that the British deployed their heroic failures to offset their imperialistic ambitions in the public eye -- can't quite find a way to grasp. For instance, in a connection that goes oddly unmentioned in this book, Lord Tennyson's poem, "The Charge of the Light Brigade" was -- at the request of Lady Franklin! -- printed and distributed in great numbers to British troops in the Crimea, including those in hospital. What earthly reason, we might wonder today, would anyone conceive of such a poem as warming the spirits of soldiers still embroiled in a conflict in which "some one had blundered" to such a degree? The answer can only be that, whatever offset such accounts may seem to offer against the perceived sins of Britain, in the time in which they were penned, they served quite the opposite function: that men, "theirs not to reason why," would follow an erroneous order to their deaths, was not a cover for shame, but a cause of pride, however politically incorrect some might feel such pride to be today.