- The Ends of the Earth and the “Heroic Age” of Polar Exploration: A Review Essay
Along with the American Civil War and the Holocaust, polar exploration is one of the few historical topics that are frequently awarded a stand-alone section in chain bookstores. Typically, those shelves are stocked with a mixture of classic, first-hand accounts of now fabled European and American expeditions from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, biographies of the leaders of the “Heroic Age” of polar exploration, and adventure narratives of more recent journeys to the ends of the Earth, often undertaken “in the footsteps” of earlier giants. These volumes tend to emphasize the literary elements of dramatic characters, settings, and plots over the more academic concerns of social, political, and cultural context; their target audience is both the general reader of popular history and the more specialized polar-adventure “buff.”
In the last decade and a half, however, a few academic studies have found a place among the adventure stories. Focusing on such themes as the relationship between nationalism and science, evolving concepts of the natural environment, changing notions of masculinity, and the applicability of theories of empire to the polar regions, these scholarly works undoubtedly reach a far smaller audience. Yet their presence suggests a new academic interest in the history of the Arctic and Antarctic, an interest spurred no doubt by the current cultural and environmental climate that has made these most remote regions of the world relevant in unprecedented ways.
Most obviously, the widespread recognition that global warming has altered and will continue to alter the natural, political, and economic character of the polar regions means that studies of the history of the extreme North and South seem more relevant and less esoteric than they did a few decades ago. Simply put, accounts of past polar exploration describe, often in vivid detail, a landscape and way of life (for both animals and humans) that are rapidly vanishing. As Ken McGoogan writes in his recent Race to the Polar Sea, “All through the twentieth century, historians portrayed the Arctic as a harsh world that hardly changed at all . . . . Suddenly, we realize that this picture is obsolete.” More practically, he notes, accounts of the Arctic “enable us to compare and contrast, and so to appreciate the scale of what is happening in the far North.” With countries like Russia, Norway, Canada, and the United States jockeying for control over the potentially oil- and mineral-rich—and rapidly melting—Arctic Sea, it seems more urgent to understand how earlier territorial disputes were settled and how European and Euro-American encounters with indigenous peoples were handled. Less tangibly, but nonetheless significantly, deepening concern about the environment has spurred a “green consciousness” that has prompted new questioning of humankind’s relationship to nature. The conventional, often competing themes of the literature of polar exploration—of man against nature and man in nature; of man the conqueror of the wilderness and man its victim; of science as the instrument of knowledge and science as the veil covering human destructiveness and hubris—have found a new currency in our present, uncertain age.
Since the early 19th century, tales of polar exploration have held a powerful grip on the public imagination, providing hours of vicarious thrills to domestically inclined listeners and readers eager for armchair adventures. English explorer John Franklin’s narrative of his 1819–1822 Arctic expedition was reprinted six times in England and appeared in French, German, and American editions as well. The American Elisha Kent Kane’s two-volume Arctic Explorations sold more than 150,000 copies in several editions after its initial publication in 1853. Robert F. Scott’s The Voyage of the Discovery (1905), Shackleton’s South! (1919), and Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s account of the disastrous Scott expedition, The Worst Journey in the World (1922), were widely read. Many of these now classic accounts are still in print. Although the number of high-profile expeditions to the polar regions fell off steeply after the First World War, the public appetite for such adventures among European and American audiences has remained strong. Even today, new biographies and reexaminations of famous...