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  • Publishing Sir John Franklin’s FateCannibalism, Journalism, and the 1881 Edition of Leopold McClintock’s The Voyage of the “Fox” in the Arctic Seas
  • Janice Cavell (bio)

“Your work is classic, and will be read by generation after generation. It ought, therefore, to be the complete story of Franklin’s Fate,” wrote Clements Markham, the secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, to Admiral Sir Leopold McClintock on October 14, 1880.1 Despite their complacent ring, Markham’s words were written at a time of exceptional anxiety, both for him and for McClintock. An unexpected new installment in the long saga of Sir John Franklin’s last expedition had just been published in the American press, challenging the status of McClintock’s extremely popular 1859 narrative as the definitive account of Franklin’s fate. The New York Herald, which had the highest circulation of any American newspaper and was also widely read in Britain,2 was loudly asserting that Frederick Schwatka, not McClintock, had “closed the history” of the Franklin expedition.3 From England, the august Times agreed that the American explorer had discovered the final evidence needed to “complete the annals of Arctic exploration.”4 Although McClintock was ultimately able to maintain his position, both the challenge he faced in 1880–1881 and the cautious nature of his response offer important insights about the publication and reception of nineteenth-century Arctic exploration literature on both sides of the Atlantic.

It is now twenty years since Mary Louise Pratt coined the term “seeing-man” for the typical explorer-author of the nineteenth century—the supremely self-confident “European male subject” whose “imperial eyes … look out and possess.” As Pratt describes the process, explorers first visually and intellectually surveyed the new landscapes and peoples they encountered, forcing them into Enlightenment categories of knowledge. Then, on their return to the metropole, the explorers made their experiences real to other Europeans by writing first-person narratives. Readers of these narratives were allowed to “see” the non-European world only through the [End Page 155] explorers’ eyes. The linked activities of exploration, writing, publication, and reading successfully “asserted an urban, lettered, male authority over the whole of the planet.”5

Pratt’s assumptions and methodology have dominated many subsequent studies of exploration literature.6 However, they have been contested in an equally large number of other studies. For example, Paul Carter and D. Graham Burnett have demonstrated that the spatial vision of explorers, in both their journeys and their narratives, was often very different from that of imperial administrators in the metropole, while Leonard Guelke and Jeanne Kay Guelke observe that a more empirically oriented approach can readily undermine many of Pratt’s conclusions. Dane Kennedy points out that Pratt and her followers are “poorly prepared to explain the social and political forces that shaped exploration in the field”; Frédéric Regard argues persuasively that encounters between explorers and indigenous “others” were far more complex than Pratt allows. According to Dorinda Outram, public acceptance of exploration accounts was dependent on a complex “moral economy,” derived from concepts of authority that long predated the Enlightenment valorization of science emphasized by Pratt. Finally, Felix Driver observes that what he calls the “essentialized model” of colonial discourse “obscures the heterogeneous, contingent and conflictual character of imperial projects.” In Driver’s view, the historian’s task is to highlight the “unsettled nature” of the boundaries created by imperial discourses and practices, and to show how “the idea of exploration was freighted with a variety of meanings.”7 Building on the insights of the Guelkes, Outram, and Driver in particular, this article reconsiders Pratt’s conclusions from yet another standpoint, that of book history. Failing to problematize the processes of publication and reception, Pratt seems to believe that the mere fact of appearing in print bestowed unquestionable authority on exploration narratives, and to conceive of readers as passive vessels, lacking the conceptual apparatus required to formulate critical views of either the explorers’ actions or their words. Yet no explorer-author could count on an enthusiastic reception for his book (and indeed many had to contend with rival accounts and with journalistic attacks by those who supported other explorers...


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pp. 155-184
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