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  • Writing Arctic Disaster: Authorship and Exploration by Adriana Craciun
  • Katherine Parker
Adriana Craciun, Writing Arctic Disaster: Authorship and Exploration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016). Pp. 326; 39 b/w illus. £96.00.

In September 2014, a team of government and private entities located John Franklin's long-lost ship, the Erebus. While many celebrated the find, Adriana Craciun sees the continuing search for Franklin as a problematic to be unpacked, another example in a long line of appropriations of the voyage and its relics for sovereign, nationalist, and economic reasons. In Writing Arctic Disaster, Craciun seeks to historicize the Victorian obsession with the man, the expedition, and its various inscriptions, uncovering in the process the changing approaches to Arctic voyaging and authorship that shaped European understanding of the region from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries.

Craciun's approach is richly interdisciplinary. She employs an array of theories and methodologies in her quest to free Arctic exploration of the shadow of Franklin, including Spivak's analysis of the subaltern, Nietzsche's tripartite definition of historiography, and Certeau's concept of library navigation. The latter conceives of voyages, and books about them, as setting out and returning—a line of circles that creates a metanarrative of progress, with each voyage building on those that preceded it. To avoid the inherent teleology of this model, Craciun organizes her chapters in what she calls a recursive fashion; she avoids a chronological structure in order to derive a "genealogy of exploration cultures" (21) that will "defamiliarize both the history of authorship and the history of exploration" and recognize "the powerful gyre of library navigation" (22). Thus her project is both deconstructive and constructive, a dual purpose that at times causes tension in the organization and analysis of the book.

Craciun's narrative, therefore, starts at the end: that is, with the relics that circulated as more and more searches sought the remains of Franklin's crew and ships. Although the searchers sought the Holy Grail of voyage artifacts, the written logs and accounts, they only ever recovered one written document, the Victory Point Record. They also brought back a range of items whose meanings proved "polysemic and culturally hybrid" (80), a product of their circulation from, and [End Page 349] use within, London, the Arctic, and back again. Over time the sheer number and collective ambiguity of the objects, not to mention the exhibitions that displayed them, effectively diminished the collection as a whole. The relics lost the sacred aura sought by Franklin's wife and his advocates. However, the search for them had installed Franklin himself, along with his French predecessor in the Pacific, La Perouse, as the "unwitting co-creator of a new culture of disaster relics enshrined in public museums and collected by a new class of entrepreneurial relic hunter" (66).

Chapter 2 takes the reader back to Franklin's first expedition of 1819–22, which produced an authorized account that Craciun uses to elaborate what she terms the polar print or publishing nexus, commanded by Admiralty officials and their publisher, John Murray, and aided by officials in the Colonial Office. Together, they steered a censorious publication machine responsible for the conferral of single-author status on book objects that were, in reality, created by a collective. While this form of publishing was more institutional than its literary counterparts, it was not disconnected from trends in literary culture, such as the Gothic, as Craciun shows in her discussion of Shelley's Frankenstein (which Murray rejected). Previously published in article form, the elaboration of this nexus is instructive for the study of print and literary culture, although more attention to the institutions involved—the Admiralty especially—might have added more nuance to a model that is presented as static and uncompromising.

If the exploration of the early nineteenth century is defined by the Explorer-Author, earlier exploration cultures, specifically the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) in the eighteenth century and the resource-seeking expeditions of Martin Frobisher in the sixteenth, included no such concept. In chapters 3 and 4, Craciun explores the inscriptions left by employees of the HBC in the Arctic, in the Company's London archive, and, rarely...


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