- Men, Ice, and Failure:New Histories of Arctic Exploration
The world north of the Arctic Circle confounds the expectations of those reared in temperate climates. The summer sun does not set so much as roll around the horizon. The winter sun is simply absent. The constellations rise off kilter; the compass never hits its mark. There are no trees. Solid land is augmented for much of the year by ice: fields of it, stretching northward to the pole in jagged, shifting, unsteady layers. To the Inuit, Inupiat, Sami, Chukchi, and others who have long called the north home, there is nothing remarkable in this shifted and shifting geography. But for a spate of years in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the polar world was a nearly impenetrable lure for Americans and Europeans attempting to find glory by exploring the high Arctic.
A century or more after these expeditions, the names of fin-de-siècle Arctic explorers remain familiar. Robert Peary: likely the first person to reach the North Pole, unless it was Fredrick Cook. Knud Rasmussen: first to cross the Northwest Passage by dogsled. Their name recognition is due, in no small part, to their successes. Others, Sir John Franklin in particular, are memorable for their catastrophic ends. Arctic histories have generally preferred drama, the more tragic the better. Mortal peril is at the center of Hampton Sides's portrait of shipwreck In the Kingdom of Ice (2015), and in recent accounts of Franklin doomed voyages, including The Man Who Ate His Boots by Anthony Brant (2008) and Paul Watson's Ice Ghosts (2017). But in-between the extremes of triumph and boot-eating lies perhaps the more representative experience of Arctic exploration—that of dogged, years-long attempts ending in failure. [End Page 539] Such ignominious disappointment is at the center of P.J. Capelotti and David Welky's new exploration histories.
There are many ways not to succeed in the polar world. In The Greatest Show in the Arctic, Capelotti explores a potent mix of ineptitude and interpersonal foibles that, in combination, make attempts to reach the North Pole fail "in increasingly spectacular ways" (p. 16). Capelotti structures the book around the careers of three different leaders. The first is Walter Wellman, who began his Arctic explorations with a voyage to Spitzbergen in 1894. Wellman compensated for his lack of polar experience with a talent for fundraising and self-promotion. It was a tactic that worked perfectly well until he arrived in the north. Within weeks, his ship was crushed by ice. Then he ordered all the expedition's sled dogs killed because "'they were plainly homesick'" (p. 47). With his men weary and wet from traversing the slushy summer icepack, Wellman retreated. Back in the United States, he wrote nothing of his glaring inexperience to newspapers, secured new funds from Cornelius Vanderbilt, J.P. Morgan, and President McKinley, only to set out again in 1899.
On this second attempt, Wellman chose Franz Josef Land as his point of departure. He also took Evelyn Briggs Baldwin as his deputy. Baldwin, an employee of the U.S. Weather Service, had no prior experience in the north. It did not stop him from having a position of far more author that the Norwegians hired onto the expedition. As Capoletti argues, Wellman and Baldwin both exemplified "the ethnocentric thinking that placed Americans at the forefront of exploration and ranked other groups according to their perceived abilities to speed the Americans on their way" (p. 71). Thus it was Baldwin who was given command of overwintering at an advance supply depot with five Norwegians, all of them clearly superior in experience and calmer in temperament. If there are heroes in The Greatest Show, it is these men—some of whom die...