- The News at the Ends of the Earth: The Print Culture of Polar Exploration by Hester Blum
The history of the polar regions is a relatively marginal field within world history. As geographically remote, sparsely occupied spaces, the Arctic and Antarctica are easily neglected when scholars seek to examine the past on a global scale. Yet there is dynamic research in this subfield that makes clear that the polar regions have never existed in isolation and should be understood as deeply bound into global movements of people, ideas, and resources. Much of the most exciting research in this area—such as Elizabeth Leane’s Antarctica in Fiction: Imaginative Narratives of the Far South (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) and Francis Spufford’s I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination (New York: St Martin’s, 1997)—has been produced by interdisciplinary scholars working at the intersection of cultural history, literary studies, and environmental humanities. To this can now be added Hester Blum’s The News at the Ends of the Earth: The Print Culture of Polar Exploration. [End Page 640]
As indicated by its subtitle, this book takes as its focus the production of printed matter by polar expeditions in the period from roughly 1818 to 1914. Its actual scope is significantly narrower than this description implies however, as Blum is principally concerned with what she dubs “polar ecomedia,” the mostly ephemeral printed matter that was created in the polar regions. Thus, printed works explorers took with them on expeditions to the polar regions and accounts they compiled and published after their return fall outside the scope of Blum’s analysis. Instead, The News at the Ends of the Earth focuses on the eclectic corpus of printed material explorers created under mentally and physically extreme conditions at the literal ends of the earth. The most notable examples of polar ecomedia are newspapers that were published by expedition members to occupy and entertain themselves during the long polar winters, but Blum also examines journals, songs, poems, playbills, menus, messages in bottles, and notices attached to balloons and deposited in cairns.
The book is organized around five chapters. Chapter One examines the emergence of a tradition of publishing newspapers during polar winters, the extreme conditions in which they were created, and their place in the wider history of shipboard and amateur newspaper printing. Chapters Two and Three explore the content and reception of expedition newspapers printed in the Arctic and Antarctic, respectively. The central question woven throughout these chapters is why, under extreme conditions in which life itself is precarious, did polar explorers invest their finite time, energy, and resources into not only compiling newspapers but printing them? The answer, Blum argues, is that expedition newspapers evolved as a way to deal with conditions of extremity, serving to recreate the “forms of temporal regularity and imagined community” (p. 73) that ordinary newspapers represented.
The book’s fourth and most innovative chapter shifts focus to other forms of ecomedia, examining what Blum calls “Arctic dead letters”— routine pieces of paperwork that documented the movements of polar expeditions and were placed beneath stone cairns or in bottles that were then thrown overboard. Thousands of pieces of paper were produced and deposited in this way in the Arctic but only a tiny minority were ever read, thus becoming undeliverable “dead letters.” This section is a highlight of the book, and Blum argues convincingly that these unusual sources reveal largely forgotten ways of thinking and communicating in oceanic and polar spaces.
The final chapter shifts focus again to the unusual exploring career of Charles Francis Hall, an American journalist turned Arctic explorer [End Page 641] who forged close relationships with Inuit in the course of seven years living in the Arctic. Blum examines the ways in which Hall engaged with Indigenous ecological knowledge and suggests that this knowledge shaped the production of polar ecomedia, particularly Hall’s maps and journals...