To the Ends of the Earth. The Truth behind the Glory of Polar Exploration.
The literature of polar exploration is studded with summaries of significant expeditions and biographies of noted explorers, the latter ranging from hagiography (Hobbs on Peary) to contempt (Huntford on Scott), from hero worship to condemnation. Most are chronological, while some are topical. Here the topical approach addresses the cover-up of Polar failure. Chapter Two is aptly called "Hail the Conquered Hero."
Dippel's fascinating but flawed book clearly leans to the gloomy side of the spectrum. He sees most of the traditional "heroes" as vainglorious and disingenuous, disguising their desire for fame behind their self-created myths of scientific endeavor and the search for geographical knowledge. His critical descriptions of explorers is pervasive: Amundsen, egalitarian but secretive (216-17); De Gerlache, depressive, "obsessed by his own heroic image" (16); Parry, lacking experience, inadequately prepared, prone to bad decisions, and a prude (37); Greely, hungry for self-glorification (71); De Long, a miserable failure who nevertheless "ascended to mythical status in the eyes of his admiring fellow Americans" (44); Kane, epitomizing the culture of fame though an anxious, sickly, insecure young man (251). Franklin, Nansen, Hall, Scott, Peary, Cook, Mawson, Byrd, and several others fall victim, fairly or unfairly, to this debunking feast. "The flaws, weaknesses, miscalculations, indecisiveness, selfish motives, self-aggrandizing, and blunders of expedition leaders were concealed to make them appear singularly heroic" (45).
Of those with less sullied reputations, little is said: Shackleton gets off easily; Bruce gets a throwaway line; the Nordenskjolds are not even mentioned. The sad part of this unhappy litany is that much of his criticism is right on target. Many were, in fact, insufferable egotists. Peary in particular perfected his smear campaign on Frederick Cook, and he pressed this policy in his treatment of Greely, launching witch hunts to boost his own public image.
The flaw in the book is its Manichean selectivity, the author's insistent picking of blackened cherries to ensure that the evidence selected turns up the bleakest picture. Given a choice of words, you can count on Dippel to find the harshest one. So many self-serving sycophants are covered in his book that it would take a great deal of study of each explorer to prove a more balanced case. His treatment of Adolphus Greely seems to me especially pernicious, in my view converting well-meaning ineptitude and a harmless desire for recognition into the depths of deceit and culpability. To be sure, with respect to the evidence Dippel has selected and carefully redacted, he seems to make his case. Nonetheless, there are important lessons to be gained from a careful and critical reading of To the Ends of the Earth. In today's climate, which seeks out instant heroes and instant villains, we can learn from Dippel's examples that heroic status should not be so easily granted.
There is insufficient space in this brief review to comment on the final two chapters on the role of print in forming these heroic legends, except to say that they, too, warrant the reader's attention.
Syracuse University, Emeritus
David H. Stam
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|Title Annotation:||GENERAL, COMPARATIVE, HISTORIOGRAPHICAL|
|Author:||Stam, David H.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2019|
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