Friday, January 27, 2017

A Discovery of Strangers

Explorers have been depicted in popular fiction almost since the dawn of exploration itself, and in nearly all of these tales, the explorer was the hero, boldly sailing forth into uncharted waters, or striding forth into unmapped lands. Anyone who grew up in this age of heroic literature would have known Phineas Fogg, Professor Challenger, and Fraser of Africa as well as they knew their real-life counterparts like Henry Morton Stanley,  Sir Richard Francis Burton, or Fridtjof Nansen.

But there has always been a sense that, particularly from the view of the people who were already living in places that European explorers sought to penetrate, that some of these men were less than heroic, or that -- even if their intentions were benign and scientific -- that they brought with them presuppositions about the inferiority of the peoples and cultures they encountered. And then, of course, there were those who came after: the whalers, loggers, and (before too long) missionaries, seeking to impose their religion. Their self-presumed superiority often led to misunderstandings, mistrust, and abuse, all of which tended to increase as the cultural balance shifted and more and more strangers arrived.

John Franklin's second Arctic expedition -- his first made mainly by land -- was in some ways a paradigm for all these problems. He had been charged by the Royal Navy with locating and mapping the shores of the "Polar Sea," a presumed body of water which, as of that time, very little was known. He was accompanied by only four naval personnel: Dr. John Richardson, who was to be the expedition's surgeon-naturalist; George Back, a junior officer known for his endurance and resourcefulness, Robert Hood, a midshipman (a sort of cadet in the Royal Navy system), and John Hepburn, the sole ordinary sailor of an officer-rich party. To actually transport them and their supplies, a group of hired voyageurs -- French-speaking trappers who knew their way around a canoe -- were employed, but were regarded as no better than servants. It was, even before the expedition
Charlie eats his boot (The Gold Rush, 1925)
reached its destination, a recipe for disaster. Several other factors contributed: an ongoing rivalry between fur trading companies meant that supplies that had been expected were late or missing; the party was delayed in reaching its initial camp ("Fort Enterprise"), and Franklin ends up making extraordinary demands for meat and furs from the region's indigenous the Tetsot'ine (called by outsiders the Yellowknife). Delays of various kind ensue, leading Franklin to depart too late, a decision which later leads to his trying a seeming "shortcut" over the barren lands, one which will cost the lives of eleven men. Those who survived had to live on lichens and burnt deerskins, having already boiled and consumed all the scraps of leather they could find. And yet, incomprehensibly to many today, Franklin was hailed as a hero, the "man who ate his boots"; he was promoted to Captain, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and wrote a best-selling book about his journey.

Wiebe recounts the story via multiple narrators, each with his or her own distinct voice and presence. A student of indigenous history, he fictively re-creates the native perspective on the arrival of these demanding strangers, but he also gives the explorers -- prejudices and all -- license to tell their tales as they see fit. Even hapless Hepburn, who emerges as a man of strong personal character despite his humble upbringing and the low expectations of some around him, gets to add his testimony. The result is a multi-faceted narrative -- shifting, recounting, re-telling -- that resists being boiled down to a single story. At the same time, though, it leaves little doubt that the hubris and sense of cultural superiority of the English were, deep down, the main cause of the catastrophe.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Last Imaginary Place

The Arctic remains one of the few places on earth that simply to visit is viewed as a rare accomplishment. Not many of us have business that takes us north of the Arctic Circle, and it's not most peoples' idea of a summer vacation (although this past year, the Crystal Serenity luxury liner transited the Northwest Passage, the first ship of its kind to do so; the least-expensive tickets ran to $21,850 (not to mention an additional $50,000 insurance policy in case of "emergency evacuation"). More modest tours have been taking place for years (in the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I'll be working as a shipboard lecturer on one of these in August of 2017). This route, which was long so deadly and daunting that there was doubt it would ever be sailed, is fast becoming an open waterway, and -- as a result -- the source of controversies over sovereignty. Canada regards the passage as internal Canadian waters, while the International Law of the Sea classifies it -- so long as readily navigable -- as an international strait. Meanwhile, on the Russian shores of the Arctic ocean, dozens of oil and natural gas leases are being sold, and the Russian government has filed a claim for continental-shelf rights to such leases which extends from Siberia to the pole itself. The record-low sea-ice formation in the winter of 2016-2017 may bring open water to a far wide region than ever before seen -- indeed, it may lead to the appearance of an actual Open Polar Sea, a hitherto-chimerical historical myth.

Robert McGhee wants to alert us to these issues, but more than that: his key point is that this seemingly still-blank point on our mental maps has, in fact, a history of its own. Significant parts of that history were shaped by encounters -- not often friendly ones -- between Europeans (starting with the Vikings), Americans, and indigenous peoples such as the Inuit (pronounced ee-noo-eet). On the indigenous side, people were puzzled by the arrival of these strangers, who had great wealth in wood and metal but did not seem to know how to live on the land; on the European side, the encounters were marred by greed (see Martin Frobisher's quest for gold) and cultural prejudice. It was not until the nineteenth century that an ostensibly more "enlightened" exploration of the Arctic commenced; this is the era of Sir John Franklin's expedition of 1819-1822, which is fictionalized in Rudy Wiebe's A Discovery of Strangers, as well as of his final, ill-fated expedition of 1845, on which he and all 128 of his men perished. 

Sunday, January 15, 2017


In this senior seminar we’ll explore the literature of exploration itself, from the early modern era to the present. What has driven human beings to explore? What’s the relationship between exploration and risk? Where do we draw the line between exploration and exploitation? These and other questions will guide us through our readings – historical, poetical, historical-poetical, tragical-historical, poetical-comical, and many other literary avatars of the urge to look around our corners, to be “the first that ever burst / into that silent sea.” Students will each choose a specific moment or mode of exploration, follow and represent it throughout our discussions, and weave it in to a final seminar paper. Our books will include McGhee, The Last Imaginary Place; Krakauer, Into the Wild; Loomis, Weird and Tragic Shores; Grann, The Lost City of Z;  Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym; Ritter, A Woman in the Polar Night ; Wiebe, A Discovery of Strangers; and DeGrasse Tyson, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier.