Monday, February 20, 2017

Arthur Gordon Pym

We all know Edgar Allen Poe for his brilliant, terrifying, and macabre tales, but his one novel-length work, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, is far less familiar. And yet, I would claim it as quite possibly his finest work, a tale whose conceit -- that Poe is merely shaping and refining a narrative given to him by Mr. Pym -- and whose deft evocation of the genre of travel and exploration narratives, were so effective that the London office of Wiley and Putnam was prepared to publish it as "an American contribution to geographical science" -- until they learned that Pym was, in fact, a fiction.

The effect was very carefully obtained. Poe had devoured any number of nautical narratives, and always had some navigational manuals, along with the Encyclopedia Brittanica, close at hand. The giving of facetious specifics, such as the name of the ship "Grampus," and the illustrated plates of the strange hieroglyphics, all added to the sense of realism. Most significantly, Poe drew from the hollow-earth theory of John Cleves Symmes, along with the exhortations of Jeremiah Reynolds, both of whom argued that an expedition should be dispatched to investigate the "hole" in the earth at its Southern pole. Remarkably, the U.S. Congress voted to fund exactly such an expedition, but by the time of its launch less fanciful heads had prevailed, and the United States Exploring Expedition -- the first launched by its young nation -- made remarkable progress in the "South Seas."

In Britain, the seeming marks of authenticity caused some to mistake it for an actual travel narrative; among those duped was the publisher George P. Putnam, who planned a join publication with his friend David Appleton, declaring that "this man has reached a higher latitude than any European navigator. Let us reprint this for the benefit of Mr. Bull." Putnam later ruefully noted that "the grave particularity of the title and of the narrative misled many of the critics as well as ourselves, and whole columns of these new ‘discoveries,’ including the hieroglyphics found on the rocks, were copied by many of the English country papers as sober historical truth”

Nor everyone, of course, was taken in by the initial ruse; the editor of the Gentleman's Magazine castigated the book, declaring that:
A more impudent attempt at humbugging the public has never been exercised; the voyages of Gulliver were politically satirical, and the adventures of Munchausen, the acknowledged caricature of a celebrated traveller. Sinbad the Sailor, Peter Wilkins, and More's Utopia, are confessedly works of the imagination; but Arthur Gordon Pym puts forth a series of travels outraging possibility, coolly requires his insulted readers to believe his ipse dixit.
Together with this novel, we'll be seeing Peter Delpeut's film Forbidden Quest, which assembles an enormous amount of "found footage" of polar expeditions to lend reality to an equally facetious tale, this time lent an "air" of reality by an elderly Irish ship's carpenter. Like Poe, Delpeut draws from the "hollow earth" theory, using it to explain the presence of Eskimos at the South Pole, as well as his narrator's otherwise miraculous return to civilization.

In the end, both narratives are best enjoyed when the ruse is realized -- for it's only then that we can, unlike other creatures, take pleasure from traveling along the edge of our own deception. But what did you think? Did this seem to you a real narrative? Or at some point, was the spell, perhaps abruptly, broken? And what did you think of it then?

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Weird and Tragic Shores

Charles Francis Hall may well be the most singular explorer in the entire history of the western fascination with the Arctic regions. Unlike the vast majority of such men, he never served in the Navy or merchant marine of any nation, nor did he have any family or local connections with whaling, fishing, sail-making or any other nautical trade. Although he published a sort of newspaper in Cincinnati, it would be a bit of a stretch to call him a “journalist,” and while for a time he had a business making engraved seals for business use, he himself was not a particularly accomplished engraver. Never apparently much of a family man, he more or less abandoned his wife and children when he first set off for the Arctic, and they were almost never the subject of his letters and journals. Indeed, if it were not for the singular leap he made out of the ordinary life of commerce and middle-class life, he might very well have never made much of a mark in any of his endeavors. Hall’s destiny was to do one thing, to do it with faith and fury and a determination which bordered on the monomaniacal – and yet, in so doing, he revealed a deeply humane and conflicted character, at once absolutely unique and yet absolutely a man of his time.

One of the most notable aspects of Hall's career was his close reliance on his Inuit guides, "Joe" Ebierbing and "Hannah" Tookoolito. Throughout his career, they were Hall’s most faithful and trusted companions, accompanying him on numerous sledging expeditions, providing food and shelter, and translating and interpreting at hundreds of interviews with Inuit who had stories to tell about the Franklin expedition. No only were they tireless and constant in their support for Hall’s often very demanding Arctic plans, but, between expeditions, they accompanied him throughout the United States, as well as permitting Hall to arrange for their exhibition in New York and Boston to raise funds for further missions, as well as appearing alongside him on his east coast lecture tour (see here for details of his Providence engagement).

And yet, astonishingly, they remained constant despite the death of two of their children while working for Hall, even though in each case the deaths were at least partly due to Hall’s demands – in the first case, for exhibitions and lectures, and in the second, for a difficult sledge-journey to King William Island (their second child, indeed, was named “King William” by Hall). Hall could be an imperious master, especially when his ‘sacred cause’ of finding Franklin’s men was at stake; Ebierbing, in his only surviving letter, recalled that during the attempt to reach King William, “Mr. Hall tease me all time. Make me go their [sic].” Yet not once, during the entire time of their association, did “Hannah” or “Joe” waver in their service to this man who, without their assistance, would likely have never earned the sobriquet he so dearly coveted – “Charles Hall, Arctic Explorer.”

When Chauncey Loomis arrived at "Thank God Harbor" to exhume Hall and conduct tests for arsenic, he -- like Owen Beattie -- felt that establishing the cause of death would be sufficient service to science and history to justify disturbing his bones. As this photo shows, the body was in considerably poorer shape than those uncovered at Beechey Island, although traces of his beard can be seen. Loomis felt the evidence was less than conclusive, but for my part I am personally convinced that Hall was poisoned with arsenic, most likely by Bessels. The "smoking gun" may well be a series of letters I came upon just a year ago, in which both Bessels and Hall corresponded with the young sculptress Vinnie Ream, letters in which Bessels seemed quite smitten.

Hall's death had many reverberations. One of the documents I found among the Hall papers at the Smithsonian was a printed copy of a petition circulated in Congress by Hall's widow, Mercy Ann Hall. In tones that evoke those of Lady Franklin, Mrs. Hall allowed that her late husband, "in his devotion to duty, was unsparing of his family and himself," asked only for "tender consideration" and some small "pecuniary assistance" (i.e, money) -- the amount was not specified. She was eventually granted a pension of $40 a month (about $750 in today's currency).

"Joe" and "Hannah" returned to Groton where, as Joe wrote with some pride, their daughter Panik "go to school every day." Alas, there were not many more days remaining; her health had never been good, and she died at the age of nine. Hannah herself followed her adopted daughter to the grave on New Year's eve of 1876; Joe returned to the Arctic, and died some years later under uncertain circumstances. You can visit the graves of Hannah, little "Butterfly," and Panik at the Star Cemetery in Groton CT -- this article has a photo I took of the gravestone.

We'll have many judgments to make about Hall, but love him or hate him, it's hard not to admire his persistence. And, in a field of endeavor crowded with fateful, haunting endings, his may well have been strangest of all. Weird and Tragic shores, indeed.