Sep 222014
 

Robert Olmstead

 

 

I have read two of Hampton Sides’s books: Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission, the story of the Bataan Death March (Doubleday 2001) and Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West, the story of Kit Carson (Doubleday 2006).

I can now add another of his narrative histories: In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette and heartily recommend all three.

The year is 1879 and departing from San Francisco is the USS Jeannette.  Aboard is a young Naval officer named George Washington De Long and his crew of 32 men bound for uncharted Arctic waters and their destination the North Pole. Great minds are convinced there is a secret warm-water current that will provide smooth sailing to the top of the earth. There, they will find a lake surrounded by a beautiful verdant forest and a land as yet unclaimed by any nation.

Terrible is the perfect word for what lays in store. Two years at sea, a thousand miles north of Siberia, the hull is breached, they abandon ship and an hour later they watch from the closely-packed, unnavigable drift-ice as the Jeannette cracks, groans and sinks. Smooth sailing, indeed.

The cast of thinkers and characters alone is worth the read.

James Gordon Bennett, the wealthy owner of The New York Herald, had recently captured the world’s attention by dispatching Stanley to Africa to find Dr. Livingstone (who was in fact not lost) and is intent on creating another epic adventure that will sell newspapers. Of Bennett we are told: “Once, after a musical show in Amsterdam, he invited the beautiful lead actress and the entire cast to tour his yacht. Then he quietly slipped out to sea and for several days cruised the Atlantic, essentially holding the cast hostage and demanding repeat performances—all the while attempting to seduce the young starlet. Upon returning to shore, Bennett gladly paid an enormous sum to the Amsterdam theater to cover its losses.”

August Petermann, the foremost cartographer in the world believes a warm current named the Kuro Siwo sustains a nearly tropical island at the top of the world. Variations of his Open Polar Sea idea have existed since prehistoric times.

Edmond Halley, famous for calculating the orbit of the comet that bears his name, believes the earth is hollow, suffused with luminous gases, and inhabited by animals and even a race of undiscovered humans.

John Cleves Symmes Jr. argues there are large holes at both poles and they are connected. His book Theory of the Concentric Spheres, influences Congress, in 1836, to appropriate $300,000 for a scientific voyage. By the way, you can find Symmes book on openlibrary.org. It is quite the read.

As much as I enjoyed this wonderful book, I cannot help but think there is a counterpoint to this extraordinary quest, the sadness, the tragedy, the love story that is the De Long marriage, the cast of quaint, sympathetic, pompous and benighted characters and it was in the weeks after reading I began to give in to certain feelings that nagged me.

James Gordon Bennett is characterized as “a brilliant publisher with electric sensibilities and a profound intuition for what moved and mesmerized the American public.” We are told he was, “one of the fathers of the communications age … a terror to work for, he created one of the great institutions in American journalism.”

Be that as it may, he was also a liar, a fraud, a fantasist and someone for whom truth was an anathema. He was a rich, manipulative and shameless man who was probably crazy and did what he wanted. His checkbook journalism led to the deaths of countless people. Henry Stanley in his search for Livingston, who again—was not lost– was a particularly mean and vicious man who traveled to Africa with Martini-Henry rifles, a Gatling gun and a goodly supply of whips and chains and used them without compunction. If the The New York Herald was “one of the great institutions in American journalism,” I would hate to imagine the not so great.

It was an age when our means, abilities, intentions and appetites were ruled by myth, fable and belief. One might rightly think the well-intended fools, hucksters and opportunists of the 19th Century, were not so different from today. The enduring desire for wealth, fame and adventure is so innocent, enduring and boyish on the page and yet in life it is killing and destructive. Lurking beneath is a heedless, boundless rapacious need, both personal and national. Sides writes: “Throughout the 1870s, American whaling vessels had taken as many as 125,000 walruses from the Bering Strait region. The slaughter had proved to be a lucrative sideline to the whaling business. The whalers cooked the animal’s blubber into oil and hacked away the tusks to sell in ivory markets as far away as England and China. In a single season in 1876, more than 35,000 Bering walruses were killed.” Add to this tally buffaloes, wolves, elephants, lions and on and on. Unaided by glaciers, meteors, volcanoes, what have you, the second half of the 19th century saw perhaps the greatest kill-off of warm blooded creatures the world had seen. In the 19th century we killed everything we could including each other.

This is a great story and I like a great story as much as anyone, but sometimes I wonder if there is not a fundamental challenge to narrative history, the news story, narration itself. Narrative, as a form, has its requirements and expectations and these precede content, or what’s called the story. Is the news really a story or is that what we turn it into? It’s kind of like parallel parking. The space is already there and we need to cramp our tires around to fill it.

 

In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette By Hampton Sides (Doubleday 2014)