Journeys to the Ends of the Earth: Scholars explore connections between polar explorations, past and present

Polar map from The Quarterly Review, October 1817, page 214.

From the current issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Over the past decade, global warming has melted polar sea ice down to record lows—but during the same period, thanks to a growing awareness of the climate phenomenon, the Arctic and the Antarctic have vastly expanded in the popular imagination. Nowhere is that clearer than in the broad recent interest in the European, Russian, and North American explorers who crisscrossed the poles in the 19th and early 20th centuries, searching for trade routes like the Northwest Passage and the mythical Open Polar Sea.

Amateur adventurers are following in the early explorers’ tracks: A six-man crew rowed 460 miles to the magnetic North Pole last year in a testosterone-fueled attempt to best Ernest Shackleton’s 1916 polar rowing record, and this summer, the New Bedford Whaling Museum sponsored a voyage to replicate the 1869 Bradford-Hayes artistic expedition up the coast of Greenland. Creative reinterpretations of the early polar narratives have been plentiful over the past decade, including this year’s Dead Men by Richard Pierce, exploring the legacy of the ill-fated Scott Antarctic expedition, and Mat Johnson’s 2011 novel Pym, a retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1838 Antarctic nightmare The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Even the TV survivalist Bear Grylls is getting in on the act, claiming to have discovered relics of the British explorer John Franklin’s lost 1845 Arctic expedition.

Russell Potter, a historian of polar exploration at Rhode Island College and founder of the online Arctic Book Review, says he’s seen a major upswing in writing about the poles over the past 15 years. In the mid-90s, he would receive a handful of books on the subject each year; more recently, he’s received as many as 30. He attributes the interest to global warming as well as to a postmodern nostalgia for an imagined age of heroism. There’s an “elegiac sense of the passing of the era and the loss of the beauty and the danger of ice,” he says. “These stories from the heroic age with a reflection of how these things have changed today, that fascinates people.”

Read the rest of Britt Peterson’s article “Journeys to the Ends of the Earth: Scholars explore connections between polar explorations, past and present” in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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