To the Ends of the Earth: the Truth Behind the Glory of Polar Exploration
John V.H. Dippel, Prometheus Books, 346 pages, 2018. $28
To call polar exploration history a trending topic would be an understatement. So many books about the various journeys undertaken during that final stage in the Age of Exploration have hit the shelves in recent years that even readers well versed on the subject can vicariously join expeditions they had known little about. But for newbies it can be perplexing. Where does one start?
Despite the promise held out by its title, "To the Ends of the Earth: the Truth Behind the Glory of Polar Exploration" probably isn't the place. Independent historian John V.H. Dippel has attempted to write an all-encompassing work that explores the psychological and sociological settings under which expeditions set out from Europe, and later America, to map the final extremes of the planet and reach its two poles. It's a noble effort, and one that offers numerous insights, but it ultimately falls short from a lack of focus and the author's failure to provide adequate context.
Dippel isn't attempting a narrative history here, but a topical one. In many ways this is a good approach. Rather than a start-to-finish account of a now largely closed chapter of history, something along the lines of "Dead Reckoning," Ken McGoogan's recent magisterial retelling of the quest to find the Northwest Passage, Dippel is engaging in comparative history. He seeks to show the similarities and differences between the many commanders who led teams north and south into lands and waters where frozen death awaited so many of them. He also explores the shifting objectives offered by leaders of these expeditions to justify their efforts, as well as the evolving public views in their home countries among the citizens who cheered them on.
Unfortunately, the result is too often a muddled mess. The bulk of this book covers roughly a century of excursions, beginning with the British naval officer John Ross' 1918 attempt at finding the Northwest Passage, from which he turned back in a decision that cost him any hope of further advancing his career, and culminating in Englishman Robert Falcon Scott's 1912 trek to the South Pole, where he was crushed to find that Roald Amundsen had beaten him as first man there, and who then died along with his four compatriots while desperately trying to return to the Antarctic shore. Countless journeys lay in between, most marred by tragedies large and small and most falling short of their ambitions.
This is history ripe for analysis, and for readers who know it well, Dippel often provides a broader overview. Newcomers will be completely lost, however, as the author jumps from one tale to another, often within the same paragraph. He discusses the leaders of these expeditions, their shortcomings and their often conflicting motivations, but the stories of the journeys themselves are barely told.
Adding to the frustration, Dippel revisits the same scenes over and again rather than filling in the details of how the men arrived at their moments of truth. Dippel repeatedly brings readers back to the final days of Scott's retreat from the Pole when he and his men faced certain death — a story well documented thanks to Scott's relentless journal writing until nearly his final breath. What Dippel doesn't bother with much is telling us how and why Scott failed so horrifically.
The same is true with his coverage of the American Adolphus Greely's 1881 Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, which began with 25 men. Only five returned alive and rumors of cannibalism dogged them for the rest of their lives. The penultimate moments are mentioned, but the larger story is mostly left untold.
Dippel's unceasing hopscotching between these and other accounts is driven by his arrangement of this book in topical rather than chronological fashion. Each chapter is loosely built around a theme, and from there he grabs a bit of Scott, a dose of Sir John Franklin, a quote from George W. De Long, who died along with most of his crew during an attempted overland escape through Siberia after his ship sank, and many other oddesseys. Even readers deeply acquainted with these tales will need a score card to keep up.
Dippel explores this history from a range of vantage points. He demonstrates how the European view of what the Arctic, and later the Antarctic, went from a Romantic era search for the sublime to one of conquest and national pride before finally settling on cold science. He shows how British opinions of the Inuit slowly evolved from considering them brute savages to upholding them as noble savages, but never embraced them as equals or fully acknowledged that they knew better than British commanders how to survive the harsh Arctic climate. He compares the relative abilities and inabilities of several commanders and examines the group dynamics that led some missions to success and others to spectacular failure.
The best chapters come late in the book when he critiques the written accounts of various commanders, which almost always omitted mistakes and conflicts while making heroes of their authors. He closes with an analysis of the competing claims of Frederick Cook and Robert Peary over who first reached the North Pole, claims that were, in all likelihood, deliberate lies by each of them. This drives home the underlying claim of the book: egotism was the ultimate reason for polar exploration. As Dippel writes earlier in the going:
"Regardless of their motives (and these were really known only to themselves), explorers arrived brimming with confidence and with an aura of invincibility about them — a blithe, almost childlike arrogance that was a prerequisite for going to the poles and a fatal flaw in their ability to come back alive."
Dippel wastes a lot of breath repeating this point throughout this book about the wreckage of human lives left in the wake of blind ambition. Unfortunately, there's little storytelling here, just Dippel's ruminations. In the end his book is another polar excursion with vast ambitions that sets sail and sinks because its commander lost his way.