Sunday, July 26, 2009

Polar Hayes

Polar Hayes: The Life and Contributions of Isaac Israel Hayes, M.D.

Douglas W. Wamsley

Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-87169-262-7

Reviewed by Jonathan Dore

Douglas Wamsley has filled a glaring gap in the historiography of 19th-century polar exploration by producing the first biography of Isaac Hayes, leader of perhaps the most overlooked US Arctic expedition before the age of Cook and Peary. But Hayes’s activities extended well beyond the Arctic, and in thoroughly charting them Wamsley has given us a picture not only of Arctic exploration but of many disparate aspects of 19th-century American life. The publishers are also to be commended for producing a pleasingly solid and attractively presented volume, illustrated with photographs, engravings, well-drawn maps, and a colour plate.

Isaac Hayes was born into a Quaker community in rural Pennsylvania in 1832, and the author has taken great trouble to evoke the details of what that Quaker upbringing would have meant. To those accustomed to the modern Quaker image as a peace-loving but, in theological terms, virtually doctrine-free sect, it is a bracing shock to realize that in the 1820s American Quakers were stern disciplinarians who experienced a doctrinal and praxis-based schism that bitterly split the community. As a result, their physical assets were divided according to which group could muster the greatest support in each locality. In Chester county, the more orthodox group to which Hayes’s family belonged retained control of the most precious local asset, a residential school, and here the young Isaac had a formal and very serious education that encompassed natural science, mathematics, rhetoric and public speaking alongside religious studies and some carefully controlled exposure to literature. The detail with which Wamsley has researched and recreated the life of this school and the world-view of the community it served marks an impressive contribution to the social history of the Quakers.

Grasping with both hands the opportunity of his few years at the school, young Isaac flourished in the school’s debating and literary societies, and went on to become a junior instructor himself when he graduated. But his ambition clearly drew him to wider horizons from a young age, and he quickly decided that a medical career was his best chance for advancement on the social and economic ladder he desperately wanted to climb. Looking even further afield, he pushed himself unrelentingly to complete a three-year medical course in two years so that he would be qualified in time to sign up with the Second Grinnell Expedition to the Arctic, led by Elisha Kent Kane. A generalized ambition, and specifically a desire to escape from the respectable poverty in which he had been raised, seems to have led Hayes both to medicine and to the Arctic, rather than any specific interest in either field. But while his fascination with the Arctic grew along with his exposure to it, on the evidence of this biography his commitment to medicine as a vocation—rather than as a door-opener—seems always to have been somewhat half-hearted. At no point did he settle down to regular medical practice, even as he complained of a lack of income, and in the one period in his life continuously devoted to a medical institution, when he ran Philadelphia’s Satterlee Hospital during the Civil War, his work was overwhelmingly administrative in nature.

Wamsley’s attention to detail is always impressive, but this sometimes leads him astray in misjudgements of emphasis. This is particularly noticeable during his overly thorough description of Kane’s expedition, which takes up fully a hundred pages of rather close-set text. The detail is unnecessary both because this expedition is so well covered elsewhere and because the pages devoted to it are not used to give any more emphasis to the role of Hayes than that of anyone else. Wamsley’s impeccably impartial view avoids any special pleading for Hayes’s actions in the often acrimonious series of events, as the crew split into camps before uneasily reintegrating. But nor does he provide any particular focus on Hayes’s role in the expedition—which a biography surely ought to—and we get no sense of seeing events from Hayes’s viewpoint. Indeed, for chapters at a time one simply forgets that this is a biography of Hayes, rather than simply an account of the expedition.

As soon as he returned from the Kane expedition, it seems, Hayes decided that he would support himself by public lecturing, drawing on his school-time experience as a public speaker and debater. And within a short time he had conceived the idea of leading his own Arctic expedition to put right the errors of decision and execution he perceived Kane as having made. But throughout his life Hayes’s timing, and much else, was dogged by bad luck, and without the prestigious social and political connections that had smoothed the fundraising process for Kane, or the charismatic force of personality that would later propel Charles Hall to leadership of the government-funded Polaris expedition, Hayes had to cajole, exhort, scrimp, save, beguile, and seduce his would-be funders—and all during an economic downturn. Unsurprisingly it took him five years to raise the funds for even a modest, single-ship expedition.

Crucially, this was a sailing ship rather than a steamer, and the restrictions this placed on navigating in the ice-choked waters of Smith Sound had profound implications for what the expedition could accomplish. Their wintering place was further south than Kane’s (without steam power they could not risk getting stuck further north) and wind and ice had forced them onto the Greenland shore of Smith Sound, while Hayes had explicitly wanted to aim for the Ellesmere side. As a consequence, the main exploratory sledge journey of the expedition in the spring of 1861 had to use virtually all its strength and resources just crossing the frozen strait to the west before the participants could even begin heading north, with the result that Hayes’s furthest advance did not even reach as high a latitude as Morton achieved on Kane’s expedition in 1854. Although some coastline had been mapped for the first time, and Hayes tried to claim a greater distance than, in all probability, he actually achieved, it became apparent when the expedition’s results were eventually published (in 1865) how little new ground had been covered. This, along with the explorers’ return to find themselves in the midst of a civil war, ensured that any momentum that might have been generated for further exploration was lost, and that Hayes’s expedition, with no distinct achievement to call its own, soon faded in the public mind.

The Civil War provided Hayes with another opportunity to show his flair for leadership, as President Lincoln himself recommended him to run the Union’s major military hospital—in fact during its brief three-year existence Satterlee became the largest hospital in the world, and its well-ordered functioning and reputation for high standards of care owed much to Hayes’s zeal and discipline. But from the war’s end onwards the sense of drift in Hayes’s career is palpable. Lecturing and occasional writing continued to be his bread and butter, and his two remaining Arctic journeys (a summer cruise to Greenland with the painter William Bradford in 1869 and an expedition to Iceland during its millennial celebrations in 1874) are perhaps most accurately thought of as extensions of the same type of activity—creating diversions for the edification of the wealthy—rather than as genuinely exploratory ventures. Instead, the major effort of the remainder of what would prove to be a truncated life was in politics. From 1875 until the spring of 1881 Hayes served as an assemblyman representing a New York City district in the state assembly in Albany. He championed many progressive and far-sighted causes, including underground railways, subacqueous tunnels, and the abolition of canal freight charges, and was a consistent opponent of the Tammany Hall corruption that was only then beginning to be seriously challenged.

As with his treatment of Hayes’s Quaker background, Wamsley’s coverage of Hayes’s political career is admirably researched and comprehensive, providing a well-drawn picture of both corrupt and reformist state and city politics in the gilded age. Even this career had completed its brief cycle of rise and fall before Hayes’s death, however: reaching a zenith of popular regard and power in his third year as assemblyman, when he chaired important committees, his behaviour was increasingly erratic in his fourth and fifth years, and he became a marked man whom the New York Times, once supportive, singled out for relentless criticism until Republican Party bosses persuaded him not to run for re-election in November 1881. His decline, marked by intemperate outbursts and rambling orations, was perhaps linked to heart disease, his probable cause of death in December 1881.

Although he was just 49, having finished with careers as explorer, administrator, and politician, and with nothing to show financially for a life of toil, it is hard to know what Hayes would have done next if he hadn’t died; he seems to have consumed and exhausted every opportunity open to him. Yet for all the abundant detail of Wamsley’s work there seems to remain something blankly unknowable about Hayes, a lack of a strongly characterized personality that is puzzling. Perhaps the absence of a life partner (Hayes never married) and the emotional mirror such a person would have provided to his thoughts and actions, is one cause. But the author’s one serious omission in an otherwise all-inclusive book is an extensive consideration of Hayes’s published writing, from which there are surprisingly few quotations, and it is sobering on reaching the bibliography to see how extensive the list of publications is, ranging from exploration narratives, journalism and political advocacy to children’s stories. Perhaps a greater emphasis on evaluation of these writings, rather than simple reporting of their contents, would have gone some way to providing those missing insights into Hayes’s personality.

As a documentary record of the explorer’s life and the background that shaped him, Polar Hayes is surely the definitive work. But the elusive personality of the man still perhaps remains to be grasped.