Sunday, February 17, 2019

John Rae, Arctic Explorer

John Rae, Arctic Explorer: The Unfinished Biography

Edited by William Barr

Edmonton: Polynya Press (an imprint of the University of Alberta Press)

USD $60, $CAD 54

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

On the occasion of the death of Dr. John Rae, the journal of the American Geographical and Statistical Society offered a heartfelt encomium: "He wrote with simplicity and force, but he was more concerned to do things worthy of record than to record them." Had they known of this, his extraordinarily detailed autobiography, they might have had to change that comparison; Dr. Rae indeed did many things worth recording -- and he recorded them. The exact reasons why this manuscript -- which ends, frustratingly, in the middle of a sentence just as Rae is about to describe his fateful meeting with In-nook-poo-zhee-jook and how he learned from him of Franklin's fate -- was never completed, or (if it was) was never proffered to a publisher, may forever be shrouded in uncertainty. The manuscript was clearly passed from hand to hand -- so much so that the first few leaves became worn and tattered, and were re-copied in later years by his wife Kate -- but it has not seen the light of publication until today.

Much has been written in recent years about Rae's career, the more so since Ken McGoogan's 2001 magisterial Fatal Passage, but one feels on reading these pages -- more than 600 of them -- that we have, until now, but scarcely known John Rae, the shy boy from Orkney who, surprising even himself, made his way into the roughest country of the North, and distinguished himself above any other man of similar background. The man who comes into view in these pages is, by turns, reclusive, gregarious, sly, a fine doctor, a capable administrator, a gifted explorer --  who only learned the essentials of navigation and surveying midway through his career -- and a deeply decent man whose life subsequent to his discovery of the fate of Franklin was straitened by the public scorning of the news he brought, despite the fact that those who truly knew him and his work never wavered in their admiration.

The opening chapters of Rae's book are by far its finest -- here, more than in those that follow, we hear the voice of a man reflecting on a life well-lived, with a strange admixture of poignancy and pride:
Brought up and educated at home under a tutor in the Orkney Islands (which have been, I think not inappropriately, called by an old friend a “paradise for boys”) and never having had until the age of sixteen what would have been to a boy so defectively constituted, the advantage of attending a public school, my chief and almost sole amusements during vacation or play hours were boating, shooting, fishing and riding (chiefly the three first) all of which my brothers and myself had ample opportunities of practising. 
There are reminiscences of steering through the strong tides of the Hoy Mouth, of engaging in boat-races with his youthful comrades, and of hunting small game, a sport he enjoyed from his earliest years to his last. And yet it was the sea, it seems, that most strongly formed him; though a great part of his best-known adventures were primarily managed on foot, the deep and foundational impression made by his education as a boatsman became a metaphor for his life, one in which the reader will detect some sense of the way in which he faced -- and managed to navigate -- his later difficulties:
Poetical ideas are not much in my way at any time but this one line, “She walks the waters like a thing of life,” has often occurred to me, when steering one or other of the lively boats I have at different times possessed, through a sea of troubled waters. The sympathy between the steersman and his boat is felt much as that between the rider and a well known and favourite horse. On a smooth sea in the one case, or on a level road or good bit of turf in the other, a slight strain on the rein or a steady touch on the helm is all that is wanted, both rider and steersman, if up to their work, keeping wide awake and a sharp lookout ahead or to windward. But put the man and horse in the hunting field with a rattling big fence or stone wall in front of them, and the hounds in full cry a short distance ahead on the other side, and we have a different state of things, requiring a change of tactics
Detail of Rae's memorial
The line is from Lord Byron's The Corsair, and reveals to us something of Rae's reading, which was surely broader than he implies; throughout his travels, he was known for taking a miniature library of books in duodecimo amongst his gear -- one of them lies by his side on the sculptural memorial in St. Magnus Cathedral. But the dominant images of his memoir are those of the active life, the resourceful man who only fully shows his mettle when facing his worst difficulties.

His autobiography continues in this tone, up through his account of his first challenges upon entering the service of the Hudson's Bay Company, during which he ended up stationed with an icebound ship and her crew, saving nearly all of them from scurvy by the discovery of a large patch of cranberries under the snow. But not long after this point, the narrative gradually shifts to a daily journal style, interrupted at times by asides that seem directed more to those of his own profession than to the general reader. The reasons behind his three major surveying expeditions, the latter two part of the search for Franklin and his men, receive only perfunctory remarks, and much of Rae's account consists of the daily details of each journey.

Barr, perhaps the most experienced scholar in the world when it comes to editing Arctic explorers' narratives, provides all manner of helpful context. The latter third of the autobiography is supplemented by a large number of letters, all of which add something, though at times they feel rather like interruptions. And yet there will be few consolations when, on reaching the end of the manuscript and arriving at Barr's précis of the "second half" of Rae's life, one feels as though, having hiked the long incline of this rich and detailed narrative, the journey ends at a precipice.

Barr helpfully provides a brief summary of Rae's report on Franklin, as well as of his subsequent life and career. Within this, he even offers a poignant tidbit or two, as when he notes how upset Rae was by the death of his pet canary "Dickie," in June of 1888:
He maintained that [the bird] recognized his footsteps, which he "responded to as if he had been a Christian." [Rae] made a small coffin for it, and "as a solitary mourner," buried it in a secret location in his garden, later planting a flower over the grave.
There are also supplements, including articles by Rae on "Ice and its Formation" and "Building a snow-house." But what is most missed is any return of Rae's original narrative voice. This could have been provided (in the instance of Rae's 1854 discoveries) by including his full report; although it has been published elsewhere, it would have resonated quite differently here. Other letters could also have been chosen to give some sense of his later career. My understanding is that Barr had wished to extend and complete the narrative in this manner, but that his editors overruled him, probably in consideration of making a large book even larger. If that was their chief consideration, I certainly understand it, though I'd respectfully disagree.

Barr also makes it clear here that he feels that Rae's considerable accomplishments do not include, and need not be augmented by, modern claims that in surveying the strait that bears his name, he ought to have the credit for first discovering a navigable Northwest Passage. There will be many who will continue to challenge Barr's view, but it would be a terrible shame if, on the basis of that disagreement, they were to eschew this volume. The extraordinary value of getting Rae’s own personal measure of his life and career surely outweighs such disputes. In the end, though frustrated by its silences, we must all be grateful that we have before us an account of Rae's life from Rae's own hand.

The format of the book is extraordinarily handsome -- indeed, I have never seen anything like it among modern Arctic publications -- the paper is heavy and cream-colored, and the beautifully-designed jacket perfectly encompasses the well-crafted curvature of the massive spine. The main text is given with broad outer margins, which are sometimes used for very helpful side-notes; indeed, it would have been preferable if the end-notes had all been re-created as side-notes. There certainly seems to have been enough white space, and having to turn back and forth from the footnotes as one reads makes a long read feel longer. And yet, despite all these minor criticisms, this remains an extraordinary volume -- one that anyone who cares deeply about John Rae's life and work will want to acquire.

[NB There remains the possibility that, as some believe, the second half of the manuscript may still survive somewhere. Were it to be found, it would certainly be invaluable, and I would hope that it would soon rejoin the portion we now possess].

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for a masterful review, as we come to expect from you... now if I could only afford it. Maybe I'll ask the local library to procure it?