Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Unchained Man

Unchained Man: The Arctic life and times of Captain Robert Abram Bartlett

by Maura Hanrahan

Portugal Cove-St Philip’s, NL: Boulder Publications

Reviewed by Jonathan Dore

Robert Bartlett was born in Brigus, Newfoundland, in 1875, and bucked the tradition of his locally famous ancestors by going to sea not to hunt seals but to explore, gravitating always towards the far north. The best-known expeditions in which he participated were the last three of Peary (1898-1902 in the Windward, and 1905-06 and 1908-09 in the Roosevelt), including his attempts on the North Pole, and Stefansson’s Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913-18 in the Karluk. In the latter three expeditions Bartlett was captain of the ship, but not expedition leader, and the ambivalence of this position means that he would probably be known only to Arctic exploration aficionados but for his extraordinary 700-mile journey, with the Inuit hunter Claude Kataktovik, to seek help for the stranded survivors of the Karluk in 1914, showing leadership of a kind that Stefansson so pointedly lacked. It was this journey, so reminiscent of Shackleton’s rescue of the Endurance crew two years later, that propels Bartlett into the realm of mythic fame. Haunted by the tragic death—despite his best efforts—of 11 expedition members from the Karluk, he succumbed to alcoholism in the following decade before restoring equilibrium and sense of purpose to his life when he started leading his own series of annual expeditions in his own schooner, the Effie Morrissey, over the twenty-odd years before his death in 1946.

Almost all of this information can be found, scattered randomly like grass seed, at some point or other in Maura Hanrahan’s book. But it really shouldn’t be as difficult to find as it is. It’s not often that one finishes the opening chapter of a non-fiction book bemused by the simple question of what the author is trying to achieve. Even rarer that the puzzlement remains on reaching the end of the book. Ostensibly a biography (“life and times” could scarcely be a more traditional marker of the genre), Unchained Man seems, by contrast, to be segments of several different books with different goals, all sadly unrealized. It’s not even clear that a biography is one of them.

The book’s opening chapter launches straight into Peary’s last expedition. Often such points of high drama function as brief openers in biographies to draw a reader in before returning to the subject’s origins. Here instead we get not only the author’s full account of the expedition, but also of Peary and Bartlett’s two previous expeditions, mixed in with summaries of Inuit–European relations, theories of imperialism, racism, and white male privilege, and thumbnail sketches of a generous handful of Bartlett ancestors, in a chapter in which Peary is a far more visible presence than Bartlett. The author seems somewhat naïve in assessing Peary’s truthfulness about reaching the Pole, and it’s a question how familiar she is with the literature on the subject—Robert Bryce’s Cook and Peary: The Polar Controversy, Resolved and Wally Herbert’s The Noose of Laurels are both notable for their absence from the book’s bibliography. The sparsity of dates, absence of maps, and lack of dramatic flair in the writing are also serious failings in this chapter as an account of an expedition.

Chapter 2, “A cottage hearth and open waters: An expectant childhood” looks like it might be going back to the beginning to give us the background we need to put Bartlett’s later exploits in context, but here again we are destined to be frustrated. The explorer’s own childhood is referred to occasionally, and fleetingly, in the context of a long and rambling essay on his immediate family and ancestors—expanding on the thumbnail sketches begun in chapter 1—many of whom the author writes about with patently greater interest and warmth than she shows for her supposed subject. Eight pages are devoted to the explorer’s grandmother Mary Leamon, within which four are spent describing in great detail a stipulation in her will that her descendants should not marry into a particular local family—something that might, at a push, warrant two or three sentences in a biography of Robert Bartlett. Even the two pages devoted to his younger sisters’ later tearoom business (several decades out of place in this chapter) is more than we learn about the first thirty years of Robert Bartlett’s own life.

Surely chapter 3—“Sculpting a life: Gaffs, compasses, and following on” will make amends? But no: whoever’s life is being sculpted, it isn’t Bob Bartlett’s. The family history simply continues uninterrupted, this time following the Y chromosome back through several generations of hard-bitten Bartlett sealers and sailors. By the end of it, we are half-way through the book and have had 135 pages on the social history of Brigus seen through the lens of a few interrelated families over several generations, mixed in with an abbreviated and unfocused account of Peary’s later expeditions and generous dollops of apologetic fussing about how racist and sexist everyone was in the nineteenth century, as if autres temps, autres mœurs were a new discovery. What we emphatically don’t have is what’s promised on the cover of the book.

In chapter 4 we hit the half-way point, and the author’s account of the Karluk disaster, once again short of dates, route maps, and telling the story in chronological order—the basic apparatus needed to make an expedition account intelligible to the reader. What the author does finally achieve, however, is the foregrounding of Robert Bartlett, and specifically of his life-saving trek from Wrangell Island to the Siberian mainland and across the Bering Strait to summon help. Even here, however, the drama must take a back seat to the author’s virtue-signalling concern to quantify precisely how much respect Bartlett is showing to his companion Kataktovik and the succession of Chukchi hosts who, once on land, gave them hospitality and supplies that saved their lives. It is instructive to compare this to the expertly crafted prose, seamlessly assimilated archival research, clearly drawn character sketches, perfectly paced narrative, and simple, non-judgemental warmth of human understanding seen in Jennifer Niven’s account of the disaster, The Ice Master (2002).

Chapters 5 and 6 happily continue to focus on Bartlett, and take us through the last thirty years of his life. Though now famous enough for his name and image to be used in advertising everything from tobacco to breakfast cereal, and despite being the author of his own account of the Karluk’s voyage (later he also wrote an autobiography), he was dogged by dissatisfaction, unease, and probably survivor guilt, his reliance on alcohol gradually increasing over a decade that ended with him being run over on a New York street. The enforced abstinence of his subsequent time in hospital was enough to break the spell, and he determined to swear off liquor for good. Determined to go north again on his own terms, he bought a schooner of the kind he knew from his early days in Newfoundland and started to use the wealthy New York contacts his fame had brought him to conduct a series of summer voyages to the coasts of Labrador and Baffin Bay in which the sons of the rich would pay to act as crew (though always with a core staff of professional sailors) on a character-building adventure. It proved to be a winning formula that provided Bartlett with a living for the rest of his life. Mentoring the young seemed to give him genuine pleasure too, and Hanrahan picks out his nephew Jack Angel and the geographer David Nutt, later one of the founders of climate science, as particularly significant. Science was another interest that flowered in Bartlett’s later life, particularly the collecting of plant and animal specimens for museums, and stemmed from the spiritual refreshment he always got from nature, part of the attraction that kept drawing him back to the Arctic.

Although all these elements emerge in Hanrahan’s account, their presentation lacks the essential chronological markers needed to make sense of a person’s life, which is after all experienced, and develops, in only a forward direction through time. When writing a biography, a thematic approach is not enough.

Hanrahan seems to have been caught between the desire to write several different books, and has tried unsatisfactorily to do a bit of all of them. One, perhaps, is a history of the town of Brigus as an example of a prosperous nineteenth-century sealing and fishing town. Another is a family history, showing the ebb and flow of personal and social forces that mould each generation’s outlook and life chances. A third is an attempt to recover the hidden stories of a series of impressive and formidable women, in danger of being lost because their accomplishments were more often domestic than public. All of these are worthwhile projects, and deserve their own books. They should not have been shoehorned into a biography of Robert Bartlett, a project that one senses lost the author’s interest at some point. The decade of archival research on three continents that she undertook for this book should have made it a definitive biography; instead it seems merely to have distracted the author into disappearing down innumerable rabbit holes, and then presenting her findings as if they were all equally relevant. The crucial discipline of selection is missing.

At root the problem perhaps stems from the author’s lack of interest in, or sympathy with, geographical exploration, the activity that motivated Bartlett. Certainly anyone capable of writing the breathtakingly unqualified statement that “racism was at the foundation of all exploration activity” could not be accused of a broad or deep knowledge of the field, as numerous errors of fact throughout the book illustrate. In the page 23 footnote, Hanrahan brackets Svalbard with Australia and Canada as “colonized” places subject unjustly to the legal doctrine of terra nullius, seemingly unaware that Svalbard had never had any human inhabitants before its discovery by the Dutch in 1596. On page 20, she brackets Ernest Shackleton with Robert Scott as having “military origins” (an idea Scott would have found wryly amusing), and in the page 57 footnote has Shackleton’s famous open-boat journey in 1916 ending at the Falkland Islands rather than South Georgia. On page 35 she writes that in 1906 “the ailing Roosevelt had pushed farther north than any ship in history” (to 82°20′N—the latitude is not actually given in the book), unaware that the most celebrated ship in polar history, the Fram, had been more than three degrees further north (to 85°57′), ten years earlier. On page 147 this claim is given an even more bizarre twist, in the statement that Bartlett was “the first captain to take a ship north of 88 degrees”, something that no ship achieved before nuclear-powered icebreakers in the 1970s, and perhaps the result of conflating the earlier claim, already false, with Bartlett’s own personal farthest north on foot in 1909. On page 40 she berates Peary for naming features on the north-east coast of Greenland in 1892 and 1895: “In so doing he completely ignored the long-standing Inuit presence in the Arctic”. But as with Svalbard, it is the author who is unaware of when and where that presence was and was not to be found: Thule settlement of the north-east coast of Greenland had declined long before European contact, and had been extinct for some seventy years by the time of Peary’s first expeditions. Their names for geographical features, never written down or part of any surviving group’s oral history, therefore were and are definitively unrecoverable. On page 142 Bartlett’s acclaimed navigation of the stricken Roosevelt was in 1906, not 1909 (as the author knows, having written about it in chapter 1), and on page 143 Sam Bartlett’s voyage of 1903-04 had made claim to the eastern Arctic specifically on behalf of Canada, not Britain, which had transferred its claim to the dominion in 1880. On page 241, Roald Amundsen had not yet, in 1909, even announced he was aiming for the South Pole, let alone reached it. And on page 242, George Francis Lyon was certainly never part of an expedition aiming for the North Pole, though his former commander Parry had been.

The failure is as much the publisher’s as the author’s. The book’s editor should have obliged the author to make a root-and-branch restructuring of the content, jettisoning whole chapters, tightening up others, adding new ones, and restoring some sense of direction and focus. The copy-editor should have dealt with the errors listed above, as well as absent-minded inversions and solecisms like “biscuits of tins” (156), “London Illustrated News” (167), and “Royal Geographic Society” (241). Both individuals are named on the book’s copyright page, a practice the publisher might want to reconsider.

Most readers who buy a biography of Robert Bartlett will be, in some sense, fans of exploration history. An archivally researched biography of Bartlett has long been needed. On both counts it seems a shame that the assignment should have fallen to someone whose antipathy to the very activity that gives the story life makes her so ill-suited to the task. Such a narrative should be a dramatic gift to the author; what results instead sorely tests the patience of the reader.

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