ANTARCTICA - American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

ANTARCTICA. The last continent to be visited by human beings, Antarctica figured largely in the European and American imagination through the whole age of exploration. In the last decades of the eighteenth century, British, Russian, and French expeditions were sent to the southern polar regions to locate what was then called “terra incognita.” Not until the second decade of the nineteenth century, however, did American sealers begin to reach the edge of the Antarctic continent, and their efforts were first described in Benjamin Morrell’s* Narrative of Four Voyages (1832) and Edmund Fanning’s* Voyages round the World (1833).

The lack of solid scientific information made it possible to project onto the South Pole romantic and mysterious literary notions, as well as specious theories about its geography and geology. One of the most popular authors on the subject was John Cleves Symmes, who in 1818 began to write about his theory that the earth was hollow and that the interior could be accessed through “Holes in the Poles.” His writings were collected and published in 1826 by James McBride. Symmes’ theories inspired the novel Symzonia*: A Voyage of Discovery. By “Captain Adam Seaborn” (1820). Edgar Allan Poe,* who had experimented with an Antarctic theme in his short story “MS. Found in a Bottle” in 1833, was inspired by Symmes to write his novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket* (1838).

Using Symmes’ theory as a launching point, Jeremiah N. Reynolds* began in 1825 to promote the idea of a U.S. Exploring Expedition* to the southern high latitudes. The resulting expedition of 1838-1842, under the command of Charles Wilkes, investigated the Antarctic continent during a circumnavigation* of the globe. The scientific information published in Wilkes’ five-volume Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition (1844) directly influenced both popular discourse about the Antarctic and literary themes. James Fenimore Cooper,* especially, began to work almost immediately with material drawn from it. Cooper had earlier written about the southern polar regions in The Monikins (1835), but in The Sea Lions* (1849) he actually incorporated descriptions of Antarctica from Wilkes’ Narrative. Cooper’s Antarctic voyage is the antithesis of Poe’s—the former could not have been written before the Wilkes Expedition; the latter could not have been written after. The eyewitness accounts of Wilkes’ scientists filled in unknown areas of the globe and in the process changed them from mysterious places of fantastic possibilities to rock, ice, and snow.

Though one of the men aboard the Wilkes Expedition, assistant surgeon James Croxall Palmer, later wrote a novel, Thulia: A Tale of the Antarctic (1843), the bulk of the next century’s Antarctic literature was either scientific or narrative accounts of attempts to reach the South Pole itself. The notion of the Antarctic continent as “the last place on earth” was not lost, though. In 1983 John Calvin Bachelor’s The Birth of the People’s Republic ofAntarctica once again introduced the southern polar region as a place of mysterious possibilities for voyagers.

FURTHER READING Collier, Graham, and Patricia Graham Collier. Antarctic Odyssey: Endurance and Adventure in the Farthest South. New York: Carroll and Graf, 1999; Lenz, William E. The Poetics of the Antarctic: A Study in Nineteenth-Century American Cultural Perceptions. New York: Garland, 1995.

Mary Malloy