THE ARCTIC - American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

THE ARCTIC. From Samuel Hearne’s 1795 travel account to Dean Koontz’s 1995 best-seller Icebound, the Arctic regions have provided a stark, yet fertile, setting for various literary genres: fiction, travel accounts, essays, and occasional verse. Geographically defined, the Arctic covers the Arctic Ocean and lands within Arctic waters to latitude 66° N. Norsemen explored the region as early as the ninth century, and the quest for the Northwest Passage* to China lured both British and Dutch explorers to the Arctic during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Beginning in the nineteenth century, Arctic expeditions shifted from the commercial to the scientific, and published accounts of the explorations began to appear.

Of the literary genres, the travel account is most prevalent, beginning with Samuel Hearne’s A Journal from Prince of Wale’s Fort, in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean in the Years 1769, 1770, 1771, and 1772 (1795). Several American imprints appeared after the turn of the century, many of which were published by the Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, including scientific accounts by Michael Healy (1887 and 1889), Adolphus W. Greely (1888), Admiral Charles H. Davis (1876), Calvin L. Hooper (1884), John Murdoch (1892), Joseph E. Nourse (1879), Orray T. Sherman (1885), and Winfield Scott Schley (1884). As with most of these travel logs, the primary purpose was to report scientific discoveries on expeditions financed by the federal government.

Likewise, there were also numerous commercially published travel accounts. The lost expedition of Sir John Franklin of 1845 was the subject of several books that documented the search for signs of Franklin’s ship and crew, including books by Elisha Kent Kane (1856), William Godfrey (1857), William H. Gilder (1881), and Adolphus Washington Greely (1885). More recent books on the ill-fated Franklin Expedition include Frozen in Time (1987) by physical anthropologist Owen Beattie and journalist John Geiger, who conclude lead poisoning was the cause for the demise of the men. In Unraveling the Franklin Testimony (1991), David Woodman disputes the Beattie/Geiger thesis using Inuit testimony. Scott Cookman’s Ice Blink (2000) faults naval stores as a source for botulism, which killed many of the crew.

Other Arctic travel accounts include those of Alexander W. Habersham (1857), Isaac Israel Hayes (1861), Charles Francis Hall (1865), and George W. Melville (1885). Two of the more interesting books on Arctic exploration are William Wellman’s book on airships over the region (1911) and Matthew Alexander Henson’s A Negro Explorer at the North Pole (1912). Henson was a member of the Robert E. Peary expeditions from 1886 to 1909. Peary himself wrote four books and countless articles on his travels, and the Peary expedition generated several additional books. A more recent title is When the Whalers Were Up North (1989) by Montreal freelance writer Dorothy Eber, who relates the whaling experience from the Inuit view. Common to the vast majority of these publications is their description of harsh conditions: the difficulties of seasonal navigation, the stark landscape and environment of the Arctic, and the personal sacrifices and heroic efforts of the hardy explorers.

Arctic fiction is limited in quantity, yet the setting makes for some unique literary contributions. The earliest is a brief fictional account of the Franklin expedition entitled The Extraordinary and All-Absorbing Journal of William N. Seldon: One of a Party of Three Men Who Belonged to the Exploring Expedition of Sir John Franklin, and Who Left the Ship Terror, Frozen Up in Ice, in the Arctic Ocean, on the 10th Day of June, 1850 (1851). The aforementioned expeditions provide the background for Call of the Arctic (1960) by Robert Stedman, about a young Harvard man who joined the Hall expedition (1860-1873). More recently, William T. Vollmann’s* The Rifles (1994) is set during Franklin’s last expedition (1845-1848), where a 1980s traveler to the Arctic imagines he is Franklin. Richard Woodman’s Arctic Treachery (1987) is also historical fiction; Rudy Wiebe’s A Discovery of Strangers: A Novel (1994) is yet another fictional account of the Franklin expedition. James Houston’s* The Ice Master: A Novel of the Arctic (1997) is an action-filled historical novel of the 1870s by a prolific Canadian* author who lived among Arctic Inuits from 1948 until 1962.

The majority of Arctic fiction fits into several categories: social relations, exploration and settlement, adventure and intrigue, and coming-of-age stories. Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights (1946) is science fiction later published as The Golden Compass (1996). A few novels focusing on the relations between Eskimos and whites were published during the 1970s. First among these was Alan Fry’s Come a Long Journey: A Novel (1971), followed by Harold Horwood’s White Eskimo: a Novel of Labrador (1972). Finn Schultz-Lorentzen’s Arctic (1976) deals with an Eskimo-white clash, while Where the Mountain Falls (1977) by David Keenleyside focuses on a less hostile relationship.

Fictional stories of hardship and adversity and coming-of-age offer another view of the Arctic. Published in 1885, Thomas W. Knox’s The Voyage of the Vivian to the North Pole and Beyond is a tale of two youths on a voyage on the open polar sea. Adolph P. Lerner’s The Moose Call (1938) is a story of love and adventure involving a trapper, and C. W. Nicol’s The White Shaman: A Novel (1979) tells of a young white man who learns to survive in the North. The Iceberg Hermit (1974) by Arthur Roth is another tale of Arctic survival. Perhaps the best-known author of Arctic fiction is Britain’s E. M. Forster, whose posthumous Arctic Summer and Other Fiction was published in 1980, ten years after his death. Begun in 1911 and not completed until 1951, Arctic Summer is the fictional account of a young man’s experiences in the Arctic after the turn of the century. The Doomed Ship, or The Wreck of the Arctic Regions (1864), by dime novelist “Harry Hazel” [Justin Jones*], is an exciting tale of adventure and romance. Peter Freuchen’s Sea Tyrant (1943) is the tale of an Arctic whaling ship.

Certainly, the most popular fictional theme is adventure or intrigue. Two of Alistair MacLean’s works are set in the Arctic: Ice Station Zebra (1963) is the story of an American nuclear submarine crew’s efforts to rescue a British scientific team, and Bear Island (1971) is about a movie production crew on a journey to the northern Arctic. In The Devil’s Lighter; A Novel (1973), John Ballem utilizes the theme of exploitation of Arctic natural resources; he followed that success with The Moon Pool (1978), about oil drilling in the Beaufort Sea. Basil Jackson’s Rage under the Arctic (1974) is about the world’s first submarine oil tanker to suffer an oil spill. Richard Rohman wrote still another novel of intrigue, Ultimatum (1973), about Americans and Canadians clashing over access to northern oil resources; the book was reissued the following year as Exxoneration. Roger Hurst’s Status ISQ (1979) is a thriller about a submarine trapped under the Arctic cap. Icebound (1995), by popular novelist Dean Koontz, is about attempts to utilize Arctic resources to relieve agricultural droughts in North America. Andrea Barrett combines fact and fiction in The Voyage of the Narwhal* (1998), in which a scholar-naturalist joins an expedition on a search for an open polar sea. Finally, Peter Nichols’ Voyage to the North Star (1999), a fog-bound and tempest-tossed maritime adventure, is technically authentic even as it tackles the large themes of morality and justice.

Stories from the Canadian North (1980) is a collection of short stories by some of Canada’s most renowned writers, including Farley Mowat,* Houston, and Rudy Wiebe. Another selection of short stories is Stories from the Pacific & Arctic Canada (1974), as is Mowat’s The Snow Walker (1975). Poetry collections with an Arctic theme include Cheryl Morse’s Loonlark: Orca Anthology of Poems and Prose (1983), a collection of thirty-four poems, and Arctic Heart: A Poem Cycle (1992) by Gretel Ehrlich. Thomas York’s The Musk Ox Passion (1978) is a satirical novel about attempts to civilize the North.

The two most prominent authors of children’s books about the Arctic are Houston and Mowat, and the list also includes such names as Bonnie Turner, Nick Burns, Anna Rokeby-Thomas, Bessie Marchant, Violet Irwin, and Charles S. Strong. Houston, who has won numerous book awards for his children’s works, is also an accomplished illustrator, sculptor, and film producer. His juvenile* fiction includes Frozen Fire (1977), Long Claws (1981), Black Diamonds (1982), Ice Swords (1985), The Falcon Bow (1986), and Drifting Snow (1992). Mowat’s Arctic books include Lost in the Barrens (1956). The aforementioned Beattie wrote Buried in Ice (1992), a young readers’ book on the Franklin Expedition.

FURTHER READING: Berton, Pierre. The Arctic Grail. New York: Viking, 1988; Caswell, John Edwards. Arctic Frontiers: United States Explorations in the Far North. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1956; Moss, John. Enduring Dreams: An Exploration of the Arctic Landscape. Concord, Ontario: Anansi, 1994.

Boyd Childress