Newspapers and Northern Lights

In 1818 John Ross pointed the ship Isabella toward the Northwest Passage and opened up the Arctic exploration mania; the Shackleton-Rowett expedition of ...

In 1818 John Ross pointed the ship Isabella toward the Northwest Passage and opened up the Arctic exploration mania; the Shackleton-Rowett expedition of 1921–22 brought the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration to a close. What followed is usually called the Mechanical Age; as Hester Blum shows, it is also the radio age, the telecommunication age, the age of wired exploration. For a solid century, though, the traveling world of the ship was a cosmos complete unto itself, portaging the warm south into the frozen north (or vice versa, in the case of the Antarctic).

It is hard to exaggerate the sway that these daring forays into uninhabitability have held over readers’ imaginations. Name your own best beloved, but I have two: Roland Huntford’s detailed exposition of Amundsen’s winning polar strategy and Scott’s fatal blunders in The Last Place on Earth; and Ursula Le Guin’s avowedly Scott-philic story of lovers traversing a deadly ice sheet, The Left Hand of Darkness. (This novel, deservedly remembered for other things as well, was by her telling first and foremost about men on ice.) Like the Civil War—apparently, between April 9, 1865, and today, an average of a book about it per day has appeared—polar exploration is an inexhaustible topic that has nonetheless been exhaustively and slightly exhaustingly covered for centuries. Surely every approach to those voyages—those mad, ambitious, hubristic, quixotic, riches- and knowledge-driven voyages—has been tested.

Blum proves otherwise. Scholars before her, busy generating material for books about polar explorers, have completely missed the fact the explorers themselves were loaded down with, often literally encumbered by, materials for writing and printing. The story she has to tell is the stories they shared with one another: sometimes for later reprint and republication, but often simply in the same way that a family will set up a household newspaper, or a set of kids will undertake to narrate their world to themselves. This was news to be read by the only people to whom it was no news at all.

This was news to be read by the only people to whom it was no news at all.

The News at the Ends of the Earth,” writes Blum, “is attuned to the tension between the oceanic or global ambitions of polar voyages and the remarkably tenuous and circumscribed conditions of their practice.” The book’s strength consists in its unprecedented attention to the one thing that made those tenuous and circumscribed winter quarters into something that felt, at times, like a portable town. Blum’s first inkling about the “many coterie newspapers created by polar voyagers throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century in what became a standard practice for such ventures” came when she stumbled across a copy of the Illustrated Arctic News, an elegant affair printed and consumed by the men of HMS Resolute in 1850–51. Its forgettable gags (e.g., “an inflatable named Benjamin Balloon getting ‘high’ on ‘Hydro-gin’”) brought her to her book’s crucial question, a seemingly simple one that actually ramifies deeply: “What is the news at the ends of the earth?”

On some level that is an easy question to answer: virtually everything these explorers came across—whether they were hunting for a Northwest Passage or for the remains of the ill-fated Franklin expedition, or simply for the pole itself—was news to someone back in the temperate zone. But coterie is perfectly chosen: the point is what these little traveling communities had to say to one another, about themselves. Having little in common with news bulletins, these are instead internal communications, for sparking enthusiasm over iced-in nights (nights that could last for months …) or for cementing camaraderie.

So, no news turns out to be great news. Learn about the feud (or was it only a pretend feud, or a real feud pretending to be a pretend feud?) between contributors and “NCs” (noncontributors) that raged in the pages of the North Georgia Gazette and Winter Chronicle, printed by the officers of Parry’s 1819–20 Northwest Passage expedition. Gaze at a shipboard printed ad for “the Artic Printing Office … situated in Trap Lane within half a minutes walk of the foremost Quarter Deck ladder, and easily accessible to all parts of the City.” Or consider the printed record that remains of the various original works composed and performed on various ships: Arctic Pantomime of Zero; The Arctic Twin; Little Vulgar Boy, or Weeping Bill; and The Ice-Bound Regions. There is some historical variation: the later “Antarctic papers are more self-consciously literary and more attuned to the meteorological and scientific aims of the expeditions,” perhaps because “Antarctic imprints tended to circulate outside of the polar regions more reliably than Arctic ones.” But a striking number of through lines (you’ll have to read the book to discover them all) connect the publishing practices of a century of polar expeditions.

Blum’s rich recounting of an overlooked literary history—the shipping news for the shipbound—moves to contextualize its wonderful material in a set of claims about a long history of “polar ecomedia” that bespeaks a very 2019 sort of environmental awareness. Blum aims to bring this delightfully disparate printed matter into direct conversation with current debates on the advent of the Anthropocene and environmental disaster. As Walter Benjamin put it, “To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize ‘how it really was.’ It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger.” However, a presentism that wants to read present-day ways of thinking into texts from the past (as at times Blum’s book does) is not a methodological antidote to antiquarianism, but simply its mirror image. To “take control” of this history also means appreciating the gulf that looms between those who saw and felt and understood such marvels as the poles more than a century ago and those who write about environmental disasters today.

The News at the Ends of the Earth is a fine-grained register of the ebb and flow of a printophilic century, from Ross to Shackleton. While mindful of the minor variations over the decades, Blum marvelously conveys that fantastic, phantasmatically preserved shipbound conversation, a dilated and heterogeneous house party.


This article was commissioned by Leah Price. icon

Featured image: Detail from the November 30, 1850, edition of the Illustrated Arctic News