November 2008

Colleen Mondor

nonfiction

Race to the Polar Sea: The Heroic Adventures of Elisha Kent by Ken McGoogan

Elisha Kent Kane was one of the most famous explorers in American history but as biographer Ken McGoogan details in his new book, Race to the Polar Sea, Kane’s achievements have largely been forgotten. McGoogan’s book goes a long way towards returning Kane to his rightful position in the adventure and scientific pantheon, and through unprecedented access to the long missing first volume of Kane’s private journal from his second expedition he provides valuable insight into Kane’s motivations and concerns. Most significantly to 21st century environmentalists, McGoogan also discusses the wealth of climate data Kane collected and its relevance to current global warming research.

Kane, born in 1820, was part of a dynamic family who supported him as he sought his own path. Struggling against illness for much of his life, Kane still managed to fight in the Mexican American War and then pursue a degree in medicine. Becoming a town doctor held no interest however and McGoogan weaves family letters into the narrative to show Kane’s increasing unwillingness to lead a predictable life. With the help of his father he was able to obtain a commission to the navy and then, while waiting for an assignment, embarked on an around-the-world tour which at one point took him literally into the heart of a volcano. “Crawling upon our hands and knees,” McGoogan quotes Kane, “the lava within six inches of our noses, suddenly our heads jutted up above the crest of the volcano, and the magnificence of the crater, literally a coup d’oeil, burst upon us.” In these early chapters McGoogan shows Kane’s intense desire for something more than his respectable yet staid upbringing. It was no surprise then that he leaped at the chance to join the 1850 Grinnell expedition in search of missing British explorer John Franklin.

Both the first expedition, where Kane served as ship’s doctor, and the second, three years later which he led, have been well documented by both Kane and others. However McGoogan’s access to Kane’s rare papers from the second expedition provides more information about the explorer’s personal feelings, particularly after his ship was trapped in the ice and several members of the crew abandoned it. The journals also showed how deeply Kane was impressed by what he saw in the Arctic. Nineteenth century historians lauded his drawings and public comments on the Humboldt Glacier (which was found by his men and named by Kane for geologist Alexander von Humboldt). McGoogan reminds modern readers of Humbolt’s significance in the field and further goes on to stress how committed Kane was to preserving both scientific and artistic impressions of the North, even when he himself was in the most perilous of circumstances:

Now, from a distance of twenty miles, Kane got his first clear view of Humboldt Glacier. He made several sketches but felt that his drawings did not do justice to the natural wonder, "the grandeur of the few bold and simple lines of nature being almost entirely lost." That night, he discovered swelling in his legs. And the following day he became delirious, drifting in and out of feverish consciousness. He fainted while moving from the tent to the sledge. Finally, he slipped into a stupor.

Two weeks later, after returning to the ship, Kane would become well enough to resume writing in his journal about the glacier and what he believed lay beyond it.

McGoogan brings together previous writings on the explorer (both contemporary to his travels and in recent publications) and gives readers a complete portrait of his subject. In this way you can learn not only what men like science writer Edmund Blair Bolles wrote about him in his book, The Ice Finders (when considering the 19th century understanding of the Ice Age, Bolles believed that Kane’s words and drawings were significant because they “…would transform the ice-shrouded world from an imaginary maybe into a palpable is"), but also how biographers of Kane’s longtime love, the spiritualist Margaret Fox, considered him. The picture that emerges makes Race to the Polar Sea equal parts survival story, philosopher’s adventure and doomed romance. McGoogan is also able to explain just why Kane became so stratospherically famous in one century, only to be almost entirely forgotten in the next.

First and foremost, Race to the Polar Sea should be of serious interest to Arctic exploration aficionados. Almost better than that however, it will also appeal to a broad range of general history fans who will find Kane’s explorations both polar and otherwise fascinating. McGoogan does a good job of incorporating the words of his subject into the text so that by the final chapters about Kane’s untimely death, readers will have an enormous amount of insight into what drove this man to achieve so much, while also leaving him incapable of legitimizing the relationship with the love of his life. History gave Kane a free pass in the beginning and then later judged him far too harshly. McGoogan finally reveals him to be the fascinating, conflicted and brilliantly possessed man he truly was. Accompanied by numerous illustrations (many of Kane’s own work), this title is first rate reading for arm chair adventurers everywhere.

Race to the Polar Sea: The Heroic Adventures of Elisha Kent Kane by Ken McGoogan
Counterpoint
ISBN 1582434409
320 pages