Wednesday’s Book Review: “Antarctic Destinies”


Antarctic DestiniesAntarctic Destinies: Scott, Shackleton, and the Changing Face of Heroism. By Stephanie Barczewski. London, UK: Hambledon Continuum, 2007.

I have been interested in Antarctic exploration for many years and have read a broad range of books. Antarctic Destinies is focused not so much on the expeditions themselves as on the memory of the men who led them. The two protagonists in this work by Clemson University history professor Stephanie Barczewski are the Englishman Robert Falcon Scott and the Anglo-Irishman Ernest Shackleton, and to a much lesser extent Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. All three were motivated by the search for fame, and perhaps fortune, not unlike many other explorers of the nineteenth century. They sought the South Pole, first and foremost, but also overland trips across the continent and exploration of other parts of Antarctica.

Barczewski begins with a general discussion of the heroic era of polar exploration and what heroism consisted of at the time, as well as the manner in which this era has been reinterpreted over the years since that early twentieth century experience. A succession of expeditions to Antarctica make up the first half of the book. The two central expeditions are Scott’s Terra Nova expedition between 1910 and 1912 and Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition of 1914-1916. Roald Amundsen enters the story with his 1911 race to the South Pole, arriving there on December 14, 1911, some five weeks before Scott. Even so, Scott’s reputation gained enormous status through his death—martyrdom?—in seeking the Pole.

That race to the South Pole is well-known. Many books have explored the frenemy/rivalry status of Scott and Shackleton. Amundsen has always been a part of the story, of course, because he successfully reached the Pole first, documented his success beyond any doubt, and conducted important scientific studies during his expedition. Scott has been revered as one who died in the process, a hero to the cause of exploration and the British Empire. Shackleton was for many years seen as an “also ran” who failed to achieve his objective.

Barczewski makes her major contribution by assessing the manner in which the reputations of Scott and Shcakleton have changed in the century since their race to the South Pole. Initially, Scott received the lion’s share of credit for his daring-do, even as he lost his life in the process. Shackleton’s reputation suffered for his failures. That remained pretty much the case until the latter half of the twentieth century. Over time the reputations of Scott and Shackleton have migrated in opposite directions. Scott has been interpreted as a huckster and something of a charlatan, and his memory has been colored by that rising perspective. Shackleton has gained stature with his Endurance expedition because of his commitment to ensure that the men on it made it safely home. In the process his failure has been restructured into a success. I am reminded of the manner in which the Apollo 13 mission, suffering a catastrophic failure in 1970 has been reinterpreted as a NASA success story since it found a way to bring the astronauts home alive. That mission’s stature is now viewed as only slightly less consequential than the original Apollo 11 Moon landing.

Barczewski makes the case that this transformation of the images of Scott and Shackleton have much more to do with significant cultural shifts in the United Kingdom—especially the loss of empire and its current place as one of many strong nations but not the preeminent power in the world—than any intrinsic meaning that might be assigned to the cause of global exploration. Nor do the lives of Scott and Shackleton have much to do with this change in their images. What we know about them has not changed much in the years since their deaths. The author structures this change in the reputations of these two explorers in relation to a set of major events that affected Western Civilization, as well as the nature of public commemoration in memorials, books, and other forms of scholarship and public presentation.

This is a most interesting book for many reasons. Stephanie Barczewski emphasizes the knock-down-drag-out nature of the historiography on the polar quest. She shows the ins-and-outs of the various documentary materials, accounts of participants, and recollections after the fact. In her epilogue she mentions, but does not analyze, recent efforts to rehabilitate Scott’s reputation. Her final suggestion is that in the post-9/11 world of the early twenty-first century it may be that emerging “political conservatism” could have “created a climate more favorable to Scott” (p. 311). There might be other explanations as well. A continuation of this exploration of memory of Polar Region exploration in the more recent past may well be in order for future historians.

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One Response to Wednesday’s Book Review: “Antarctic Destinies”

  1. Mary Carol says:

    Interesting review in light of the recent attempt and loss of explorer Worely.

    Like

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