By the end of the nineteenth century not much of the globe remained unknown to the Western world. Even the elusive sources of the Nile had been tracked down in the Mountains of the Moon, and H. M. Stanley had hacked his way through the Iturri Forest in the darkest of Dark Africa. Green hells still remained unplotted in the vastness of the Amazonian basin, and a valley or two in the Himalayas were virgin soil—but the Western European’s hunger for loot, power, and proselytization had drawn him into the uttermost ends of the earth. Protestant missionaries were busy with the naked Ona in Tierra del Fuego, killing them off with measles before they could get them baptized for God, and the Catholics were not daunted by being cooked in Polynesia. Gold had driven men like lemmings to the Yukon and the desert wastes of Australia; whales lured them into the boisterous seas of the Far North and Deep South. National pride, economic greed, hot-gospeling, and strategic fears urged and goaded men into the unknown. Individuals usually felt the urgency for expansion or conversion far more keenly than governments did, who loathed the expense of exploration and feared its implications. They, at least, were quite prepared to live with a non-Christian world.

IF GOVERNMENTS proved hesitant about Africa, they were stonily indifferent to the polar regions. Both Peary and Scott found it difficult to wring a guinea or a dollar from their reluctant politicians. Scott did better, for the British Navy at least paid his debts after his death. Peary, however, enjoyed stronger backing from his public. Nevertheless, both of them had to promote their cause and raise the dollars and dimes through public lectures, which they hated. It is curious that the newspapers and publishers who gained most from their exploits proved to be the most reluctant givers. This is even odder when one considers what excellent value H. M. Stanley’s explorations had proved to his employers, the Daily Telegraph and New York Herald. Unlike Africa, the Arctic did not immediately catch the imagination—eternal snows, endless night, blizzard, and frostbite were no match for cannibals, witch-doctors, female circumcision, child slavery, and ju-ju. The diamonds and gold that threaded the Great Rift also added a feverish dimension of cupidity to all potential discoveries in Africa, but what good were diamonds, gold, or even coal, deep below the icecap, even if they existed? Both for Peary and for Scott the going was hard both at home and in the snows. Fame and money came only after the success of the one and the death of the other.

Peary was the luckier man, luckier in his nature, his gifts, and his enterprise, in spite of the absurdities of the egregious Dr. Cook, whose fatuous claims to have reached the North Pole first clouded Peary’s triumph.

Peary was dominated by a widowed mother—she went to college with him and joined him on his honeymoon. Solitude and distance were essential to his welfare. The relief that Peary found in the Arctic wastes—the obvious emotional consolation of immense loneliness—bespeaks an aching need to be relieved of personal strain, from demands that cannot be met. The Arctic satisfied other compulsions in Peary too—above all it provided a real challenge to his intense, soul-consuming ambition. Indeed personal ambition, the need to succeed beyond the success of all other men, gnawed at his vitals from youth to middle age. Neither spur, his desire for solitude and his competitive spirit, would have been any use without Peary’s intellectual gifts and physical stamina. He was highly intelligent, far, far more so than Scott, and his imagination—his capacity, that is, to imagine reality in conditions not experienced—was both active and true, otherwise is first amateur rush across North Greenland would have ended in disaster. Peary’s decisions were nearly always right—to force a ship further than seemed possible, indeed into the Arctic Sea, to live and travel like an Eskimo, to use wherever possible natural supplies of meat; these and many others proved unerringly correct. He judged his capacities and his needs finely, and he was a far better judge of men than Scott, whose opinions veered far too easily with circumstances. True, Peary made his mistakes, but these were surprisingly few, and the toll of lives among his expeditions fantastically small. Yet, oddly enough, Scott’s epic failure in the Antarctic has lived in public memory long after Peary’s success had begun to fade. The reasons are mixed—some are inherent in the story of Scott, which contains more drama, more narrative power than Peary’s quick, accomplished, and very smooth dash to the North Pole and back. But more significant still is this: Scott was a born writer. No man has died with a more beautiful economy of words. In the last agonizing weeks of his terrible journey back from the South Pole, his diaries express the tragic sense that he had carried with him since boyhood, in words which have acquired, and rightly acquired, immortality.


PEARY WAS AN EXPLORER BORN, and committed to the attempt to reach the North Pole from very early in his life; Scott was a naval officer who became an explorer, partly by chance, and he remained a naval officer even in the Antarctic wastes. In the hut in which he lived, officers and men were carefully segregated. Peary lived with Eskimos, took an Eskimo mistress, and fathered a child. Peary used his dogs as tools; Scott waxed sentimental over both his dogs and ponies. Their sufferings pained him as much as did those of his companions, if not more. Foolishly Scott jettisoned the idea of dogs for his dash to the South Pole. In consequence, facing more difficult surface conditions and equally bad weather, the Norwegian, Amundsen, beat Scott easily to the Pole and returned unscathed. Like Peary, he often covered twenty to twenty-five miles in a day. A good day for Scott on that endless march of 800 miles back from the Pole was seven and one half miles. Moreover, Scott chose his companions wrongly—one man, the gallant Oates, did not want to go, for, quite rightly, he did not think his wounded leg would hold out; the other, Petty-Officer Evans, was a mountainous man who could not be properly fed. At almost every level Scott misjudged men, events, techniques, and conditions.

Nor was Scott’s nature particularly attractive. He possessed a short temper and considerable moral arrogance. He regarded Antarctica as his own possession and bitterly resented the intrusion of both Shackleton and Amundsen. His comments on many members of his party lack charity, and he was venomous and spiteful to the young Norwegian in his crew. His opinions were largely those of an ill-educated, hidebound member of the Edwardian middle class—concerned with rank, breeding, national status, and mysterious moral qualities of which he himself was the judge. Had he returned alive he would certainly have attained a modest place in the history of exploration; as it was, his death turned him into a national symbol. In death he showed qualities of forbearance and suffering of the highest order. He and his companions accepted death with the equanimity of sacrificial victims. They blamed no one. They died, as they had wished to live, according to the tough code of their class.

IT IS THE RETICENCE of Scott’s prose, its economy and its honesty that turned failure into epic and turned himself and his companions into national heroes. So, ironically, by his failure he secured a more enduring fame than Peary did by his success. As for poor Amundsen, who raced Scott to the South Pole in a brilliantly conceived and executed journey, he was regarded, at least by the British, and it would seem by his own monarch, as a bit of a cad. It is a curious fact that explorers who die at their task always become more famous than those who succeed and survive. David Livingstone was immortalized, but Stanley, a far more accomplished African explorer, was regarded as a bounder. Colonel Fawcett has secured greater notoriety than any other Brazilian traveler. I suppose to succeed in exploration makes it seem too easy. Obviously the first man on the moon should get lost.

These biographies of Peary and Scott are highly readable books, written by competent professional biographers, but both suffer from being written close to family sources. Reticence and piety hang like a miasma about both. Peary’s relations with Eskimo women get their first airing, but they are rapidly glossed over, and at no point does Mr. Weems tackle in depth the odder sides of Peary’s nature. He was, I suspect, a far more complex character than he appears in this book. The same is true of Scott—Reginald Pound implies criticism, fairly corrects earlier suppression of evidence of Scott’s petulance and meanness of spirit; but there are depths here, too, that the author does not explore. Both Peary and Scott were very odd men, not simple, direct, muscular men of action. Deep down in both men, there was pain, an unresolvable tension which the vast emptiness of the polar world, with its limitless snow and eerie silence helped to assuage—a drug to their troubled temperaments. Cold, empty, dead, it engulfed their spirits, bringing them peace for a time, but peace that easily gave way to foreboding. Their lives were haunted by love and rejection. In the quest for the Pole they were searching for their own selves. Peary realized his dream; he and his persona became one; Scott died in its embrace.


This Issue

July 13, 1967