In early September 1916, there was no more common sight in England than that of postboys, pedaling off to cottages and farms to deliver the telegrams that would break hearts. The Battle of the Somme was in full swing. Three months had passed since the Battle of Jutland, with its long columns of names of men lost at sea. The previous two years had been punctuated by the bloodbaths of Vimy Ridge, Verdun, Ypres, and the Marne, and people had grown numbly used to the idea that young men were the necessary fuel for the thirsty machinery of modern war.
It was a strange time to read the news breaking from Punta Arenas in Chile, where, it was reported, all twenty-eight men of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition were safe and well, after a two-year ordeal that no one could reasonably have been expected to survive. “Not a life lost” was the catchphrase; ironic words to the grieving families of England. Shackleton’s own survival had been known of since late May, when he and two companions, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean, had stumbled—a trio of frostbitten Robinson Crusoes—into the whaling station of Stromness on the island of South Georgia. At that time, a British journalist from John Bull magazine had found (or, as likely, invented) a rustic “kelper” in the Falklands, to give voice to the presumed popular sentiment on the expedition and its leader: “‘E ought ter ‘ave been at war long ago instead of messing about on icebergs.”
In his provocative, bravura essay, I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination, Francis Spufford writes that “the Edwardian world lasted longest” in Antarctica, where
a tiny bubble of pre-war feeling and expectation persisted…in the form of Shackleton’s marooned Endurance expedition. Probably Shackleton’s men were the last Europeans on the planet still inhabiting the lost paradigm in 1916.
This is an interesting thought, but it fails to take into account Shackleton’s un-Edwardian, ungentlemanly (and distinctly Anglo-Irish) instinct for publicity and image manipulation.
From the summer of 1913, when he began to raise funds for his projected crossing of the Antarctic continent, from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea, Shackleton saw the expedition in anticipation of the lucrative news splash that would attend its triumphant return home. “Imperial” was a key component of the expedition’s title. Although Roald Amundsen had raised the Norwegian flag over the South Pole in 1911—having beaten out the competing English expedition of Captain Robert Falcon Scott—a successful coast-to-coast journey would establish a pathway of Empire, linking Britain’s guano-encrusted possessions in the South Atlantic to its Pacific colonies of New Zealand and Australia. At least, the expedition’s path could be made to look like that on newspaper maps of the great endeavor. The route was calculated to gratify jingoists like the Marquis of Lothian who (in the 1890s) had delivered himself of the opinion that “I should not like to see foreign names upon that hemisphere where all civilised points are inhabited by our countrymen, and belong to this country.”
Like Empire, Science was another glossy pretext, useful for drumming up sponsorship. Shackleton—who had left school to join the merchant navy at the age of sixteen—had no interest in science, and thought of scientists as boring deadweights who couldn’t sing and were likely only to spoil a good adventure. But he shipped a full complement: a geologist, a physicist, a meteorologist, and a biologist. These boffin-types were meant to give the expedition a desirable aura of academic gravity.
Sir Ernest was careful to mask from his backers his own guiding enthusiasms, which were essentially juvenile. He was fixated on the possibility of finding gold and/or buried treasure. Frank Worsley, the captain of Endurance (and something of a perpetual schoolboy in his own right), wrote of Shackleton that he “was as romantic as a schoolboy on the subject of treasure, and always believed that he was going to find untold wealth on his expeditions. Why, I don’t know. There were never any signs of it.”
A sometime journalist (he was briefly employed as a sub-editor at Royal Magazine, a popular monthly), Shackleton had a more realistic grasp of the potential gold mine in his “story,” which was fully themed and plotted long before he left England. He registered the ITA (Imperial Trans Antarctic) Film Syndicate Ltd., to milk the movie and photographic rights, and hired Frank Hurley, a profane, strapping, and mechanically gifted Australian, as official cameraman and photographer. In January 1914, the London Mail carried the following gossip item:
The mercenary side of a Polar “stunt” is absorbing. Any day you may see Sir Ernest—always alone—taxiing from one newspaper office to another. He is trying to arrange the best terms and it is going to be a battle royal both for the news and pictorial rights.
The Daily Chronicle beat out its rivals for an exclusive. Book rights went to Heinemann, publishers of Shackleton’s 1909 best seller, The Heart of the Antarctic. The ghost on that book (Shackleton was a thoroughly modern author), a New Zealand-born journalist named Edward Saunders, was standing by in readiness for the new adventure. In these pre-radio and TV days, London lecture halls could command West End theater ticket prices, and, when the time came, Shackleton would be found performing twice a day, with his magic lantern, at the Philharmonic Hall, Great Portland Street.
Hard-up as always, Shackleton planned to make a fortune from his polar journey. The immediate costs of the expedition—about å£60,000—were met by a government grant of å£10,000, plus hefty individual investments from a jute magnate, a bicycle manufacturer, and a tobacco heiress. The heiress was Janet Stancomb-Wills, and the Wills Company’s Wild Woodbines were soon destined to become an iconic feature of trench warfare in Flanders. When men sang, “While you’ve a lucifer to light your fag…,” the fag would almost invariably be a Woodbine, and a kindly clergyman who handed out cigarettes to the troops earned lasting fame as “Woodbine Willy.”
Shackleton pitched his expensive project during the last anxious months of peace. The outbreak of the war with Germany forced him to hastily revise his presentation, and justify an arduous but thrilling treasure hunt as a patriotic contribution to the war effort.
Endurance sailed from London for Plymouth on August 1, 1914. Britain declared war on Germany at 11 PM on August 4, when the ship was taking on final provisions and equipment at her berth near the Hoe. Shackleton immediately cabled the Admiralty, volunteering Endurance and her crew for service in the hostilities. It was a necessary gesture, but he must have been keeping his fingers crossed as he waited for the reply—which came promptly, declining his offer, and ordering Endurance to proceed south as planned.
Between August 8, when Endurance sailed for Buenos Aires, and September 19, when Shackleton followed her, aboard a fast passenger liner from Liverpool, he was busy in England, settling affairs with his creditors, his wife, and the newly appointed minister for war, Lord Kitchener. Somewhere en route between Liverpool and Buenos Aires, he seems to have hit on the sound bite that would effectively tie the polar expedition to the European war. On October 26, just before Endurance left Buenos Aires, Sir Ernest cabled London:
We are leaving now to carry on our white warfare, and our farewell message to our country is that we will do our best to make good. Our thoughts and prayers will be with our brothers fighting at the front.
We hope in our small way to add victories in science and discovery to that certain victory which our nation will achieve in the cause of honour and liberty.
This struck some English readers as a bit rich. The first Battle of Ypres had begun five days before, with heavy British losses, and “white warfare” was a bold (and, one might have thought, tactless) way to describe a lavishly funded adventure among the penguins.
But Sir Ernest was wedded to the phrase. When he and Saunders wrote South (1919), the dedication read:
Who Fell in the White Warfare
Of the South and on the
Red Fields of France
The first page of the preface addressed an audience of prospective readers who would
now turn gladly from the red horror of war and the strain of the last five years to read, perhaps with more understanding minds, the tale of the White Warfare of the South.
The hammer-blow repetition betrays Shackleton’s anxiety, in 1919 as in 1914, that he might be seen to have ducked out of the real war and gone off on a lark. Far from inhabiting Spufford’s lost paradigm, he was painfully conscious of the fact that his expedition—so long as it was on public view—must be conducted on heroic pro patria mori lines. Since Shackleton was an exuberant man who liked bad jokes, tall stories, sing-alongs, this must at first have seemed to put a damper on things; but he was also an instinctive actor, well capable of playing the part of field marshal in the Great White War.
Endurance finally fell out of contact with the rest of the world on December 5, when she left Grytviken, on South Georgia. Shackleton could not possibly have guessed at the war’s terrible duration, but its extent, and the scale of its casualties, were already clear. Eighteen months later, when he crashed back into the world, seemingly from the dead, Shackleton’s first question would be: “Tell me, when was the war over?”
Shackleton grew to dislike Frank Hurley, the photographer, thinking him too clever by half. At their first meeting, Hurley took against Shackleton (“From what I can see,” he wrote, “Sir E. cares very little for the scientific work but is eyeing the expdn. more in the light of a commercial venture”). Yet it is Hurley’s pictures that have propelled the expedition into the realm of heroic myth. Previous books—including those by Shackleton himself, Worsley, and Alfred Lansing—have had to rely on a handful of prints, usually poorly reproduced, yet still arresting enough to charge even pedestrian writing with a power beyond its natural means. The one great merit of Caroline Alexander’s The Endurance is that it has 140 photographs, nearly all of them by Hurley, turning the book into an enthralling magic-lantern show. Not since Sir Ernest lectured in the darkened auditorium of the the Philharmonic Hall has anyone been able to come so close to the idea of white warfare, as conceived by Shackleton, and represented, with brilliant fidelity, by Frank Hurley.
Hurley began (and ended) his photographic career in the Australian picture-postcard industry. His eye was not offended by the obvious. Unlike Herbert Ponting, whose somewhat fussy and “painterly” photographs documented Captain Scott’s 1910 expedition to Antarctica, Hurley went instinctively for the picture that told a story, made a four-square statement, or expressed a bald metaphor. If one tries to think of him belonging to a pictorial tradition, paintings are not part of it; advertising and magazine illustration (especially those drawings for boys’ adventure stories, with gigantic grizzlies looming over diminutive gold prospectors) were more in Hurley’s line of antecedents.
He was on his second visit to Antarctica (his first had been with Douglas Mawson in 1911), and his response to the extremes of light and shadow on the ice was to play with them, with a kind of bouncy technical self-confidence. Until Endurance was crushed and consumed in the pack ice, in October 1915, Hurley worked mostly with a Graflex, one of the handiest and most sophisticated cameras of its day, and much in use by correspondents at the front in World War I. After the ship went down, he was left with only a Vest Pocket Kodak—one step up from the tourist’s Box Brownie. The change in cameras didn’t cramp his style. Some of his best pictures were taken with the VPK.
Hurley’s mythopoeic approach to the expedition is apparent from the moment he joined Endurance in Buenos Aires. One early photograph in Alexander’s book depicts a broad, grubby spread of patterned linoleum on the mess deck floor. Three men, seemingly oblivious to the camera, are on their knees with buckets and scrubbing brushes, working their way slowly toward the photographer. The point of the picture is that the men are the geologist, one of the ship’s surgeons, and the third officer; in a single shot, Hurley has captured the singularity of Shackleton’s style of command.
Shackleton was born in Ireland and began his career as an apprentice in the merchant navy; he had not been happy serving under Captain Scott in Scott’s first expedition to the Antarctic beginning in 1901. (He collapsed while suffering from scurvy, among other illnesses, and was the only member of the expedition who was invalided home.) All this put him at a critical remove from the English class system. On his expedition, officers and gentlemen were expected to go down on their knees and do the dirty work, while comforts and privileges were consistently extended to the other ranks. On the night following the loss of Endurance, Able Seaman Bakewell wrote about how lots were drawn for sleeping bags: “There was some crooked work in the drawing as Sir Ernest, Mr. Wild,…Captain Worsley and some of the other officers all drew wool bags. The fine warm fur bags all went to the men under them.” The least popular officer on the expedition, Captain Thomas Orde-Lees, seconded to Shackleton from the Royal Marines, complained to his diary: “I simply hate scrubbing. I am able to put aside pride of caste in most things but I must say that I think scrubbing floors is not fair work for people who have been brought up in refinement.”
Shackleton would have none of this. The grave, withdrawn, English way of officering, with its mystical cult of class superiority, was anathema to him. The innate gallantry, nobility, and honor of “the English gentleman” had been a preoccupation of Scott’s as he lay dying in his tent with Bowers and Wilson after finding that Amundsen had beaten him to the pole. Writing to Bowers’s mother, he was able to comfort her with the assurance that her son was dying as a gentleman, as Oates had died before him. Defining himself against Scott, Shackleton threw gentlemanliness to the winds. He capered on the ice, doing an Irish jig with Frank Worsley; he led the singing, told the worst jokes. Where Scott’s expeditions had been strict military hierarchies, Shackleton’s was a snowflake cluster, with its leader at the center, embodying in himself something of all the twenty-seven men under his command.
In Frank Hurley’s Antarctica, class distinctions are dissolved in a remarkable way—by speeding up the shutter or stopping down the aperture on the lens. Endurance entered the pack ice at the height of the Antarctic summer, early in January 1915, coming into a bright, white world that gave the photographer two basic options. On the Scott expedition, Herbert Ponting nearly always chose to time his exposures to do justice to the men in the picture, creating masses of overexposed, undifferentiated white all around them.1 Hurley generally chose to do the opposite, exposing the film for the ice, and letting the men remain as angular, transparent blobs on the negative. The result is a sequence of ravishing icescapes, full of chaotic shape, shadow, granularity, on which are superimposed the two-dimensional black silhouettes of small, grasshopperlike men. They look alien, and sometimes absurd. In one photograph, a twiggy little homunculus pops up in the middle of a great desert of extruded ice boulders and pinnacles, appearing to point the way to nowhere. (See illustration on page 14.) He may or may not be a gentleman.
One sees Hurley rejoicing in this diminishment of the individual against the enormity of the ice. When we consider the conditions under which the pictures were taken, there is an amazingly buoyant hilarity about them. Look at what we got ourselves into! they seem to exclaim—and what they reveal is, indeed, a pretty pickle. The expedition never once set foot on the continental landmass that it had set out to cross—and when you look at these comic stick figures, you are not in the least surprised.
Yet add all twenty-eight together, and something unexpectedly grand emerges, in the shape of the expedition’s central symbol, the ship Endurance. In reality, Endurance was not a naturally inspiring vessel: a 300-ton sail-assisted steamship, barquentine-rigged, her masts disproportionately short for her length. But this was not how Hurley pictured her. He called her “a bride of the sea,” and by dint of ingenious fudging and low camera angles, he transformed her into a great square-rigged sailing ship, a revenant ghost from England’s nautical past. Drake, Raleigh, or Nelson might have been found aboard Hurley’s Endurance, whose giveaway steam funnel has been lost behind the high sheer of her bows, and whose fore-and-aft sails on the main and mizzen masts are conveniently obscured behind the square yards on her foremast.
Hurley’s most stunning photographs of Endurance are the ones taken on August 27, 1915, in the darkness of the Antarctic winter, with the ship stuck fast in the ice, its rigging spangled with hoarfrost. They are jubilant triumphs of flash powder. Hurley had to set off twenty strategically placed flashes to light up the ship against the dark sky, and he nearly blinded himself in the process. In this unearthly fireworks show, Endurance is turned into a pure icon of the doomed endeavor of her voyage. It was a brilliant whim of Hurley’s to reverse the usual terms of the Antarctic, and picture the human enterprise as a spectral white folly against the engulfing black.
On October 27, when the ice finally squeezed Endurance to death, Hurley insisted on staying dangerously close to the ship to catch every last moment of its dismemberment and sinking. It’s the end of a civilization, as the masts topple, the rigging falls in snake’s-nest tangles round the spars, and the decks subside beneath the level of the pack. He wrote: “Awful calamity that has overtaken the ship that has been our home for over 12 months…. We are homeless & adrift on the sea ice.” Yet from this scene he managed to compose a pertly ironic picture-postcard image: six sled dogs, in harness, sitting on the snow, apparently engrossed in the spectacle of the collapsing palace of their mad masters. The dogs were subsequently shot.
Hurley rescued his negatives from the sinking ship, but had to winnow just 120 plates from his collection of more than 500. The rest were dumped as excess baggage. Endurance’s three lifeboats were dragged away from the wreck, and for the next five months the expedition camped out on drifting floes, gaining northerly latitude, in increments of a few minutes a day, as the prevailing southerly gales nudged the ice pack toward the open ocean. There followed a grim seven-day voyage across berg-strewn water to the comfortless way station of Elephant Island, unvisited by man since a bunch of misfortunate American sealers had landed there in 1830. “Such a wild and inhospitable coast I have never beheld,” wrote Hurley. “Yet there is a profound grandeur about these savage cliffs with the drifting snow & veiling clouds….”
One photograph gives an inkling, at least, of the brutal character of those months. The lifeboat James Caird (the name is that of the sponsoring Dundee jute magnate) is being hauled across the ice by a team of thirteen men, while seven or eight more steady the boat on its sledge, and Shackleton, in a becoming fedora, stands by, his back to the camera. (See illustration on page 18.) The harnessed men have become sled dogs; their animal exertions vivid in the blurring of their legs and arms, and in the straining diagonal angle of each man’s body to the ground. But the one-ton lifeboat remains in obdurate, immobile sharp focus. Here Hurley has overexposed the snow and sky, so that the puny humans are laboring against a horizonless white abstraction, like an empty page. It is his most haunting and direct picture of white warfare.2
Given the splendors of Hurley’s photographs, it may seem niggardly to carp at the shortcomings of Caroline Alexander’s text, which is a workmanlike retelling of a story told many times before. The best-known version is Alfred Lansing’s Endurance (1959); much the best-documented is to be found in Roland Huntford’s splendid 1985 biography, Shackleton. In a somewhat condescending note of acknowledgment at the end of her book, Alexander belittles Lansing’s as “a rip-roaring narration,” which does it a calculated injustice. Alexander has taken pains to distance herself from Lansing: she ends each of her chapters on a different beat, tries not to replicate quotations, and has added a mass of new details, many of them from Huntford. Yet in its essential shape and tone, The Endurance seems more than faintly derivative of Endurance.
What she has not done—and it is a huge missed opportunity—is to bring Frank Hurley fully into the foreground of the story. We’re given snippets from his journal, and a rudimentary sketch of his character, but one aches for much more—for examples of his work before and after his time with Shackleton, for an altogether richer account of the photographer’s role, for a real reckoning with Hurley himself. She had his journal at hand; and in her acknowledgments Alexander refers to four books about Hurley, published in Australia between 1966 and 1984. So the material was there for an original book about the expedition, with the photographer as its center.
Instead, she chose to rescue another, very minor, character aboard Endurance, and restore to him a prominence he hardly earns. In Mrs. Chippy’s Last Expedition: The Remarkable Journal of Shackleton’s Polar-Bound Cat, she has written a first-person novelette about the carpenter McNish’s (male) cat—a tedious and whimsical exercise (“April 21st. Left a mouse’s head on Crean’s bed”). We would be altogether more in her debt if only she had extended to Hurley the interest she has squandered on the cat.
With the rest of the expedition, Hurley stayed behind on Elephant Island while Shackleton, Worsley, Crean, McCarthy, McNish, and Vincent attempted to sail James Caird to South Georgia to get help. It was one of the most improbable voyages in maritime history—eight hundred miles across the Southern Ocean in hurricane-force winds, in a twenty-two-foot boat, rigged as a stumpy ketch. They left on April 24, with the polar autumn hardening into winter. No sane person would have held out much of a realistic hope for their survival, but tenacious unrealism was the hallmark of the expedition, and the key to its eventual escape from Antarctica.
Written nearly twenty-five years after the event (and nine years after his much slighter memoir of the expedition as a whole), Frank Worsley’s Shackleton’s Boat Journey is, of all the books that came out of the adventure, the most intimate and revealing. There’s much significance in its title. For an outsider might think that this was really Worsley’s boat journey. Shackleton was not much of a navigator, and had little experience of small boats. Worsley, while a hopeless leader (when he was in command of Endurance on its voyage from Plymouth to Buenos Aires, discipline on the ship fell disastrously apart), was possessed of an eerie navigational genius. From a rare glimpse of the sun in the thick sky, he could conjure an astonishingly accurate position. Worsley’s early career in the New Zealand mailboat service had made him wonderfully crafty at handling a boat in surf, and in high, confused seas. Had Worsley not been on board James Caird it would undoubtedly have sunk—as did a five-hundred-ton steamer, lost with all hands, due to stress of weather, just a few miles away from where the tiny ketch rode the cross-grained forty-foot seas.
In South, Shackleton had unfairly stolen Worsley’s thunder, taking credit for himself for every decision. “I had all sails set…, I altered course….” Worsley’s role is sometimes comically minimalized. “Worsley got a snap for longitude.” (Under the conditions described, fixing longitude was a brilliant feat, worthy of a page, at least, of Shackleton’s open-mouthed admiration.) With Shackleton long dead, My Boat Journey would have tipped the scales in the direction of natural justice, but Worsley gave credit for the voyage to Shackleton nonetheless.
This tells much about Worsley’s reverence for his leader, and more about the peculiar nature of Shackleton’s leadership. For Sir Ernest was expert in nothing. He relied on other people’s skills, from carpentry and photography to skiing and navigation. He was the heart and brains of the enterprise; and he regarded his men as limblike extensions of his will. Aboard James Caird, he was known, as always, as “the Boss,” with Worsley taking the title of “Skipper.” Even at sea, where he was a relative innocent, he was able to conceive that Worsley’s expert judgment of the situation was really his own—and Shackleton’s greatest gift lay in his ability to somehow persuade Worsley, and the others, that this was indeed so.
It was to Shackleton that men looked for their own spirit, claiming his effervescent optimism for themselves. Worsley wrote:
Shackleton had a genius—it was neither more nor less than that—for keeping those about him in high spirits. We loved him. To me, he was as a brother.
“Father” would seem a truer word, in context; for all of Shackleton’s disregard for his own dignity, he didn’t go in for fraternal equality. Even in his all-singing, all-dancing mode, the Boss was the Boss.
If his optimism kept the expedition alive, and James Caird afloat, it seems to have been rooted in the condition that would eventually lead to Shackleton’s early death. He was, as we say, in deep denial. His response to his own seriously diseased heart was to avoid doctors—and the possibility of a medical examination—at all costs. He explained his symptoms away by ascribing them to an ailment of his own invention, which he named “suppressed influenza.” Denying the obvious had become a habit of mind; and after the loss of Endurance, Shackleton insisted on taking the same sunny view of the expedition’s future that he took of the future of his degenerating body.
This sometimes maddened those of the men, like Orde-Lees and the first officer, Lionel Greenstreet, who persisted in taking an unseasonably realistic view of their plight. “His sublime optimism all the way thro being to my mind absolute foolishness,” Greenstreet wrote in his journal. “Everything right away thro was going to turn out all right and no notice was taken of things possibly turning out otherwise and here we are.” Greenstreet was the kind of man who sees his doctor for a regular checkup. Shackleton’s way with dissenters was to first isolate them, then squash them. When McNish, the carpenter, tried to take a firm (and intelligently grounded) stand against Shackleton’s decision to march across the pack ice, Sir Ernest threatened to shoot him for insubordination. Denial triumphed.
In Shackleton’s Boat Journey, one sees and hears five men infected by one man’s deranged certainty of survival. One might call them codependents, as, half-frozen to death, often swamped by great waves, they sing their way across the Southern Ocean.
…Crean made noises at the helm that, we surmised, represented “The Wearin’ o’ the Green.” Another series of sounds, however, completely baffled us.
I sang—Macarty [sic] thought it was a recitation—that classic:
She licked him, she kicked him, She wouldn’t let him be;
She welted him, and belted him, Until he couldn’t see.
But Macarty wasn’t hearty; Now she’s got a different party.
She might have licked Macarty, But she can’t lick me.
The last part triumphantly to Macarty, but I doubt if he believed it. Then I sang “We’re Bound for the Rio Grande.” No one complained. It’s astonishing how long-suffering people become on a trip like this.
In the telling, Worsley’s voice, with its cock-sparrow chirpiness, has a ventriloquial quality, as if Skipper were the big-mouthed puppet sitting on the Boss’s knee. When Worsley writes about the infinitely tricky details of his sun sights, or describes the face of a great wave, his voice is his own, but when he captures the mood aboard James Caird, it is Sir Ernest that we hear, mysteriously infusing himself into each member of the crew.
After nearly seventeen days at sea (including a wide southerly detour, forced by the hurricane), James Caird landed on the wrong side of South Georgia, divided from the inhabited northern coast by a frozen, unexplored mountain range, whose glaciers and crevasses might in themselves have inspired a full-scale expedition. For the boat party, the mountains were merely a last, annoying obstacle. Shackleton, Crean, and Worsley crossed them, armed with one frayed rope and McNish’s adze, in a nonstop thirty-four-and-a-half-hour climb.
This is Shackleton’s year. England didn’t know what to do with him in 1916: for the duration of the war he was fobbed off with a succession of more or less futile assignments designed to keep him out of the War Office’s hair. Scott, whose death in the Antarctic had turned him into a national symbol of patriotic self-sacrifice, was a more convenient hero for the times than Shackleton, who appeared to have cherished the lives of himself and his men to a quite unnecessary and embarrassing degree. Pro patria mori was the watchword of the moment; vivere was a suspect verb, smacking of conscientious objection.
Shackleton’s intense feeling for his men (Worsley described how he aged, shockingly, with anxiety, as the attempts to rescue the Elephant Island party dragged on from May through August) was clearly rooted in his habit of treating them as extensions of himself. Did fear for his own precarious health translate directly into fear for the lives of the Elephant Islanders?
Whatever psychological mechanisms were at play inside this complicated man, Shackleton has emerged as the most admirable and glamorous of twentieth-century explorers—though he was less an explorer, in any serious sense, than a perpetually deluded fortune hunter. Scott is at present in partial eclipse, with Roland Huntford, his leading detractor, excoriating his “witless valour.” When I was a child, English schoolboys liked to soulfully fantasize about dying nobly with Scott; the present generation has sensibly decided that it would be a far better thing to live, against all the odds, with Shackleton.
But one ought to be wary of looking to Shackleton as a model of leadership. His way involved the near-total identification of the mass with the leader, and the leader with the mass. He was contemptuous of “realistic” constraints and had an astonishing knack for making other people lose their ordinary sense of likeliness and proportion. A fine man for an adventure, but a type to be avoided for anything much bigger.
June 10, 1999
See Robert Falcon Scott, Scott’s Last Expedition: The Journals (Carroll and Graf, 1996). ↩
Frank Hurley’s scrappy movie of the expedition—far less composed and articulate than his still photographs—is available on video. The film begins with the sled dogs and their puppies as the stars of the show, and ends with elephant seals and penguins cavorting on South Georgia. The central portion of the sandwich contains some wrenching footage of the day-to-day rigors and drudgery of icebound life. Endurance‘s last hours are recorded in a grimly fascinating sequence of splintering masts and falling rigging. The film works best with the mute button on: its piano accompaniment is nearly unendurable. ↩