14. S. Allen Counter, North Pole Legacy: Black, White and Eskimo.
Counter is a lifelong polar exploration fan, and ever since his childhood Counter was a hardcore fanboy of Matthew Henson, the black American explorer who achieved the North Pole with Commander Peary. Counter had been traveling in Scandinavia when he heard a rumor that Henson had Inuit descendants in Greenland (it had long been an open secret that Peary did), and Counter immediately decided that he needed to go meet them. Because of the Cold War, getting to Etah in northern Greenland was difficult (and possible only because Counter was a Harvard neurologist), but once there, it was simple enough for Counter to track down Henson's son, Anaukaq Henson, who then introduced Counter to Peary's son, Kali Peary. Whereupon Counter learned that both men, now in their eighties, had one last great ambition for their lives: to discover if they had siblings in the U.S., and if possible, to meet them.
I had read Henson's memoir before reading North Pole Legacy
, and had found Henson's memoir enormously frustrating: Henson obviously was presuming that one would only get around to reading his memoir if one had first read everything that Peary had ever written; likewise, there were many things that Henson was deliberately avoiding saying. Reading Henson's memoir cold was like watching DVD extras without the benefit of watching the main feature nor reading the fansites: not-quite-ringing-true statements that everyone got on grandly with everyone else; vague, denial-ridden allusions to scandals that he isn't going to dignify by explicitly mentioning; big presumptions that you already knew the "main" story inside and out. Henson's memoir was an enormously
Counter, in contrast, dishes the dirt. And oh, is there dirt to dish!
Counter spends quite a bit of time outlining the history of the Peary expeditions -- including their failtastic elements, such as Minik Wallace's personal story, Peary's meteorite thefts, and Peary's colonial agenda -- and then quite a bit more time giving a thorough account of Henson's life, his relationship with Peary, his position on Peary's expeditions, and the public reaction to (and dismissal of) Henson's achievements. Along the way, it becomes clear why Henson's memoir reads as it does: Henson had an intense and complicated relationship with Peary, rife with both loyalty and betrayal, and Peary had retained final approval on any memoirs published by any of his expedition members. It's not at all clear that Henson would want to write a tell-all -- from what I can tell, Henson was genuinely grateful to Peary for his patronage -- but Peary would just as obviously never have permitted a tell-all, either.
Additionally, Counter offers a nicely nuanced discussion of racism, institutional and personal, in Peary and Henson's relationship. For example, Peary vigorously defended Henson from people who disrespected Henson and his competency on the basis of his race, while simultaneously making use of that disrespect for Peary's own ends: as the only white man at the North Pole, Peary was the only member of the final six who "counted", and thus didn't have to share his glory with anyone. (That came back to bite Peary later: since Henson didn't "count", Henson also couldn't "meaningfully" corroborate Peary's claim of having attained the pole, which left Peary more vulnerable to Cook's counterclaim.)
When Counter brings in the colonial aspects of the expeditions, Henson's role becomes more complicated: Henson was the one who bothered to learn to speak Inupiaq properly, and likewise learned his Arctic skills from the Inuit, acting as the primary trader, teacher, and go-between for the white Americans. Because of that, Peary's success is directly attributable to Henson's mutual and intimate respect with the people of Etah. But on the flip side, Henson participated in (and was apparently proud of) Peary's theft of the Greenland meteorites, habitually referred to Inuit men throughout his memoir as "boys", and so forth.
In between all of Counter's dirt-dishing about the Peary expeditions, we also get to hear the saga of trying to bring Kali Peary and Anaukaq Henson to the U.S. to meet their American relatives. (The Henson descendants are depicted as embracing a long-lost cousin; the Peary relatives are depicted as jealous and obstructionist, sure that either Counter or Kali Peary had ulterior, anti-Peary motives.) During all this, Counter was also trying to get Henson accorded posthumous honors parallel to those that Peary received: burial at Arlington, with Peary. And then there are more
stories, such as how the founding of Jet
magazine is deeply intertwined with Henson's legacy. In all, Counter knows a good story when he hears it, and he knows how to pass them on.
I have a few reservations about Black, White, and Eskimo
, most of which revolve around my craving for an Inuit perspective on these stories. There are a few times that Counter conspicuously falls short -- f'rinstance, his amusement that the Etah Inuit quaintly refer to their houses as igloos despite the distinct lack of snow in their construction (Counter apparently missed the memo that "iglu" means "house"). It's impossible for me to tell what other lacunae Counter has.
Overall, however, Counter has done an excellent job pulling together disparate sources (including the unpublished memoirs and correspondence of other expedition members and oral traditions among the Etah Inuit) into a accessible, compelling, and multi-layered set of stories. 13. Matthew A. Henson, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole.15. Matthew A. Henson, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole.
So, I read this both before and after Black, White, and Eskimo
-- in fact, I read Black, White, and Eskimo
because I was at such a loss for what to say about Negro Explorer
after my initial read of it: if nothing else, I could review both books in one post.
On first read -- or more precisely, on reading without any background knowledge of Peary's expeditions -- A Negro Explorer
is opaque, incomplete, and hugely frustrating. Henson doesn't so much effectively summarize the twenty years of Peary expeditions that preceded the final 1909 expedition as cite them as his CV: Henson was on this expedition, during which he did that; he was on this other expedition, too, during which... It is very clear, right from the get-go, that Henson expects anyone coming to his memoir to have already read everything else ever written about the Peary expeditions.
Unfortunately, I hadn't read Peary's memoirs (nor did I want to), and I consequently spent huge parts of the memoir trying to figure out what the fuck was going on: for example, it wasn't until they reached the North Pole that I had quite understood Peary's strategy, and consequently I had been enormously confused by his continually senging people ahead or back. (Although it did rather seem as if Henson and the other expedition members were doing all the work, while Peary was forever coming along behind in maximal comfort
.) Henson would be sent off to weld the alcohol casks, and I'd be all, "Alcohol casks? Alcohol for what? Medicinal? Fuel? Recreational? What?
" As a reader, I was so. damn. lost.
Additionally, beyond the mere logistics of the expedition, there are many places where Henson alludes to some scandal or controversy without ever stating the particulars of what he is alluding to: again, he presumes his audience are avid followers of all the arctic exploration gossip. And again, as a reader, I was lost: I had no familiarity with any of these scandals, and often couldn't suss out what the scandal was from Henson's words alone. Just, ARGH.
Thus, my first read went like this: I'm confused; that sounds cold; I'm still confused; I wish he wouldn't call them "boys"; that sounds really really cold; I'm still confused; cold; cold; beautiful; confused; ack, scary!; cold.
...but then I read Black, White, and Eskimo
, learned all the good gossip that I had missed, and came back to Henson's memoir again.
At which point, the thing opened its wings and became fascinating.
Because once you know the scoop, coming back to see the things Henson chooses to talk about, to not talk about, and what he chooses to say about each? OMFG. I have highlighted my copy to hell and back again because the subtexts are just that compelling. Also, once I understood the bits of background that Henson never bothers explaining, I could relax and enjoy the passionate writing here, not to mention Henson's quick sense of humor.
Obviously, Henson's memoir contains all the problematic content you'd expect: the Peary expeditions were explicitly colonial, and Henson buys straight into that. Henson tends to indulge himself in that peculiar backhanded respect for the Inuit members of the expedition, wherein he can't ever quite stop calling them the "gentle, lamb-like Esquimos," and does so even while Ootah is BAMFily rescuing Henson from certain death. (Interestingly, according to Counter, the Inuit referred to him in similar terms: "Mahri-Pahluk," or "Matthew the Kind One." I would like to read these as a set of mutual pet names they had for each other.) Additionally, some of the stories that Henson glances past are truly enraging (cf Minik
), and are worth more than a few politic words; unfortunately, you will never ever
read word one against Peary from Henson's pen -- partly because Peary retained final approval of everything Henson wrote, but also party because Peary was, in some sense, Henson's patron.
Still, though. If you are inclined to enjoy passionate, old-school adventure writing, full of odes to day-long twilights and swooning when one finally gets back to the ship and is reunited with one's comrades, there is a lot of enjoyment to be had here. I only suggest filling yourself in on some background from somewhere else first.