The News at the Ends of the Earth: The Print Culture of Polar Exploration

The News at the Ends of the Earth: The Print Culture of Polar Exploration

by Hester Blum


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From Sir John Franklin's doomed 1845 search for the Northwest Passage to early twentieth-century sprints to the South Pole, polar expeditions produced an extravagant archive of documents that are as varied as they are engaging. As the polar ice sheets melt, fragments of this archive are newly emergent. In The News at the Ends of the Earth Hester Blum examines the rich, offbeat collection of printed ephemera created by polar explorers. Ranging from ship newspapers and messages left in bottles to menus and playbills, polar writing reveals the seamen wrestling with questions of time, space, community, and the environment. Whether chronicling weather patterns or satirically reporting on penguin mischief, this writing provided expedition members with a set of practices to help them survive the perpetual darkness and harshness of polar winters. The extreme climates these explorers experienced is continuous with climate change today. Polar exploration writing, Blum contends, offers strategies for confronting and reckoning with the extreme environment of the present.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478003229
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 04/26/2019
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Hester Blum is Associate Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, author of The View from the Masthead: Maritime Imagination and Antebellum American Sea Narratives, and editor of Turns of Event: Nineteenth-Century American Literary Studies in Motion and Horrors of Slavery: Or, The American Tars in Tripoli.

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Captain Parry! Captain Parry! Thy vocation stops not here: Thou must dine with Mr. Murray And a quarto must appear.

— SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE, "Captain Parry" (1825)

... North Cornwall has not had as yet its Caxton.

— advertisement for Queen's Illuminated Magazine (1852)

Polar newspapers were created and printed in conditions of extremity in multiple senses. The expeditions for which newspapers formed the shipboard social media, for one, were journeying toward latitudinal extremes approaching 90° S or N. Polar expeditions had infrequent contact with an Anglophone public after a point, and thus the potential for circulation of the media they produced was necessarily exceptionally limited. While their isolation was not complete — in the Arctic, Anglo-American explorers had frequent contact with Inuit and other indigenous peoples and routinely employed Inuit guides — Western expedition members, in their cultural chauvinism, imagined themselves at a supreme distance from others. The meteorological conditions and attendant environmental hardships of life in the polar regions are also notoriously extreme; the mechanical acts of writing and operating printing equipment become challenging in turn.

This chapter describes how sailors came to print at the polar ends of the earth, concentrating on the outfitting, mechanics, and production of presses and printed materials in the polar regions. (The second and third chapters turn to analysis of the literary and informational content of the papers.) The material and intellectual strategies they brought to bear in mediating the particular challenges of creating printed texts in extreme conditions gave shape to the forms of communicative texts I am calling polar ecomedia. Printing presses were first stocked on Arctic ships in service of the search for Sir John Franklin's missing Northwest Passage expedition aboard the ships Erebus and Terror, which had left Britain in 1845. The presses were almost immediately requisitioned, however, by crew members for their entertainment during the sunless months of the polar winters. The materials that polar expedition members printed using the presses may reasonably be seen as the curious or charming incidentals of the leisure hours of a collective formed by circumstance. But polar periodicals tell us more than the news (or a mocking facsimile of the news) from the cramped cabins of icebound crews. The ephemeral form of the newspaper is crucial to this story: news conveys information that interrupts a moment in time, even as newspapers are characterized by their periodicity, their marking of time. In Walter Benjamin's formulation in "The Storyteller," newspapers provide information but not stories; the storyteller, who offers the benefit and the intimacy of experience, recedes in an age of impersonal information distributed via newspapers. Sailors, those notable travelers and yarn spinners, are storytellers in Benjamin's account — and the conditions for storytelling, stillness and boredom, are certainly in place in the polar regions. Yet the form of the newspaper, considered in Benjaminian terms, does in fact have utility for sailor storytellers. Arctic and Antarctic voyaging sailors turn to the genre of the periodical not to convey news in the form of information — the content of the papers is parodic, light, and farcical — but to structure their meditations on polar temporality, community, and circulation.

Expeditionary newspapers produced in the Arctic and Antarctica are forms of media that are both shaped by and consciously responding to polar environmental conditions. Newspapers are understood to be periodic, marking daily time. Polar winter, however, is relentlessly nocturnal, out of time. While polar winter rhythms would be disruptive to any unused to their temporal irregularities, they were especially so to sailors accustomed to watch-oriented discipline, in both senses of "watch." An Antarctic winter, for example, unsettled Otto G. Nordenskjöld's work with the Swedish Antarctic Expedition in both its labor and literary dimensions; while in polar darkness, he wrote, "A thing that I missed above all things was regular, ordered work. All the preceding pages must have shown the difficulty there was in arranging such labour, whether indoor work or outdoor." In crafting gazettes, newspapers, and periodicals, expedition members explicitly mark the weirdness of their time and place. They are simultaneously imposing diurnal order on a region without sun and rather seriously calculating what goes awry when temperate forms of periodical writing are imposed on an intemperate world. This is how quotidian newspapers become polar ecomedia: produced by and within the outlandishness of the Arctic and Antarctic environments, they theorize ephemeral ways of reading and writing in and about the polar regions in their very pages.

We see this most clearly in one of the few extant photographs of the actual act of polar printing. The photo, Printing the "Arctic Eagle" was taken during the Fiala-Ziegler Expedition (1903–5), a U.S. attempt to reach the North Pole on the ship America. In the image we see a series of bunks, the crowded sleeping quarters of the seamen; this is not an officer's private cabin. Three men are abed, wrapped in wool blankets, in positions of repose and observation. In the foreground are a pair of fur boots. The focus is on the printer, Spencer Stewart, who served as the expedition's assistant commissary: he is clad in a wool sweater, with a pencil tucked behind his ear. Seated on the edge of the bunk of one of the reclining men, Stewart straddles a hand-operated tabletop press, which appears to be a Boston-produced Golding Official Press. (The name "Golding" is just perceptible on the curved side of the press.) Judging from the machine's size relative to the printer — and from the size of the press's production, the newspaper Arctic Eagle — this was probably the Official model no. 6, with a chase size of 8¼ in. × 12½ in. A thick stack of folded paper, presumably copies of the Arctic Eagle, is visible on the left. Just above the printer's right hand the type case is discernable, and the blurred man in motion working with it would be Seaman Allen Montrose, who, according to Commander Anthony Fiala, "had been a wandering newspaper typo before he took to following the sea." The photographer must be squeezed within the frame of the door. Since Commander Fiala himself had previously been the art director and photographer for the Arctic paper's namesake, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, we might guess that he operates the camera here.

This remarkable image makes visible the situational intimacy of the mechanics of the production and circulation of shipboard newspapers. Our idiomatic sense of a paper emerging "hot off the press" has a different tactility when the press (its ink, in particular) would have to be thawed for use. The heat and breath of the cluster of bodies in bed around Stewart and Montrose is conjured by this glimpse of printing the Arctic Eagle, the very body heat and breath that is likely providing much of the room's meager warmth. Unlike the abstracted, invisible, imagined communities of Benedict Anderson's classic formulation regarding newspapers, polar periodicals are produced quite literally in the laps of their readership. Notions of print circulation and the political and social bodies of the ship's community take on new meanings in this context. Half of the men within the space framed by the photograph are in bed; does this imply that the Arctic Eagle is a morning paper? or a very late evening edition? The usual temporalities of newspaper publication, as we will see, do not matter — or they signify differently — in an environment in which the sun might not rise for as many as 120+ days and in which the crew has no easily observable means of marking time.

We cannot tell what time it is in the photograph, nor can polar newspapers mark diurnal or other serial time in the customary manner of the genre. Nautical time is a factor in this ecology as well; sailors' schedules are typically divided into four-hour blocks of time known as "watches," although the standard four-hour watches at sea become attenuated during the relative calm of polar nautical labor. While these are responsive to a twenty-four-hour calendar, a rotating watch system does not establish a natural division between morning and night for nautical laborers. (The American explorer Donald MacMillan was among those who addressed this problem by wearing a twenty-four-hour watch.) The photo Printing the "Arctic Eagle" captures in one frame several of the topics that this chapter on polar printing illuminates: the extremity of the circumstances in which polar periodicals were produced and circulated, and the attendant difficulties this produced; the intimacy and social forms of this particular media; and the collectivity of the papers' creation. Polar ecologies shaped the media forms with which voyagers marked time and established community, however ephemerally.

Neptune's Newsrooms

Printing presses were originally brought to the Arctic to assist in the broad dispersal of messages in the decades-long search for the sizable missing British Northwest Passage expedition commanded by Sir John Franklin, which launched in 1845 with 129 men on two ships, Erebus and Terror. (I treat this search in greater detail in chapter 4.) Once tabletop printing presses were aboard ship, and after winter storms made fire balloon messaging and the other official uses of the devices impractical, expedition members sought to pass the dark winter hours by adapting the technology to literary and theatrical ends. The presses produced broadsides and playbills for shipboard theatricals, copies of songs and occasional poems composed by mission members, and the community newspapers that I discuss in the next several chapters. Sailors even carved their own large-font type and emblems from the ship's store of spare lumber stocked for repairs, although wood is at a premium in regions north of the timberline. A number of Arctic expeditionary newspapers were published in the second half of the nineteenth century, including the following Anglophone papers: the Flight of the Plover, or the North Pole Charivari (1848); the Illustrated Arctic News (1850–51) and the Aurora Borealis (1850–51), companion papers by sister ships engaged in the search for Franklin; the Gleaner and Minavilins (1850–51), underground papers suppressed by ship commanders; the Weekly Guy (1852–53); the Queen's Illuminated Magazine (1852–54); the Polar Almanac (1854); the Ice-Blink (1853–55); the Port Foulke Weekly News (1860–61); the Discovery News (1875–76); the Arctic Moon (1882–83); the Midnight Sun (1901); and the Arctic Eagle (1903–4). Including papers by non-Anglophone crews on other European expeditions, such as the German Ostgrönländische Zeitung (1869–70) and the Norwegian Framsjaa (1893–96), there were at least seventeen Arctic newspapers between 1848 and 1904, and several others that were conceived of and not carried through (such as the Polar Pirate, 1904). More than half of the British and American commanders of Arctic expeditions in the nineteenth century were involved at some point with a shipboard newspaper.

The existence of literary culture aboard ships and among sailors is not in and of itself unusual over the course of the nineteenth century. Many long-voyaging ships were provided with libraries; sailors read histories, novels, and periodicals, intensively reading (and sharing among themselves) the stock of reading material at hand. And polar voyages, which could plan on enforced periods of relative inactivity during the winter, had larger libraries than many ships. Franklin's Erebus and Terror, for example, had three thousand volumes between them. The catalogue for the Assistance (engaged in a Franklin search), which was printed aboard ship in 1853, lists novels by Jane Austen, James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, and Walter Scott (plus Scott's Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft) among scores of volumes of polar history, voyages, and navigational science. Some sailors kept personal journals, while officers contributed to shipboard textual production in the form of logbooks, ship accounts, progress diaries, and — on more official, grander expeditions — narratives of their voyages and discoveries, which often became strong sellers. This was enabled in part by the unusual rates of literacy among seamen, estimated at 75 to 90 percent by the mid-nineteenth century; on polar expeditions, which were more high profile and often more selective, the figures were likely higher. As a laboring class their literacy was encouraged by onboard schools on naval ships (focused on mathematics and navigation as well as letters, all necessary for nautical advancement) and a maritime culture in which leisure time was often spent in storytelling or in theatricals, a particular mainstay of British naval practice adopted at times aboard U.S. ships. The second number of the Illustrated Arctic News was pleased to report on the newly created seaman's school in "Summary of the Month's Proceedings": "Well done! — Education, & improvement are twins. Encourage & foster the one, the other must follow. The Schoolmaster is indeed afloat." During the American Lady Franklin Bay Expedition of 1881–84, Commander Adolphus Greely established a "tri-weekly" school at which "arithmetic, grammar, geography, and meteorology were taught.... For a time Dr. Pavy instructed two men in French. The educational qualifications of the men were very good, and there was but one of the party on its original formation who was unable to write, and he acquired that attainment during our stay." These proportions were typical of polar expeditions. When not engaged in reading or navigational exercises, the leisure hours of polar expeditionary crews were also occupied with dancing (for exercise, by design) and theatrical productions, all of which were long- standing traditions of naval recreation and diversion.

Only on polar expeditions did publishing shipboard newspapers become a frequent activity, even an expectation; newspapers are otherwise rare among seamen's leisure customs. The first North American Arctic newspaper was not printed but circulated in manuscript, and was in several ways anomalous: it was an experiment not repeated on polar missions for decades, for one. What is more, the paper produced conflict instead of cooperative vision. In the manuscript North Georgia Gazette, and Winter Chronicle (1819–20) of William Edward Parry's first Arctic expedition, the question of community was quite explicitly debated within the paper itself, as contributors arranged themselves rhetorically against the NCs or "Non-Contributors" to the paper. Aboard the Hecla and the Griper, Parry's ships, this literary economy was defined by the officer corps, by and for whom the paper was created. The North Georgia Gazette, and Winter Chronicle was later printed in London a year after the expedition's return, in response to "the interest which the Public took in all that had passed during the voyage." But the details of the Arctic context in which the expedition's officers (who constituted the paper's stringers) understood their impish attacks on journalistic noncontribution had no resonance when replayed back within national borders. Articles that suggested the mission's collectivity was fragile or threatened, even if humorous, were in fact suppressed upon the voyage's return to Britain. The economies of literary circulation — of the barely public sphere of the polar mission — were in flux in this first Arctic paper (discussed in chapter 2); their terms would continue to change in subsequent expeditionary newspapers.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations  vii
Chronology  xi
Preface: Books on Ice  xv
Acknowledgments  xxi
Introduction. Polar Ecomedia  1
1. Extreme Printing  43
2. Arctic News  91
3. Antarctic Imprints  138
4. Dead Letter Reckoning  177
5. Inuit Knowledge and Charles Francis Hall  209
Conclusion. Matters of Life and Death  231
Notes  237
Bibliography  273
Index  291

What People are Saying About This

Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century - Stephanie LeMenager

“What Hester Blum describes here is the production of print culture for the sake of not going crazy, for the sake of remaining, in some recognizable and accountable sense, human. This is media production under extreme duress, which makes for a fascinating story and theoretical provocation. Founded on a thought-provoking and unique archive and busting with insight, The News at the Ends of the Earth is a terrific book.”

Wai Chee Dimock

“Using archives from Europe, Australia, and New Zealand as well as from North America, this pioneering work tells an unforgettable story about ship newspapers and other improvised media produced by sailors on Arctic and Antarctic expeditions. Informed by indigenous knowledge and bearing witness to the extreme conditions of the polar regions, this invaluable material sheds light on the extreme weather of the Anthropocene as much as on the print culture of the nineteenth century. Labor-intensive, detail-rich, and eye-opening.”

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