All about the South Pole and about

February 24, 2011

The South Pole
A Historical Reader
Anthony Brandt, Ed. (National Geographic, 2004)
477 p.

This volume gathers together judicious selections from classic accounts of Antarctic exploration and adventure, woven together with transitional commentary. It provides a fascinating overview of the unveiling of Antarctica, from the early seventeenth century to the middle of the twentieth. Much of what I know about the history of Antarctic exploration I learned from this book.

All of the major figures are represented, with generous excerpts from Scott’s The Voyage of the Discovery and journals, from Amundsen’s account of his successful South Pole journey, and from Shackleton’s South! There is a welcome passage from Douglas Mawson‘s The Home of the Blizzard describing his harrowing 100-mile journey, alone, in terrible conditions, which is one of the great Antarctic survival stories. We also hear directly from Captain Cook as he searched vainly for land in the southern seas and from James Clark Ross as he mapped the coastline. Events that post-dated the classic expeditions, such as the first flight across Antarctica (by Lincoln Ellsworth, in 1935) and the first overland (mechanized) crossing (by Vivian Fuchs and, of all people, Edmund Hillary, in 1957-8) are also included.

One gains a great deal by compressing so much history into so small a volume, but one loses something as well. In Scott’s journals, for instance, it is one thing to read his entries for those final weeks on their own, and another to read them after having followed him through the entire expedition; it is a little hard for me to judge, but I fear that the excerpts will simply not have the emotional impact on the reader as those same passage do when read in their full context.

I would also have appreciated more maps. The book contains just one map illustrating the routes of a half-dozen major expeditions, but that leaves much of the book’s contents un-illustrated, and that sometimes resulted in a good deal of geographical head scratching.

On balance, though, this book is a fine introduction to the subject. If Antarctic exploration fires your blood at all — and it ought to — and if, like me, you haven’t time enough to read all of the primary sources in all of their detail, then I think this book is almost indispensable. I am not aware of another like it.

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