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Staking Out the North Pole Position

Local Author Warms to Long-Simmering Controversy Over Arctic Exploration

By Ken Ringle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 17 1997; Page B01
The Washington Post

Robert M. Bryce has never been north of southern Canada, loathes ice and snow, and restricts his outdoor activity to trail hiking and the occasional tenting out with the wife and kids.

So why has a nice 50-year-old librarian like him devoted twenty-odd years of his life to untangling one of the great geographical cat fights in history: Who discovered the North Pole?

"I never thought of writing a book. I never really meant to write this one," he says, eyeing with something close to apology the four-pound, 1,133-page heft of "Cook & Peary -- The Polar Controversy Resolved" in his office on the Germantown campus of Montgomery College. "But I really had no choice. You get hooked on something like this and start collecting all this material and at some point a book becomes inevitable."

That's all very well for him to say. But what are the rest of us to do with our normal lives once he hooks us with his opening sentences:

Imagine, if you can, the North Pole: a point with no dimensions, no thickness or breadth; a spot in the mind of man where even the concepts of the mind -- time and direction -- are no longer valid, where every direction is south and a year is . . . one day and one night . . .

Yet in the decades before the first year of the twentieth century . . . The mad dreamers of the North Pole dreamed . . . of [exhaling] the last great heroic gasp before the spirit of the romantic age departed . . . forever.

From there on, you might as well call in sick, send the kids out to play, cancel all your appointments and hole up under the covers -- a lot of covers -- for the next few weeks. For Bryce, curse him, has shanghaied you aboard an arctic time machine and there's no getting off.

Before long you are eating penguin and walrus, practicing polar navigation with a molasses-filled "artificial horizon," and sharing the dismay of Josephine Peary, the explorer's wife, entering her first igloo with her husband where she discovers Eskimo women happily lounging topless upon bearskins crawling with lice.

Bryce, a slender, chatty fellow with an unthinkably tidy desk, considers it only just if you can't stop reading. That's what happened to him.

"We librarians are fond of saying that a single book can change your life," he says. "One certainly changed mine."

Around 1971 he casually picked up a book called "Weird and Tragic Shores" written by someone named Chauncey Loomis, which dealt with the mysterious death of an arctic explorer named Charles Francis Hall who was apparently murdered by his expedition doctor in 1871 and interred beneath the permafrost of Greenland.

Intrigued with the shivery tale, he found himself looking up other books on the Arctic. He immediately stumbled onto the bitter dispute that raged for decades between Robert E. Peary, the fame-hungry, Maine-raised mama's boy long credited with first reaching the North Pole in 1909, and Frederick A. Cook, the New York milkman turned physician whose immediate prior claim had been denounced as fraudulent by a social and scientific establishment that backed Peary.

Deciding to go straight to the primary sources, he read both Peary's and Cook's books about their polar journeys and found Cook's "My Attainment of the Pole" by far the more plausible. But more than that, he says, he found himself unable to reconcile history's dismissal of Cook with the poetic imagery, magnetic humanity and wide-ranging scientific mind manifested in Cook's writing.

"I knew the story couldn't be as simple as history had declared it to be," Bryce says. "This man was much more than just a con man. And even if he was a con man, what drove him to do what he did? There had never been a full-length biography of Cook. So I set out to solve the mystery. And that turned into a biography of both Peary and Cook because their lives are inextricably intertwined."

As curiosity turned into obsession, he found himself for the past eight years laboring late into the night and every weekend, ignoring his family, buying his first computer to help keep blizzards of facts and quotations straight, and using every lunch hour to edit his chapter drafts.

After years of research that included the first outside look at Cook's private papers and discovery of a heretofore unknown diary unearthed in a museum of astronomy in Denmark, Bryce concluded that neither Cook nor Peary ever got anywhere near the North Pole, and both falsified their accomplishments in a lunge for an explorer's immortality.

But his proof of that conclusion is far from the most compelling aspect of his exhaustively footnoted volume. Geographers have been edging away from Peary's claims for at least 10 years. Bryce just nails that particular coffin shut. His real achievement is in packing us along on all those icy expeditions and re-creating the mind-set of these century-old individuals with remarkable immediacy. Though he tells the basic story, he lets the characters themselves, from their letters, diaries and other writings, describe and pass judgment on each other.

"I tried to tell the story from the perspective of that time," he says. "For example, I had referred several times to someone being from an `Ivy League' university. But then I found out that the term `Ivy League' really postdates by several years the period I'm writing about. So I went through the book and took out every reference. It's their story. It should be told in their words. . . .

"People forget the remarkable command that even common people had over the written word in those days," Bryce continues. "The vocabulary and descriptive power of even the rudest members of these expeditions is really amazing."

Likewise, he says, he tried to approach his material with as little bias as possible. "It's difficult for people now to realize how this argument over who discovered the North Pole divided the country. It was sort of like the O.J. Simpson trial" -- an early media event where newspapers took sides and people argued passionately in favor of one side or the other. Some geographical specialists still do. "But I just wanted to find the true story. I did become fascinated with Cook. . . . I rather wanted him to have found the pole. But there's just no way it could have happened."

In fact, he says, the only people ever to reach the North Pole the way Peary and Cook tried to -- across the frost-heaved, ever-drifting Arctic ice pack hauling all their supplies with them -- did so only two years ago. Richard Weber and Mikhail Malakhov took 35 days longer than Cook claimed, and 70 more than Peary. "It was an incredible feat of endurance. But nobody in the world paid any attention. It just shows you how times have changed."

Bryce concedes that no little part of his fascination with polar exploration is the era when it happened. The period between the end of Civil War Reconstruction in 1880 and the beginning of World War I in 1914, he says, "is unquestionably my favorite time. It's modern enough so you can relate to the people . . . yet there was still a certain optimism, a certain confidence in progress and the spirit of man, especially in the United States."

In Bryce's hands, the polar quest becomes a kind of microcosm of Gilded Age values. On one hand he sees the era's spirit of technological innovation and scientific inquiry represented by Cook, a physician, geographer and ethnologist "who genuinely cared about the people on his expeditions. He admired the Eskimos . . . didn't patronize them." On the other hand he sees the period's mania for wealth, status and social exclusion represented by Peary, "totally self-absorbed . . . ruthlessly ambitious . . . exploiting everyone from the Eskimos to his own wife."

Yet in their quest for the world's last great prize of exploration (Antarctica, Bryce says, never had the same panache), they both lied about what they'd really accomplished, thereby betraying the ideals of truth and knowledge they -- and their era -- claimed to value most.

To probe their sharply different reasons for doing so, he mushes us through all their earlier expeditions as well, where telltale character signs go up like signal flags amid the pressures of confinement and long arctic nights.

Peary, as revealed by his own writings and those of his men, is an all-controlling micro-manager of his expeditions, desperate for validation, terrified of failure, impatient and unwilling to share even the crumbs of glory. Exploration for him is clearly just a means to an end: He never seems to have liked it very much and "was sort of camping out for fame," Bryce says. When confronted with failure on what he knew to be his last try for the pole -- Bryce doubts he ever got closer than 100 miles -- he couldn't resist declaring he'd won.

Cook, on the other hand, seems to have genuinely loved and hungered for the real meat of exploration -- mapping new routes and shorelines, learning and adapting to the survival techniques of the Eskimos, advancing his own knowledge -- and that of the world -- for its own sake. But the public, he recognized, cared little for such geographical bricklaying: The money to continue it could only come from some flamboyant achievement -- like being first to the pole. He never got closer than 400 miles of it, Bryce says (Peary started from land much farther north), though he made a number of significant discoveries on his attempt.

But even after his false claim, he appears to have sought to profit no more than would allow him to recoup his costs and support his family. And in his subsequent lectures he appeared more interested in sharing his real knowledge of the Arctic than in capitalizing on being first to what the Eskimos referred to as "the big nail."

All of which only confounds the final mystery about Cook. He was imprisoned in 1921 for mail fraud in a pyramiding Texas oil-stock swindle from which, Bryce says, "it's clear he had to have made millions of dollars. But what happened to the money? There is no indication he ever lived extravagantly, and no trace of it has ever turned up."

As for Peary, he was acclaimed during his lifetime, but history has dealt him a particularly intriguing turn. From his first expedition he was accompanied by an African American servant named Matthew Henson whose role in Peary's Arctic forays gradually expanded.

"Revisionist historians in recent years have inflated Henson's contribution out of all proportion to what it really was," Bryce says. But Henson was absolutely essential to all of Peary's explorations, first as unquestionably the most skilled dog and sled handler, and second "because he became quite fluent in the Eskimo language, which Peary never learned to speak."

In Peary's last run for the pole, Bryce says, Peary had lost most of his toes to frostbite and was little more than a cargo in Henson's sled. When asked why he had taken a "Negro" with him to the North Pole instead of someone else, Peary answered dismissively: "I did not feel called upon to share the honors that might occur with any other man."

Yet today, Bryce says, "with the booming interest in black history, there are more copies of Henson's book [`A Negro Explorer at the North Pole'] in the nation's libraries than there are of Peary's." (Ever the librarian, Bryce ran a reference search to make sure.) "That's a historical irony of which Peary could never have conceived."

@CAPTION: Robert Peary, long credited with arriving first at the pole, "was sort of camping out for fame" . . .

@CAPTION: . . . while Frederick Cook "was much more than just a con man," says author Robert Bryce.

@CAPTION: "It's difficult for people now to realize how this argument over who discovered the North Pole divided the country," says author Robert Bryce.
Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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