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Books: Polar Heroics and Delusions

3 minute read
John Skow

THE NOOSE OF LAURELS: ROBERT E. PEARY AND THE RACE TO THE NORTH POLE by Wally Herbert; Atheneum; 395 pages; $22.50

Probably it is necessary for us to have heroes so that, by inoculation, we will learn to distrust heroes. Baseball idols peddling autographs at $15 a scribble provide this useful disillusion today. A few decades ago, the clay feet — frostbitten, of course — were those of polar explorers. Wally Herbert, who reached the North Pole by dogsled in 1969, writes knowledgeably about two of the most fascinating of the fakers: Robert E. Peary and Dr. Frederick Cook, archrivals in heroics and fraud.

The Noose of Laurels is a fascinating account of what might be called the psychopathology of exploration. It presents not just the evidence of its subjects’ misdeeds — or nondeeds — but the details of two extraordinary lives. Despite his claims, Cook never really tried to reach the North Pole. In 1908 he simply set up a camp with two Eskimo boys near the shore of the Arctic Ocean, stayed there for a number of days, then returned home and announced success. Peary tried repeatedly, with all his energy, and in 1909, at the age of 53, nearly made it. But the speeds and distances he claimed to have traveled, Herbert demonstrates, were far beyond the ability of men or dogs. Peary’s diary, withheld from historians after his death until Herbert analyzed it, proves that he fell short by as much as 30 to 60 miles. So when this strong and single-minded man returned home from his final trip to the far north, a region he had come to feel he owned, his sense of proprietorship required him to claim he had reached the pole. He lied, heroically.

Herbert traces the elements of a story that, at least in Peary’s case, approach tragedy. He was a poor boy from Maine, trained as a civil engineer and desperate, Herbert argues, to pile up successes for his widowed mother to admire. “I must have fame,” he wrote her.

The Peary-Cook rivalry began peaceably. Cook, nine years younger, was a steady, valued medical officer on Peary’s first Arctic expedition. But Peary jealously guarded the acclaim he earned from the geographical establishment and the millionaires who ran it, so Cook set out on his own. Before long Peary was slurring Cook with the comment that the Arctic “brings a man face to face with himself . . . If he is a man, the man comes out; and if he is a cur, the cur shows as quickly.”

Contestants in the hero game had to produce results to keep their wealthy backers interested, and Herbert makes it clear that Peary feigned a “farthest north” record at about the time Cook, astonishingly, was counterfeiting a first ascent of Denali (Mount McKinley). To what degree Peary admitted to himself that he was a fraud is unknown. So is the extent to which Matthew Henson, his unswerving black assistant, understood the fudging. Herbert writes sympathetically of all these voyagers, whose real accomplishments were extraordinary. They were married to the Arctic, and perhaps the truth of the matter was that if they had to fake triumphs in order to return there, they would fake them.

The matter of marriage was not just figurative. Though Peary’s adoring public did not know this, and his loyal wife Jo may have put aside suspicions, Peary had an Eskimo family. So did Henson. In one of the book’s most touching passages, Herbert reports that in May 1971, Peary’s Eskimo grandson Peter Peary reached the North Pole by dogsled with Avatak Henson, grandson of Matthew Henson.

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