Did Peary Reach North Pole April 6, 1909?
Dr. Susan Kaplan, director of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin, is sick to death of answering questions about who reached the Pole first. “We say, ‘We don’t know, and we don’t think we’ll ever know.’ But we try to use that interest to educate people about the Arctic. There is so much at stake, there are stories just as fascinating, full of ethical dilemmas. Take the question of whether Inuit hunters should be allowed to kill bowhead whales. There you have the survival of an endangered species versus the survival of an endangered culture. If someone wants to become famous by conquering something today, I wish he’d conquer that one.”
But she knows that interest in Peary, Cook, and the North Pole is not likely to wane. “It has elements of heroic mythology, of allegory in it — Cook as the young upstart who was victimized by the Establishment, and Peary as the rigid militarist. This notion of him as a sort of recluse his public persona, has become the man. And I think that’s very unfair to him.
“There’s so much literature, people get very involved in trying to solve this mystery,” she said with a sigh. “They think if they just study it long enough, they’ll find the truth.”
I, too, hoped that if I just studied it long enough, I would find some sort of truth. But the search for the real Peary turned out to be like the search for the North Pole — a journey over shifting ice, with many obstacles and detours, and an uncertain ending.
I never found the human being I was looking for. What I found instead was a hero, and heroes are not permitted to be human. That is their tragedy.
Peary, for all his brilliant accomplishments — and even his harshest critics acknowledge that he was the greatest Arctic explorer America ever had or ever will produce — was a prisoner of history, which, fairly or unfairly, offers no laurels to the second-best. Peary understood that fact to the center of his soul.
He was also a prisoner of his time, in which national pride was riding on the race to the Pole. Under the urging of President Theodore Roosevelt, for whom Peary represented the ultimate in American manhood, the Navy ordered Peary to make attainment of the Pole his main object. “Nothing short will suffice.”
Finally he was a prisoner of his own will the most implacable jailer of all. From his boyhood, he burned for fame. Raised by a domineering mother, he was driven to achieve, to excel, to prevail. To answer the terrible questions inside. “I must be the peer or superior of those about me to be comfortable,” he wrote as a young man, “not that I care to show my superiority, simply to know it myself.”
My search ended in Arlington, Virginia, on a hot day in September. The Peary Memorial was unveiled there on April 6, 1922, two years after the explorer died of pernicious anemia. President and Mrs. Harding were present, along with the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Alexander Graham Bell from the National Geographic Society, and a host of other dignitaries. Josephine, Marie, and Bob were guests of honor. Somewhere in the crowd was Matthew Henson, the black trailblazer who had accompanied Peary from Nicaragua to the North Pole.
Jo died in 1955 and was buried beside her husband. Henson died the same year and was buried in New York City. But last April he was reinterred at Arlington with his own monument next to Peary’s and a little in front of it, as if he was still breaking trail for his commander and friend.
I looked at the two monuments for a while. Peary’s great gray globe is wearing smooth, and the bronze star at the North Pole has lost its luster. Henson’s is new and shiny, the bas-relief of his face sharply cut. He hasn’t been a hero very long.
Find more: “Northward Over the Great Ice” exhibit through 2011, commemorating the centennial of Robert E. Peary’s North Pole expedition, at the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine. Read crew members’ journal entries.