Shipboard newspapers as social media for early polar explorers

Hester Blum wrote her first book about sailors. For her second, she's revisiting the oceanic realm, this time looking closely at the heroic age of polar exploration.

An associate professor of English at Penn State, Blum is an expert in American literature, specializing in the 19th century. But it was way back in high school that Blum became enamored of the greatest sea story of them all.

"I was reading Moby-Dick," she remembers, "and I was really taken by the 'Extracts,' the section of fragmentary quotations at the beginning of the book that many readers skip and some editions don't print. It's a series of quotations about whaling, drawing from everything from classical literature and the Bible to trashy contemporary fiction.

"I had an advisor in graduate school who quite wonderfully suggested that I read the books that the extracts were taken from. So I started reading some of the contemporary whaling narratives, and I realized that there was this huge body of literature that had once been very popular in America that was no longer recognized as part of our literary heritage."

Her first book, The View from the Mast-Head, has been called the first to treat American sailor narratives as literary texts. As important as the texts themselves, Blum says, was the opportunity to think about sailors as both writers and readers. "I am interested in the collective, confined literary culture of working men at the scene of their labor," she writes. That would certainly describe the focus of her current project.

Frozen in Type

It started with a visit to New York's Grolier Club, nirvana for rare book collectors, back in 2005. There Blum attended "Books on Ice," a small exhibit dedicated to the history of polar exploration.

Among the displays, along with the first editions and tantalizing ephemera, was a facsimile copy of something called the Illustrated Arctic News: a newspaper written and printed aboard the HMS Resolution for circulation among the ship's crew during an 1852 polar expedition.

"I had no idea such things existed," Blum says. "Here I'd done all this reading about maritime literature and exploration, but this was something that was totally new to me. And I literally stood in front of that glass case and said, 'That is my next book.'"

There followed four years of archival work tracking down other examples of the genre, scouring libraries and private collections across England and the U.S. for publications with titles like the Arctic Eagle and the Port Foulke Weekly News. Along the way, Blum found that shipboard newspapers were a common feature of polar expeditions beginning in the 1840s and continuing into the 20th century. 

The practice began, she says, as part of a rescue effort. The famous loss of Sir John Franklin's 1845 expedition -- a doomed attempt to find the Northwest Passage -- launched a dozen or more search parties over the ensuing decade. Some of these ships carried printing presses, using them to print messages on balloons that were then lofted in hopes of reaching the Franklin survivors.

"Then, being bored in the long winter," Blum says, "ships' crews started playing around with this." Eventually, it became standard to while away the months of ice-bound polar darkness by printing a newspaper, no simple task in temperatures so frigid that machines and ink were constantly having to be re-thawed and the frozen condensation of men's breath had to be steadily chipped away to prevent it from filling their cabins.  

The content of these newspapers, Blum says, is not particularly memorable for its literary quality. There are lots of lighthearted complaints about the food and droll poetry about weather and shipboard conditions. "Intrigues among the sled dogs were a popular topic," she notes. In fact, Blum has found, there is almost no overlap between these privately circulated writings and the heroic accounts of discovery that were published by explorers throughout the period to wide public acclaim.

"In many ways we might see these newspapers as the social media of polar expeditions," she says. But they also filled a deeper need, she suggests, by providing an alternative account of expedition members' experiences, and a medium for establishing terms of shared value.

Like newspapers back home, Blum argues, shipboard newspapers created an imagined community among their readers. They became an important way for men "at the ends of the earth" to link themselves to each other and, by mimicking the conventions of newspapers they had known in London or New York, back to the world they had left behind.

For men so utterly removed from what we know as civilization, Blum says, the shipboard newspapers "created a kind of fictive world elsewhere. Then you have all these tensions between this world and the material world of their work aboard ship -- and with the so-called 'outside' world."

Necessary Illusions

She cites as example the case of the North Georgia Gazette and Winter Chronicle, an early progenitor of the type, published aboard the HMS Hecla in the winter of 1819-20.

In preparing a published version of this paper's run for wider circulation back in London -- in itself a rare practice -- the ship's captain, Sir William Parry, apparently censored certain bits from the shipboard version, Blum says. Not racy bits -- there was none of that stuff in any of these publications, she reports, or at least none that has survived. Rather, what Parry cut out was a series of mock-angry exchanges between the ship's officers, a running dispute between those who had contributed content to the newspaper and those who hadn't.

To readers at lower latitudes, this faux battle may seem like merely the antics of fur-clad fraternity brothers. To Blum, however, "the excised pieces reveal an escalating distress and anger over the differences between the contributing and non-contributing members of the expedition" in an environment where "you can't be a slacker and survive -- if could be a matter of life and death if people were not contributing."

The "slacking," in this case, may have related only to a leisure-time activity, but under such circumstances, Blum argues, the worlds of work and imagination overlap. By refusing to participate, the non-contributors, or "N.C.s," as they were dubbed, were breaking the illusion of community, and the vital fantasy that the expedition was still connected to the world.

In censoring these exchanges, Blum adds, Captain Parry "was recognizing that the so-called outside world could never understand polar experience enough to know why this kind of teasing was okay, or what it meant." In a time before cell phones, or even telegraphy, "the polar world was so remote and so extreme that it could not be transmitted." In essence, then, the real story would remain private among the crews.

The whole enterprise of printing these newspapers in the shifting and uncharted regions of the poles, Blum suggests, can be seen as a reflection of the explorer's, indeed of the human, impulse. To these intrepid souls, she notes, "there was something about the idea of imprinting some sense of a presence onto a surface that was completely resistant to human inscription."

 

Hester Blum is associate professor of English and an affiliate of the Penn State Polar Center. Four years ago, with Penn State colleagues Chris Castiglia and Sean Goudie, she started C19: The Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists, a now-thriving international society for scholars in the field. She served as associate director of the Penn State Institute for the Arts and Humanities from January 2012 to June 2013. As an IAH resident scholar for fall 2013, Blum is working on a book on the print culture of polar exploration. She was recently awarded a 2014-15 fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities to complete the book. Blum can be reached at hester.blum@psu.edu.

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Last Updated December 11, 2013