The Malignancies of History, or Polewards! with My Forgotten Neighbor, Frederick A. Cook

by Tom Jacobs

Every explorer names his island Formosa, beautiful. To him it is beautiful because, being first, he has access to it and can see it for what it is.
~ Walker Percy, “The Loss of the Creature” (1966)

But my compass takes its cardinal point from tragedy.
~ Richard Rodriguez, “Late Victorians” (1990)

It is not down in any map; true places never are.
~ Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851) Peary03d

Although indigenous peoples have lived for at least the last three thousand years within striking distance of the North Pole, the idea of obtaining the northernmost summit of our planet never seemed to have presented an appealing or even an interesting proposition. As American and European explorers began passing through and occasionally staying with local communities during their tentative efforts to set foot on and poke a national flag into the North Pole around the turn of the twentieth century, Inuits and other locals must have asked themselves (if not the ghostly white fanatics) something to the effect, “what kind of crazy person would bother with such an enterprise? What could possibly be the motive, goal, or point of such a thing?” And it’s an undeniably strange proposition—risking death to plant one’s flag on a remote site of an almost purely symbolic nature if only to say that I/We’ve been there first. Aside from the obvious notions of national pride and some enlightenment idea of exploration, the question still remains: how have explorers justified such a silly mission? And why didn’t the North Pole draw the imagination of precisely those people who were in the best
position to attain it?

Questions like these imply further corollaries: how, at the turn of the last century, could anyone definitively prove that they were there anyway? A photograph? A diary? A chronicle of coordinates obtained and passed through? In an era of rampant confidence games and men, who would believe you even if you produced such evidence? The will to believe is, of course, always a powerful element in public credulity, and, as the competing stories of Frederick Cook and Robert Peary would illustrate, the conditions in the States were such that people were ready and willing to believe.

1908 was a big year for the North Pole. Although attempts had been made on this symbolic summit previously, 1908 saw American and European explorers began to make their way “polewards” in earnest and in such a way that this most inaccessible and meaningless of geo-symbolic spaces was, for the first time, at risk of becoming just another demystified and disenenchanted set of coordinates.

What is it about places like the North Pole (or Mount Everest, or the Moon) that so incite the imagination of Western explorers? It’s a dumb question, from many points of view—the simplest answer is that it is the more or less natural product of masculine narcissism: one goes there in order to say that one has been there, and then, perhaps, to reap whatever fame and rewards might follow. No doubt there’s truth to such an answer. But it somehow misses the more philosophical dimensions of the project—the sheer overdetermined plenitude of unmapped and unknown spaces that draws people into their magnetic influence. What damn fool’s errand sends people off on a nearly certain Arctic Death Trip?

There is, of course, something about the antipodes that animates the mind—we need binary oppositions and dialectical tensions not only to make sense of but also to position ourselves within the world. They provide a conflict that we simultaneously do and don’t want to have resolved. One of the ramifications of consciousness is that we are left with no other option than to inhabit the transitional and endlessly liminal spaces between God and Satan, Good and Evil, East and West, and North and South, and life and death. Binaries and dialectics put us into motion, they get the mind to racing. And the difficulties involved in resolving them invariably produce an entirely new set of problems. We become sorcerer’s apprentices from the moment we begin synthesizing and aufhebung-izing
the conflicts and contradictions that the world puts forth.

However muddle-headed and kooky the motivation, these crazy bastards who set out for the North Pole in those heady days of 1908 are as dumb as they are noble. We all want to live multiple lives, to see other dimensions, to know what it is to exist and survive in other, unfamiliar environments.

For the bourgeoise, this desire can assume extreme form. As Jon Kracauer writes of Christopher McCandless (a.k.a. Alexander Supertramp), who gave all of his inheritance away and struck out for Alaska to see if he could make it on his own in the wilderness: “although he wasn’t burdened with a surfeit of common sense and possessed a streak of stubborn idealism that did not readily mesh with the realities of modern life, he was no psychopath.” This confluence of idealism, alienation from one’s upper-class background, and an absence of common sense is all straight out of Thoreau.


Although it glides atop the Arctic Ocean like a floating signifier, the North Pole is one of those sites (like the equator, or the prime meridian, or the South Pole) that organizes our earthly coordinates and imbues them with a more than merely cartographic meaning. Neither the South Pole, nor the equator, nor the prime meridian capture the imagination in quite the same way as the North Pole does. There’s a kind of symbolic imperialism involved. Like Wallace Stevens’ jar, the North Pole organizes emptiness: a featureless space becomes a destination. As the cardinal point on our cartographic and libidinous compasses, the North Pole anchors what might otherwise be a wild, chaotic instability: desire needs a direction. That’s why Santa lives there, of course: as a figure representing either the culmination of capitalism or the purest form of the gift economy, we can only imagine him living elsewhere, at the extremities of the world.

In a world increasingly cubicled and time-clocked, the North Pole (still?) offers a material monument that is at once abstract and enticingly material monument to pursue and seek. A monument to obtain and conquer. The remoteness and near-impossibility of “obtaining” or “conquering” it is part of its obvious allure.

Zero degrees North is no place for humans. Even the natives knew that. Here are some interesting facts about the north pole. Early European explorers wore the latest in technology—wool and cotton, and fared poorly. It took someone attuned to the lifestyles of
those who actually inhabit the Arctic Circle to realize that things are not that complicated: the Inuits knew that Caribou fur, because each follicle is hollow, is all you need to remain (relatively) comfortable. It is mildly amusing to observe that those flavescent photos of the early explorers standing in the frozen tundra wearing Caribou skin are often wearing nothing more than their tighty whiteys beneath the fur—you need only one layer of fur facing outward and another layer mapped onto that facing inward to be fuzzily warm and happy.

Polewards, ever Polewards!

I had never heard such fervour, such longing, not even in the voices of preachers when they spoke of heaven. […] It was as if only those who got 'there' first would see it as it really was.
~ Fredrick Cook's protégé, Devlin Stead, on his captain’s avowed dream of claiming the Pole.

In the recorded and unrecorded history of human desire for unreachable objects, the edge of the Earth must surely constitute the most extreme and profanely alluring target.

In February of 1908, a thirty three year old explorer from the small town of Hortonville, New York, set sail from the now-abandoned village of Annoatok, Greenland on a lunatic journey to the North Pole.

One year after completing his training as a surgeon at New York University—training that might have led to a comfortable bourgeois life as a general practitioner in Brooklyn—Frederick A. Cook signed on to Robert Peary’s expedition to North Greenland as the ship’s surgeon. Although this journey would come within six degrees of the geographic tip of the world, the crew would turn back when faced with the impossibility of obtaining the Pole.

Neither Cook nor Peary could have known it at the time, but their apparently mild differences in character and perspective would culminate in one of the great, unrecorded conflicts of the past century. It was a conflict that would resonate inchoately in way that encompass the competing priorities of imperialist expansion, cultural understanding, knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and—perhaps most importantly—the pursuit of making an indelible mark in the “book” of history and the pursuit of something much less certain and determinable…the very thing that keeps little boys up at night dreaming of the stars. In fact, Cook wrote of his early years that he always had a “yearning for something that was vague and undefined.” (By the way: this seems to me to have been a rather thoroughly gendered fantasy, but such distinctions are far more fluid and uncertain today…)

So Cook and Peary would become antagonists in interesting ways. Cook was anthropologically-minded and patient; Peary was imperialistic and ambitious. Cook seemed to have insisted upon living with, or at least getting to know, the life ways of the indigenous peoples for several months until he understood how they traveled so seemingly effortlessly through the Arctic landscape. Peary, on the other hand, pursued different dreams; comparatively indifferent to the ways of the “locals,” Peary forged ahead to the Pole with a crew wearing wool and cotton (neither of which held up well in the frozen North: heedless and unmindful of the advantages of Caribou fur. Wool and cotton freeze in the arctic conditions up there, locking the limbs into what one must assume are robotic, break-dance-like movement as one seeks one’s way northwards. Peary would also, most famously, bring back a young boy from an Inuit tribe to “exhibit” before metropolitan audiences in cities around the globe.

In short, Peary seems like more of an asshole, whereas Cook, however desperate he may have been to claim his place in the pantheon of explorer-history, seems more congenial.

Peary also had big friends in powerful places—the National Geographic Society and the New York Sun and the New York Herald, amongst others—and whatever the validity of Cook’s claims or Peary’s attacks, he successfully discredited Cook. Although he claimed to have reached 90 degrees north (or 0 degrees South, depending on how you look at it) on April 21st, 1908, Cook’s contention to have been the first human to have reached the Pole would be disputed and, according to many if not most, discredited by Peary, whose claim to be the first to the top of the world (in April of 1909) would be recorded by official history (although, even here, there is controversy: it seems likely that if Peary was the first to make it there, it wasn’t actually he himself who set foot on the polar antipode; rather, it was his African American assistant, Matthew Henson, who attained this feat and who actually planted the American flag on the pole).

Cook returned to the city to a ticker tape parade. He was lauded and celebrated by tens of thousands of New Yorkers. The New York Times and Herald, Harper Brothers, Hampton’s, and Cosmopolitan magazines all cabled seeking to negotiate rights and exclusives to Cook’s story. Buffalo Bill Cody telegraphed his congratulations, and children from all over wrote to ask whether he had perhaps encountered Santa Claus at the pole. He moved into a gorgeous, red-brick mansion that sits astride the convergence of Bushwick and Myrtle Avenues—the home of one of owners of the many breweries that used to dominate the neighborhood. Cook2006b

Although from this side of the century, the combination of surgeon-explorer would seem unassailably happy (one thinks of Indiana Jones—thearchaeologist-explorer-badass), Cook’s happy life in Bushwick would be short-lived. Within a decade, he would be disgraced: his claims to have reached the pole would be discounted; his ventures in oil speculation would leave him bankrupt and imprisoned in Leavenworth; and his life must have seemed lost. Cook, like most of us, is left to rest in an unvisited grave. There are profound resonances with P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, here, if one were so inclined to pursue them.

The “truth” (and I hate to use both quotations and parentheses here, but they both seem appropriate) is that it is quite likely that neither Cook nor Peary [nor Henson, for that matter] ever reached that actual physical coordinate of the north pole; it remained a kind of Cartographic asymptote for many years to come. After a thing has been “discovered,” what’s the point? Who wants to be second?


It is with this notion of discovery that I want to end. With the ambivalences and contradictions that animate the idea of discovery. The notion that one “discovers” things—whether it’s calculus, or the North Pole, or a new species—the term immediately breaks down. “Discovery” is of a piece with the enlightenment, the scientific revolution, the gradual mapping and disenchantment of the world, as they say. No one but a fool would deny the benefits of this endeavor—everything from aspirin and Viagra to microwaves and washing machines have resulted from this project. These, and many more than I can list here, are all great things.

Yet the project behind this pursuit of extraction and collection an recontextualization tends to produce an image of the world based upon a very limited Euro-American perspective (I am reminded of all those wall maps from high school that show the U.S. dead in the center of it all). On a more primary level, there is the assumption that one can’t know something until one sees it, which often means mounting it on a slide or pinning it to a wall and observing it. And I’m not sure that’s true. The way we have traditionally come to know things, whether it’s a specimen pathologically squished on a slide or preserved in some solution, or whether it’s a living idea that is observed in its habitat, still undefined and in flux—the way we come to know these things is to kill them and “mount” them (in every sense of that word) so that they might be autopsied, essentially. We’ve never been good at observing things and letting them be.

And I am thinking now of those deep sea modules that descend miles beneath the sea and almost every time “discover” a new creature that had previously been unknown. And every time I watch one of these shows about the extraordinary life that lives miles beneath the surface, in total blackness and unobserved by and large by humanity (they say we know less about the bottom of the ocean than we do about the surface of the moon, which is a wildly compelling and poetic notion)—whenever I watch these shows, I feel an odd tug of both complicity and hope. I want to see and know these creatures, but more profoundly, I don’t: I want to let them be. We need mystery in this life and this world. The giant squid has long been one of those mysterious creatures that we knew existed but had never observed. Then we observed it. We have photos.

The melancholy I felt is hard to describe or ascribe. But I like—nay, I love—the idea of undiscovered places and unobserved creatures. Without them, what is there for desire or imagination to hold on to. Perhaps the stars.

I love the idea that there are earthly things that will always, despite our best efforts, escape our grasp and our cameras. And there—in the borderlands and liminal spaces, in the darknesses at the edge of town, in the gap between knowing and not knowing, a different type of discovery may lie. Those are the spaces we should seek to inhabit in full uncertainty, ambivalence, and ambiguity—to peer in to the dark, catch a glimpse of what’s there, and then depart back into the light in wonder.

Images and Links:

Cook looks every bit the modern day Bushwick Hipster in this image (and accompanying article on the 100th anniversary of his supposed feat)

Here is an image of a Russian submarine planting a flag on the ocean floor BENEATH the North Pole (!)

And finally, here is a story about how a purchase on ebay helped reveal some of the forgotten or repressed elements of the story of the pursuit of the pole.