Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Brief History of Masculinity & the Arctic

Engraving of Elisha Kent Kane
by J. Sartain from portrait by Matthew Brady, not dated.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Masculinity has long been associated with the exploration of the Arctic, a place often called a male-proving ground. Michael F. Robinson argues that three explorers are key to understanding masculinity’s association with the Arctic, the first being Elisha Kent Kane (1820-1857). Due to his participation in both Grinnell Expeditions—which succeeded in finding traces of the missing English explorer Sir John Franklin—Kane was lauded as an American hero. An early death at the age of 37 only increased his fame. Though Kane’s death was due to a life-long illness, eulogists were insistent that his character (if not his body) was evidence enough of his masculinity. One biographer, William Elder, used all of the following terms to describe Kane and his attributes: “manly endurance”, “manly virtues”, “manly effort”, “manly service to the country”, “manly sensibility”, “manly ambition”. Kane became a model upon which future Arctic explorers would construct their own images, and their utilization of the masculine ideal became key to success.

Photo of General Adolphus W. Greely, taken between 1890 & 1935.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The legacy of Adolphus W. Greely (1844-1935) represents a distinct change in Arctic masculinity. In 1884, after he and his crew had been missing for three years, six near-death survivors were discovered. One member of the rescue team later wrote that when Greely was found, his first words were: “Yes—seven of us left—here we are dying—like men. Did what I came to do—beat the best record.” The story took on a life of its own and clearly reflects a change in the definition of what makes a man “a man”. Whereas Kane’s character was representative of his masculinity, by the time of Greely’s expedition there had been a fundamental shift to an emphasis on physical manifestations of manliness. Now, the ideal Arctic man would not only express masculinity in his character, but also in his physical power to either survive the harshness of the North or to die “like a man”.

Portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt
by Theodor Horydczak, circa 1920-1950.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

It is within this construct of a newly defined masculinity that Robert E. Peary emerges as “the epitome of manliness”. Americans were becoming concerned that young men were emasculated by increasing industrialization, urbanization and the closing of the American frontier in 1890. In an effort to counteract what he perceived as a serious threat to the future of America’s men, Theodore Roosevelt spearheaded a campaign for what he called “the strenuous life”. Roosevelt’s poster-child for the strenuous life was Robert E. Peary, whom Roosevelt praised for his “Great physical hardihood and endurance, an iron will and unflinching courage, the power of command, the thirst for adventure, and a keen and farsighted intelligence”. Roosevelt seems to be listing Peary’s attributes in what he perceives to be the order of their importance, stressing physical manhood over intelligence or character.

Photo of Robert E. Peary dressed in fur,
taken between 1886 & 1909 for the New York World-Telegram.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Roosevelt was not the only American to be impressed with Peary’s masculinity. The editor of National Geographic, Gilbert Grosvenor, wrote that Peary possessed “a physical endowment such as nature gives to few men”. Constance Du Bois wrote a letter to Peary stating that “The glory of manhood seems to have departed. But you, your ideals, justify it to my mind—and the response from the people, the men and growing boys, as their spirits still ring true to the appeal of noble adventure, is so encouraging that we not yet doubt the future of America”. While Peary may have carefully crafted the image of himself and his crew (including Henson) as “ideal men”, how did the expression of masculinity actually manifest itself in Peary’s and Henson’s relationships with Inuit women?

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