Staking Out the North Pole Position
Local Author Warms to Long-Simmering Controversy Over Arctic Exploration
By Ken Ringle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 17 1997; Page B01
The Washington Post
Robert M. Bryce has never been north of southern Canada,
and snow, and restricts his outdoor activity to trail hiking and the
tenting out with the wife and kids.
So why has a nice 50-year-old librarian like him devoted
years of his life to untangling one of the great geographical cat
in history: Who discovered the North Pole?
"I never thought of writing a book. I never really meant to
one," he says, eyeing with something close to apology the four-pound,
heft of "Cook & Peary -- The Polar Controversy Resolved" in his
on the Germantown campus of Montgomery College. "But I really had no
You get hooked on something like this and start collecting all this
and at some point a book becomes inevitable."
That's all very well for him to say. But what are the rest of
do with our normal lives once he hooks us with his opening sentences:
Imagine, if you can, the North Pole: a point with no
thickness or breadth; a spot in the mind of man where even the concepts
of the mind -- time and direction -- are no longer valid, where every
is south and a year is . . . one day and one night . . .
Yet in the decades before the first year of the twentieth
. . The mad dreamers of the North Pole dreamed . . . of [exhaling] the
last great heroic gasp before the spirit of the romantic age departed .
. . forever.
From there on, you might as well call in sick, send the kids
play, cancel all your appointments and hole up under the covers -- a
of covers -- for the next few weeks. For Bryce, curse him, has
you aboard an arctic time machine and there's no getting off.
Before long you are eating penguin and walrus, practicing
with a molasses-filled "artificial horizon," and sharing the dismay of
Josephine Peary, the explorer's wife, entering her first igloo with her
husband where she discovers Eskimo women happily lounging topless upon
bearskins crawling with lice.
Bryce, a slender, chatty fellow with an unthinkably tidy desk,
it only just if you can't stop reading. That's what happened to him.
"We librarians are fond of saying that a single book can
life," he says. "One certainly changed mine."
Around 1971 he casually picked up a book called "Weird and
written by someone named Chauncey Loomis, which dealt with the
death of an arctic explorer named Charles Francis Hall who was
murdered by his expedition doctor in 1871 and interred beneath the
Intrigued with the shivery tale, he found himself looking up
on the Arctic. He immediately stumbled onto the bitter dispute that
for decades between Robert E. Peary, the fame-hungry, Maine-raised
boy long credited with first reaching the North Pole in 1909, and
A. Cook, the New York milkman turned physician whose immediate prior
had been denounced as fraudulent by a social and scientific
that backed Peary.
Deciding to go straight to the primary sources, he read both
and Cook's books about their polar journeys and found Cook's "My
of the Pole" by far the more plausible. But more than that, he says, he
found himself unable to reconcile history's dismissal of Cook with the
poetic imagery, magnetic humanity and wide-ranging scientific mind
in Cook's writing.
"I knew the story couldn't be as simple as history had
declared it to
be," Bryce says. "This man was much more than just a con man. And even
if he was a con man, what drove him to do what he did? There had never
been a full-length biography of Cook. So I set out to solve the
And that turned into a biography of both Peary and Cook because their
are inextricably intertwined."
As curiosity turned into obsession, he found himself for the
years laboring late into the night and every weekend, ignoring his
buying his first computer to help keep blizzards of facts and
straight, and using every lunch hour to edit his chapter drafts.
After years of research that included the first outside look
private papers and discovery of a heretofore unknown diary unearthed in
a museum of astronomy in Denmark, Bryce concluded that neither Cook nor
Peary ever got anywhere near the North Pole, and both falsified their
in a lunge for an explorer's immortality.
But his proof of that conclusion is far from the most
of his exhaustively footnoted volume. Geographers have been edging away
from Peary's claims for at least 10 years. Bryce just nails that
coffin shut. His real achievement is in packing us along on all those
expeditions and re-creating the mind-set of these century-old
with remarkable immediacy. Though he tells the basic story, he lets the
characters themselves, from their letters, diaries and other writings,
describe and pass judgment on each other.
"I tried to tell the story from the perspective of that time,"
"For example, I had referred several times to someone being from an
League' university. But then I found out that the term `Ivy League'
postdates by several years the period I'm writing about. So I went
the book and took out every reference. It's their story. It should be
in their words. . . .
"People forget the remarkable command that even common people
the written word in those days," Bryce continues. "The vocabulary and
power of even the rudest members of these expeditions is really
Likewise, he says, he tried to approach his material with as
bias as possible. "It's difficult for people now to realize how this
over who discovered the North Pole divided the country. It was sort of
like the O.J. Simpson trial" -- an early media event where newspapers
sides and people argued passionately in favor of one side or the other.
Some geographical specialists still do. "But I just wanted to find the
true story. I did become fascinated with Cook. . . . I rather wanted
to have found the pole. But there's just no way it could have
In fact, he says, the only people ever to reach the North Pole
Peary and Cook tried to -- across the frost-heaved, ever-drifting
ice pack hauling all their supplies with them -- did so only two years
ago. Richard Weber and Mikhail Malakhov took 35 days longer than Cook
and 70 more than Peary. "It was an incredible feat of endurance. But
in the world paid any attention. It just shows you how times have
Bryce concedes that no little part of his fascination with
is the era when it happened. The period between the end of Civil War
in 1880 and the beginning of World War I in 1914, he says, "is
my favorite time. It's modern enough so you can relate to the people .
. . yet there was still a certain optimism, a certain confidence in
and the spirit of man, especially in the United States."
In Bryce's hands, the polar quest becomes a kind of microcosm
Age values. On one hand he sees the era's spirit of technological
and scientific inquiry represented by Cook, a physician, geographer and
ethnologist "who genuinely cared about the people on his expeditions.
admired the Eskimos . . . didn't patronize them." On the other hand he
sees the period's mania for wealth, status and social exclusion
by Peary, "totally self-absorbed . . . ruthlessly ambitious . . .
everyone from the Eskimos to his own wife."
Yet in their quest for the world's last great prize of
Bryce says, never had the same panache), they both lied about what
really accomplished, thereby betraying the ideals of truth and
they -- and their era -- claimed to value most.
To probe their sharply different reasons for doing so, he
through all their earlier expeditions as well, where telltale character
signs go up like signal flags amid the pressures of confinement and
Peary, as revealed by his own writings and those of his men,
is an all-controlling
micro-manager of his expeditions, desperate for validation, terrified
failure, impatient and unwilling to share even the crumbs of glory.
for him is clearly just a means to an end: He never seems to have liked
it very much and "was sort of camping out for fame," Bryce says. When
with failure on what he knew to be his last try for the pole -- Bryce
he ever got closer than 100 miles -- he couldn't resist declaring he'd
Cook, on the other hand, seems to have genuinely loved and
for the real meat of exploration -- mapping new routes and shorelines,
learning and adapting to the survival techniques of the Eskimos,
his own knowledge -- and that of the world -- for its own sake. But the
public, he recognized, cared little for such geographical bricklaying:
The money to continue it could only come from some flamboyant
-- like being first to the pole. He never got closer than 400 miles of
it, Bryce says (Peary started from land much farther north), though he
made a number of significant discoveries on his attempt.
But even after his false claim, he appears to have sought to
no more than would allow him to recoup his costs and support his
And in his subsequent lectures he appeared more interested in sharing
real knowledge of the Arctic than in capitalizing on being first to
the Eskimos referred to as "the big nail."
All of which only confounds the final mystery about Cook. He
in 1921 for mail fraud in a pyramiding Texas oil-stock swindle from
Bryce says, "it's clear he had to have made millions of dollars. But
happened to the money? There is no indication he ever lived
and no trace of it has ever turned up."
As for Peary, he was acclaimed during his lifetime, but
dealt him a particularly intriguing turn. From his first expedition he
was accompanied by an African American servant named Matthew Henson
role in Peary's Arctic forays gradually expanded.
"Revisionist historians in recent years have inflated Henson's
out of all proportion to what it really was," Bryce says. But Henson
absolutely essential to all of Peary's explorations, first as
the most skilled dog and sled handler, and second "because he became
fluent in the Eskimo language, which Peary never learned to speak."
In Peary's last run for the pole, Bryce says, Peary had lost
his toes to frostbite and was little more than a cargo in Henson's
When asked why he had taken a "Negro" with him to the North Pole
of someone else, Peary answered dismissively: "I did not feel called
to share the honors that might occur with any other man."
Yet today, Bryce says, "with the booming interest in black
there are more copies of Henson's book [`A Negro Explorer at the North
Pole'] in the nation's libraries than there are of Peary's." (Ever the
librarian, Bryce ran a reference search to make sure.) "That's a
irony of which Peary could never have conceived."
@CAPTION: Robert Peary, long credited with arriving first at
"was sort of camping out for fame" . . .
@CAPTION: . . . while Frederick Cook "was much more than just
man," says author Robert Bryce.
@CAPTION: "It's difficult for people now to realize how this
over who discovered the North Pole divided the country," says author
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company