Race to the Pole: Matthew Henson, Arctic Explorer
In his memoir, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole (1912), Matthew Henson describes the toll of his and Peary’s race to the Pole. This record of the 1908-09 Arctic expedition complicates established understandings of the “Dash to the Pole” and his own role as Peary’s assistant. Donald B. Macmillan declared in How Peary Reached the Pole: The Personal Story of His Assistant (2008) that Peary could not have done it without Henson (275), whose text uncovers an accomplished writer and explorer at work. The complicated character of Robert E. Peary figures prominently in his pages, though in a less independent version than in other accounts. Henson details the highly skilled labor he performs in the Arctic, and his own personality and perceptions. He shares, to a degree, the value systems of his Commander and the white members of the expedition, including the emphasis on heroic masculinity. But he also inscribes his racial heritage into his memoir, and his close, if complex, relation to the Inughuit. The result of intricate balancing acts, Henson’s silences echo in his text, revealing what could not be articulated by an African American member of Peary’s legendary expeditions. Henson’s contemporaries paid little attention to his accomplishments, since white American and European explorers dominated the field of Arctic travel, but his contribution received more attention as the 20th Century progressed. His experience suggests the costs and the crises—personal, national, and international—of a contested icescape increasingly visible and accessible in the 21st Century.
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