In 1879 Captain George W. DeLong took the USS Jeannette and its crew of thirty-two to try to find the Northwest Passage from the Pacific side. Within a month of sailing the ship was trapped by pack ice. It stood there immobile for almost two full years before it was finally crushed, and the crew had to make a desperate trek over the ice to make the thousand-mile journey to the nearest trace of civilization.
I forget where I first heard about this story, but it was enough to make me seek out Captain DeLong’s diary some years ago. I wanted to read that day by day account of rising optimism as the first winter ended, the perpetual hope that each day might be the day the ice has softened enough to let the ship go, and the depths of despair as summer waned and the temperature dropped and he knew he would spend another winter in the ice.
I wasn’t disappointed. You’ve sometimes got to read between the lines, admittedly. Not only was his diary later published by his widow, but it was always intended to be filed in the naval archives with the log book as the primary record of the expedition. So he puts a brave face on everything and never ceases in complimenting his men, and emphasizes the valuable scientific and naturalistic data his expedition accumulates.
Even if some of this data is to his detriment. Such as the fact that the Kuro Siwo, the so-called ‘Gulf Stream of the Pacific’, does not in fact provide a warm current of water that one can use to sail straight through to the Atlantic. Or, when they’re crossing the ice, that that polar ice is not actually freshwater. He only learns that after a month of the crew drinking the stuff.
Still, it’s not all hardship. The two Christmases on the ice are recounted in detail, with elaborate menus conjured out of their limited supplies and variety shows culling together everyone’s talents. There’s all kinds of verisimiltudinous anecdotes, like the fact that the ice around the ship is spotted with dog hair where the dogs have laid down and the ice tears the fur away when they get back up. (One day is marked especially cold because a dog couldn’t pull himself up from the ice, and had to be freed with a shovel.) And De Long isn’t a bad writer either:
I have often wondered if a horse driving a saw-mill had any mental queries as to why he tramped over his endless plank, and what on earth there was accomplished by his so doing. The saw was generally out of his sight, he perceived no work accomplished, he never changed his position relatively, he worked on and on without advancing a foot, and ended his day’s work in identically the same place at which he began it, and, as far as equine judgment could forecast, would do the same thing to-morrow, and every other day thereafter. If that horse had reasoning faculties, I pity him and appreciate now his thoughts and feelings. We are individually in that horse’s position — we see no saw, we can detect no work accomplished, we move on without advancing a foot, we shall do to-morrow what we have done to-day and what we did yesterday, and we fill up with oats, so to speak, merely that the saw-mill may not have to suspend sawing. This kind of life is worse than Mr. Mantalini and his mangle. With him life was “one demnition grind,” but with us it is ” one demnition blank.”*
-October 31st, 1880
*Before you look it up, ‘demnition’ is an variant of ‘damnation.’ It appears to have been popularized by Mantalini in Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby.
Anyway, it’s a fascinating expedition. But any diary is ultimately going to be from the perspective of that diarist, trapped in that time and place. For context you need a historian’s account of the event, and Hampton Sides’ In the Kingdom of Ice does an excellent job of telling the whole tale. For example, Sides elaborates on the cartographer August Petermann who promulgated not only his Kuro Siwo northwest passage hypothesis, but also that there was an ice-free ocean at the top of the globe, surrounded by a ring of ice. This is what DeLong rested his expedition on, and it was thoroughly debunked only months after he left for the Arctic. Sides is also able to talk about things that just wouldn’t be mentioned in official documents. While the diary notes Danenhower’s growing blindness and ill moods, I don’t believe it ever mentions syphilis by name, or that DeLong discovered this shortly before the expedition started and tried to have him replaced.
There’s also more on the funder of the expedition, the Herald newspaper magnate James Gordon Bennett Jr (and either he or his father is responsible for the antiquated exclamation “Gordon Bennett!”, forever preserved in the TV show Red Dwarf). He’s the one who funded Stanley to search for Dr Livingstone in Africa, and the subsequent press exclusive was so lucrative that he’d been looking for a new project to undertake when DeLong first came to him.
Furthermore, Sides demonstrates a key skill in a historian of this type: to know when to get out of the way and let the primary sources tell the story. All in all it’s an extremely readable book, and if time permitted I would have devoured it in a couple of sittings.
Still, there’s no way a nonfiction book can fully capture the feel of the diary. Sides covers the year of 1880 – the full year they’re trapped in the ice – in a couple of chapters. As I mentioned at the outset, there’s no way to condense that slow agony of frustrated ambition. And while the book mentions that early on the hull began leaking and a pump was needed, practically every entry of the diary documents how much water was pumped out and how long it took to pump it. The last few months the ship needed continuous pumping, at least one man stationed around the clock at its side, the moisture saturating the ship with a dewed and icicled gloss. At any moment the hull could burst, and many diary entries wonder when it might happen; so when it finally does, the men are well drilled in what to do.
Speaking of diarists trapped by their circumstances, I can’t resist mentioning Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. Now, you may well have read this. Many schools have it on their curriculum. But if you haven’t read the definitive edition that first came out in 1995 (or the 1989 revised critical edition), I highly recommend returning to it.
You see, the original was edited by Frank’s father, and it was only after his death that a more unexpurgated version could be published, increasing the length some thirty percent. A few cuts are understandable, owing to anatomical explicitness – she was a teenage girl, after all. But the bulk of the excisions were Frank being angry, especially at her mother, documenting arguments and simmering tension.
Which is natural even for ordinary teenagers who aren’t locked in the same flat as their parents for multiple years. I must admit I haven’t read the original version, but I doubt it captures the reality of such confined living as the definitive version, full of fights and sulks, does.
Anyway, it’s well worth returning to. And if you haven’t read the diary, merely know about it from pop culture osmosis, you’re in for quite an experience. It’s so compelling, so mimicking the emotional arcs of a narrative, that I can understand why some people believe it’s fiction; it’s really that good. Though possibly don’t read it in the same week at Art Spiegelman’s Maus unless you want to be really depressed.
(You should still read Maus, it easily deserves its acclaim and… but I should probably stop before I figure out a way to link my entire non-fiction bookcase into one interconnected ouroboros.)
The Voyage of the Jeannette by George W. DeLong
It’s in the public domain, with several scans on archive.org here. Note that it comes in two volumes, so if your copy starts with Chapter X, you need to find volume one. There also appears to be some hardback and paperback reprint editions in the last couple of years.
In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides
This came out in 2014. Copies are still plentiful in hardcover, paperback and e-book.
Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
As I said, I recommend the Definitive edition, translated by Susan Massotty. There’s also the revised critical edition from 1989 that I’ve added to my reading list. While the definitive version is intended for a mainstream audience, the revised critical edition looks like it gets more into the guts of the text, of the differences between the original diaries and the ones Frank rewrote in 1943 on hearing through the radio that diaries would be sought after and publishable after the war’s end.
Maus by Art Spiegelman
Original published in two volumes, The Complete Maus collects them both. If you want more behind-the-scenes information I’d also recommend Spiegelman’s MetaMaus with the caveat that since Maus already has so much of the creation of Maus in its text, MetaMaus can at times feel redundant.
Additional: After I’d written the above I managed to find the notes I’d made when I read DeLong’s diary. Some of my observations and memorable passages were also made in Sides’ book, but one quotation in particular caught my eye. I went back to the relevant diary entry, and, well, I can’t resist quoting it in its entirety:
June 21st, Monday. — The advent and departure of another day to record; and except that it is the longest day in the year to some people (though not of course to us, since we have the sun the whole twenty-four hours), it is hardly worth recording. Observations show us that we have drifted, since the 19th, eleven and three tenths miles to S. 68° E. Discouraging, very.
And yet my motto is, ” Hope on, hope ever.” A very good one it is when one’s surroundings are more natural than ours; but situated as we are it is better in the abstract than in realization. There can be no greater wear and tear on a man’s mind and patience than this life in the pack. The absolute monotony; the unchanging round of hours; the awakening to the same things and the same conditions that one saw just before losing one’s self in sleep; the same faces; the same dogs; the same ice; the same conviction that tomorrow will be exactly the same as to-day, if not more disagreeable; the absolute impotence to do anything, to go anywhere, or to change one’s situation an iota; the realization that food is being consumed and fuel burned with no valuable result, beyond sustaining life ; the knowledge that nothing has been accomplished thus far to save this expedition from being denominated an utter failure; all these things crowd in with irresistible force on my reasoning powers each night as I sit down to reflect upon the events of the day, and but for some still small voice within me that tells me this can hardly be the ending of all my labor and zeal, I should be tempted to despair.
All our books are read, our stories related ; our games of chess, cards, and checkers long since discontinued. When we assemble in the morning at breakfast we make daily a fresh start. Any dreams, amusing or peculiar, are related and laughed over. Theories as to whether we shall eventually drift N. E. or N. W. are brought forward and discussed. Seals’ livers as a change of diet are pronounced a success. The temperature of the morning watch is inquired into, the direction and velocity of the wind, and if it is snowing (as it generally is) we call it a ” fine summer day.”
After breakfast we smoke. Chipp gets a sounding and announces a drift E. S. E. or S. E., as the case may be. We growl thereat. Dunbar and Alexey go off for seals with as many dogs as do not run away from them en route. The doctor examines Danenhower and Iversen, his two chronic patients. Melville draws a little for this journal, sings a little, and stirs everybody up to a realization that it is daytime. Danenhower talks incessantly— on any or all subjects, with or without an audience. The doctor moralizes between observations; I smoke; Mr. Newcomb makes his preparations for dredging specimens; Mr. Collins has not appeared, his usual hour being 12.30 in the afternoon. Meanwhile, the men have been set at work; a sled and dogs are dispatched for the day’s snow for washing purposes. The decks are cleared up, soundings made, berth deck inspected, and work of painting, scraping, or whatever is on hand commenced. The day’s rations are served out to the cook, and then we commence to drift out on the ice to dig ditches, to look at the dogs, calculate the waste in the ice since yesterday, and the probable amount by to-morrow. The dredge is lowered and hauled. I get the sun at meridian, and we go to dinner.
After dinner more smoke, more drawing, more singing, more talk, more ditch and canal-making, more hunting, more work, more dog inspection, and some attempts at napping until four p. m., when we are all around for anything that may turn up. At 5.30 time and azimuth sight, post position in cabin, make chart, go to supper at six, and discuss our drift, and then smoke, talk, and general kill-time occupations until ten p. M., when the day is ended. The noise subsides ; those who can, go to bed ; I write the log and my journal, make the observations for meteorology until midnight. Mr. Collins succeeds me four hours, Chipp him four hours, the doctor next four hours, Mr. Collins next six hours, I next two hours, Melville next two hours, and I end the day again, and so it goes.
Our meals necessarily have a sameness. Canned meats, salt beef, salt pork, and bear meat have the same taste at one tune as another. Each day has its bill of fare, but after varying it every day for a week we have, of course, to commence over again. Consequently we have it by heart, and know what we are going to eat before we sit down at table. Sometimes the steward startles us with a potato salad (potatoes now rotting too fast for our consumption), or a seal’s liver, or a bear’s tongue ; but we generally are not disturbed in that way. Our bill of fare is ample and good; our water is absolutely pure, and our fresh bread is something marvelous. Though disappointed day after day we are cheerful and healthy, and — here we are.
Everything looks unsettled about the weather today. We have some squalls, a little rain, a little snow, a little mist, plenty of water-sky, and, alas, plenty of ice. The temperature ranges between 33° and 30°.