Author Hampton Sides' latest book In the Kingdom of Ice is our spotlight pick for the Best Books of August. Set against the Gilded Age, and following a crew bound for parts unknown, this is a nonfiction account that captures a time and place like few books in recent memory. We caught up with Sides to talk to him about his book... and he shared with us some research materials as well.
Chris Schluep: When did you first learn about the story of the USS Jeannette?
Hampton Sides: It was in Oslo, Norway, while I was on an assignment for National Geographic about the polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who had been engrossed by an earlier U.S. expedition from the 1880s—the Arctic voyage of the USS Jeannette. Even though the Jeannette was a thoroughly American saga, I had never heard of the expedition before. When I dug into the primary literature, I found it to be one of the grittiest, most harrowing stories of adventure and discovery that I’d ever encountered, chock-full of amazing characters. The Jeannette saga was extremely important and universally well-known in its day, but no one I knew had ever heard of it. That’s when I knew there was a book here.
CS: Describe your research. Was there a key piece that made you think "now I know how to frame this book"?
HS: In the early going of my research, I lucked into one of those priceless situations that I think all of us historians dream about: An invitation from a little old lady to come sift through a trunk full of yellowed letters that she had literally rescued from her attic. In this case, the trunk contained the personal papers of Emma De Long, the wife of the Jeannette expedition’s captain, George De Long. Once I read the stuff, I knew that I’d found a powerful new way to frame the book: It was not just an adventure tale, but a love story as well. Emma De Long’s letters to her husband, and his letters to her, are elegant, eloquent, and moving, and as the drama unfolds, they become truly heart-wrenching. Really, that trunk full of papers formed the emotional spine of the book.
CS: How long did it take to complete the book? What were the challenges?
HS: I spent three years on this story. For me, the biggest and most rewarding challenge was physically retracing parts of the voyage. I wanted to follow in the path of the Jeannette—to experience something of what that epic journey was like—so I went to Russian High Arctic and the central coast of Siberia where the men of the Jeannette made landfall. This is some of the most severe and inaccessible terrain on earth, but also hauntingly beautiful. The end of the Cold War and the thinning of the ice brought about by climate change had made it possible to reach many of the places the Jeannette had voyaged, places that had effectively been off-limits for more than a century. My real goal was to find the mountain deep in Siberia’s Lena Delta where the Jeannette survivors buried their comrades. It took me forever, but I finally found the site: Even to this day, it’s called American Mountain.
CS: An unusual combination of public and private resources went into driving this expedition. Can you talk a little about the conditions that led to the voyage?
HS: The Jeannette was a U.S. navy ship, sailing under naval rules and commanded by naval officers, but the expedition was underwritten by James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the millionaire playboy publisher of the New York Herald. Such a relationship would never happen today, but back then the still-nascent U.S. Navy was anemic and cash-starved. Bennett, who had sent Stanley to find Livingstone in Africa, was looking for another sensational story for his newspaper, so he bankrolled this expedition to reach the North Pole. This hybrid arrangement says a lot about the Gilded Age—about the power of the press in that era, and the stupendous amount of money and influence that could be wielded by a single man. Bennett—a duelist, a sports enthusiast, a womanizer and a famously reckless yachtsman—was an outlandish human being with an iron will, and he had a wallet fat enough to make this all happen.
CS: Do you have a favorite character in the book?
HS: This is mainly the story of 33 explorers living under duress on the ice—and I grew fond of nearly every one of these men, especially the commander, George De Long. But I’m really taken, too, with some of the background characters we meet off the ice. My favorite is Dr. August Petermann, a German eminence who was the world’s preeminent cartographer at the time of the Jeannette voyage. Petermann believed that a warm water basin covered the dome of the planet. He said that all the Jeannette had to do was bust through the ring of Arctic ice and enjoy smooth sailing to the north pole. There wasn’t a shred of evidence for his theory, but no matter: Petermann was eloquent and forceful, and his beautiful maps showed an “Open Polar Sea” that was impossible to dislodge from the public imagination. I went to Petermann’s hometown of Gotha, Germany, and found him to be a fascinatingly gothic character—romantic, eccentric, grandiose, deeply flawed, and ultimately tragic.
CS: Did your work on the book lead you to draw any conclusions about climate change?
HS: Yes. One of the big problems that climate change researchers have grappled with is finding a way to know what the polar ice cap truly looked like a century ago in order to compare it with today's Arctic ice conditions. To understand that, you'd have to go back in history, build a research station, and dangerously trap it in the drifting icepack for years.
As it happens, the Jeannette kept meticulous records of the ice as it drifted two years, and a thousand miles, across the frozen sea. After the ship sank, De Long's men lugged dozens of heavy meteorological logbooks containing troves of information about the icecap and Arctic weather—the hard-won product of their daily labors for two years. When they reached Siberia's shores four months later, De Long buried those logbooks in the sand, and miraculously, they were later found by Navy rescuers, eventually ending up in the National Archives in Washington, where they've gathered dust for 135 years. Over the past year, however, NOAA scientists have digitized those logbooks, and have been analyzing De Long's data. The story they tell is a sobering one: The polar ice cap, at least in that 1,000-mile swath of the High Arctic, has shrunk, weakened, and thinned far more dramatically than anyone realized.
CS: There’s no question that these men endured extreme tests of survival. In your opinion, does this sort of heroism exist today?
HS: Of course we see amazing examples of heroism all the time. The difference, I think, is that people today—Americans especially—are less willing to put themselves in situations that are virtually guaranteed to produce extreme hardship and death. What floors me is that thousands of people applied to be on the Jeannette, even though everyone knew the ship would become locked in ice and that destruction would probably ensue. Arctic exploration, up until that point, had been one long tale of nearly limitless suffering, yet Americans signed up in droves. It says a lot about how tough and stoic—and yes, heroic— people were in that era. It also says something about the powerful allure of the High North and the essential riddle of the pole. It was a nagging, gnawing obsession: People had to know what was up there.