Like Twitter But Cold: On the Literary Culture of Arctic Expeditions
Can You Can Imagine Taking a Printing Press to the North Pole?
Printing presses were originally brought to the Arctic to assist in the broad dispersal of messages in the decades-long search for the sizable missing British Northwest Passage expedition commanded by Sir John Franklin, which launched in 1845 with 129 men on two ships, Erebus and Terror. Once tabletop printing presses were aboard ship, and after winter storms made fire balloon messaging and the other official uses of the devices impractical, expedition members sought to pass the dark winter hours by adapting the technology to literary and theatrical ends. The presses produced broadsides and playbills for shipboard theatricals, copies of songs and occasional poems composed by mission members, and the community newspapers. Sailors even carved their own large-font type and emblems from the ship’s store of spare lumber stocked for repairs, although wood is at a premium in regions north of the timberline.
A number of Arctic expeditionary newspapers were published in the second half of the 19th century, including the following Anglophone papers: the Flight of the Plover, or the North Pole Charivari (1848); the Illustrated Arctic News (1850-51) and the Aurora Borealis (1850-51), companion papers by sister ships engaged in the search for Franklin; the Gleaner and Minavilins (1850-51), underground papers suppressed by ship commanders; the Weekly Guy (1852-53); the Queen’s Illuminated Magazine (1852-54); the Polar Almanac (1854); the Ice-Blink (1853-55); the Port Foulke Weekly News (1860-61); the Discovery News (1875-76); the Arctic Moon (1882-83); the Midnight Sun (1901); and the Arctic Eagle (1903-4). Including papers by non-Anglophone crews on other European expeditions, such as the German Ostgrönländische Zeitung (1869-70) and the Norwegian Framsjaa (1893-96), there were at least 17 Arctic newspapers between 1848 and 1904, and several others that were conceived of and not carried through (such as the Polar Pirate, 1904). More than half of the British and American commanders of Arctic expeditions in the nineteenth century were involved at some point with a shipboard newspaper.
The existence of literary culture aboard ships and among sailors is not in and of itself unusual over the course of the 19th century. Many long-voyaging ships were provided with libraries; sailors read histories, novels, and periodicals, intensively reading (and sharing among themselves) the stock of reading material at hand. And polar voyages, which could plan on enforced periods of relative inactivity during the winter, had larger libraries than many ships. Franklin’s Erebus and Terror for example, had three thousand volumes between them. The catalogue for the Assistance (engaged in a Franklin search), which was printed aboard ship in 1853, lists novels by Jane Austen, James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, and Walter Scott (plus Scott’s Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft) among scores of volumes of polar history, voyages, and navigational science.
Some sailors kept personal journals, while officers contributed to shipboard textual production in the form of logbooks, ship accounts, progress diaries, and—on more official, grander expeditions—narratives of their voyages and discoveries, which often became strong sellers. This was enabled in part by the unusual rates of literacy among seamen, estimated at 75 to 90 percent by the mid-19th century; on polar expeditions, which were more high profile and often more selective, the figures were likely higher. As a laboring class their literacy was encouraged by onboard schools on naval ships (focused on mathematics and navigation as well as letters, all necessary for nautical advancement) and a maritime culture in which leisure time was often spent in storytelling or in theatricals, a particular mainstay of British naval practice adopted at times aboard US ships.
The second number of the Illustrated Arctic News was pleased to report on the newly created seaman’s school in “Summary of the Month’s Proceedings”: “Well done!—Education, & improvement are twins. Encourage & foster the one, the other must follow. The Schoolmaster is indeed afloat.” During the American Lady Franklin Bay Expedition of 1881-84, Commander Adolphus Greely established a “tri-weekly” school at which “arithmetic, grammar, geography, and meteorology were taught.
For a time Dr. Pavy instructed two men in French. The educational qualifications of the men were very good, and there was but one of the party on its original formation who was unable to write, and he acquired that attainment during our stay.” These proportions were typical of polar expeditions. When not engaged in reading or navigational exercises, the leisure hours of polar expeditionary crews were also occupied with dancing (for exercise, by design) and theatrical productions, all of which were long-standing traditions of naval recreation and diversion.
Only on polar expeditions did publishing shipboard newspapers become a frequent activity, even an expectation; newspapers are otherwise rare among seamen’s leisure customs. The first North American Arctic newspaper was not printed but circulated in manuscript, and was in several ways anomalous: it was an experiment not repeated on polar missions for decades, for one. What is more, the paper produced conflict instead of cooperative vision. In the manuscript North Georgia Gazette, and Winter Chronicle (1819-20) of William Edward Parry’s first Arctic expedition, the question of community was quite explicitly debated within the paper itself, as contributors arranged themselves rhetorically against the NCS or “Non-Contributors” to the paper.
Aboard the Hecla and the Griper, Parry’s ships, this literary economy was defined by the officer corps, by and for whom the paper was created. The North Georgia Gazette, and Winter Chronicle was later printed in London a year after the expedition’s return, in response to “the interest which the Public took in all that had passed during the voyage.” But the details of the Arctic context in which the expedition’s officers (who constituted the paper’s stringers) understood their impish attacks on journalistic noncontribution had no resonance when re-played back within national borders. Articles that suggested the mission’s collectivity was fragile or threatened, even if humorous, were in fact suppressed upon the voyage’s return to Britain. The economies of literary circulation—of the barely public sphere of the polar mission—were in flux in this first Arctic paper; their terms would continue to change in subsequent expeditionary newspapers.
Decades after this first manuscript experiment, polar newspapers were resurgent. They shared a number of qualities in common. Their content was light and farcical, in large part, and offered satiric commentary on polar environmental conditions. Arctic and Antarctic newspapers were produced during the several months of polar darkness in which expeditions wintered over, their ships bound by ice and their crews relatively stilled—and, as David H. Stam and Deirdre C. Stam have argued, looking for ways to mark the time. The process of marking time by expedition members was, in turn, stamped by polar conditions.
In the Arctic and Antarctica, extreme printing became more than a novelty or a curiosity: expedition members used the ephemeral periodical form of the newspaper as a counterpoint to (and a satiric commentary on) the temporal and ecological distortions and extremities of the polar regions. The nearly simultaneous and necessarily limited production and consumption of these texts by polar voyagers represents an unusual print circuit—intensified but not exceptional—that emerges from the intersection of the ecological, geographic, scientific, and nationalist aims of expeditions; the manual labor performed by polar voyagers; and developing technologies of print and literary culture.Polar newspapers were light and farcical, in large part, and offered satiric commentary on polar environmental conditions.
Understood as passenger entertainment and edification, shipboard newspapers in and of themselves are not unheard of when created by nonlaboring travelers, as Jason R. Rudy has demonstrated compellingly in the context of 19th-century British long-voyaging passenger ships to Australia and other settler colonies. Immigrants to the British colonies had high literacy rates and commonly produced newspapers during their lengthy passages, originally in manuscript form, and later on printing presses; passengers could subscribe to the paper in order to ensure a souvenir copy at the end of the voyage.
During an 1891 voyage undertaken by the British passenger liner City of Paris, for example, a gazette was “printed on board” by the travelers; its object was to provide “interesting reading during spare moments.” The headnote to the “Miniature Newspaper” concludes that if the publication “serves as a souvenir of the voyage to friends at home it will accomplish the object for which it is intended.” A substantial portion of the content of such papers was poetry, Rudy has found, in the forms of both parodic rewriting of popular contemporary poetry and original verse, often nostalgic in tone.
My research in a range of maritime collections finds that passenger papers were somewhat less of a tradition in the North American context. The Kemble Maritime Ephemera Collection at the Huntington Library, for instance, holds records for over 925 shipping companies, mostly passenger cruise ships operating between 1855 and 1990. Only 36 shipboard newspapers appear in the 24,000 records in the collection. Of these 36, the majority consist of wire telegraphy news, supplemented by ship-specific menus and social calendars. In North American ship papers there are relatively fewer poems written by passengers in the manner described by Rudy, in which British emigrants used the national poetic form to reimagine themselves as colonial subjects.
We are given a glimpse of this process (in a return to the imperial homeland) in the Austral Chronicle, a biweekly journal published aboard a large passenger ship traveling from Sydney to London in 1886. The paper’s prospectus observes, “No town in any English-speaking community, inhabited by like numbers to those now afloat in the ‘Austral,’ would or could exist and hold together without its newspaper. Then why should the population of the ‘Austral’ not have its newspaper?” The editors of the Austral Chronicle seem to be classic Andersonian subjects, imagining national communities afloat. Yet passenger liner newspapers (as well as polar periodicals, as we will see) were imagined communities with a crucial difference: their ad-dressed constituency was not imaginary but fully and wholly present. The Cunard Cruise News, for example, described itself as “the only newspaper issued the world over that has a circulation of one hundred per cent in its community.” The function that papers serve in establishing community is oriented less to an abstract notion of the nation and more toward a motile, ephemeral, and yet entirely at hand collectivity.
From THE NEWS AT THE ENDS OF THE EARTH: THE PRINT CULTURE OF POLAR EXPLORATION. Used with the permission of the publisher, DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Copyright © 2019 by HESTER BLUM.