As hard as research and writing can be, there is nothing so difficult as judgment. And it's even harder when one of your subjects is looking over your shoulder. "Talking is easy and everyone is wise after the event," wrote Ernest Joyce
in 1930, daring historians and armchair explorers to judge too hastily after he was gone.
Judgment entails moving from the facts of the story to the hows and whys. And since events are set in motion by people, that means assessing characters. Here, the evidence became the most subjective. I attempted to reconcile my own impressions of the actors, from their own words, with the reactions they evoked in others, analyzing, interpreting, mediating, and refereeing the chorus of voices. Sometimes, the conclusions were surprising. The chief scientist of the expedition, Alexander Stevens, left behind very detailed reports, in which he comes across as serious and conscientious. Yet some of his companions resented him, saying that he dragged his heels during the sledging journeys and shirked his work. I puzzled over the conflict, re-reading the documents again and again, until offhand comments began to coalesce. He became extremely fatigued easily, despite appearing slim and fit. He was plagued with abscesses. A routine medical test revealed sugar in his urine (which the doctor dismissed). He went blind later in life. On a hunch, I spoke with a specialist, who believes that there is a high probability that Stevens was diabetic. Suddenly, a man who had been portrayed as a weak character seemed brave beyond words for struggling with an undiagnosed illness for two years while still managing to produce considerable scientific work.
Rattling around in the past is no different than life: you have an instant affinity for some of the people you meet, and others you can't help taking a dislike to. But a historian has to move past that reflexive human response and search for the reasons why people did what they did. "Sympathy is essential to the understanding of motive," as Barbara Tuchman put it, and I couldn't agree more. On the most basic level, I wanted to try and put on their shoes. As I learned, it is a feat to manage ordinary activities at forty below zero, much less hauling sledges weighing over a thousand pounds at seventy below wearing rags. The other dimension is psychological. Without empathy, the characters will be a closed book and the analysis superficial. How else would one make sense of Ernest Joyce, a man at once scheming and ingenuous, self-aggrandizing and selfless, capable of nursing a powerful grudge against a man and then saving his life? A man with shortcomings, who nonetheless was capable of shining humanity.
For me, the most remarkable thing about the Ross Sea party is that they were ordinary men who did the extraordinary. They didn't join the expedition for glory, to go down in the history books. They knew that the job was to support Shackleton and, at best, it would be an adventure. Then, when their ship disappeared in a gale, leaving them with totally inadequate supplies and just the clothes on their backs, they made the decision to carry out their mission, contrary to the very instinct of survival. They laid their own lives on the line because they believed Shackleton's party would perish. They were unquestionably heroes, but they were human, and they summoned the courage to perform a supremely selfless act. Stepping aside from my objective role as historian and speaking personally, I find their integrity tremendously inspiring. It says ordinary people are capable of singular things. You don't have to be a so-called "born leader" with mythical attributes to be a hero.
Which brings me to a brilliant day in 2002, when I drove down the winding hedgerowed lanes and seafront promenade of Bognor Regis on the south coast of England to meet the cousins of Arnold Spencer-Smith, the expedition chaplain. They are talented geneaologists and shared a wealth of family lore and records, as well as delightful conversation. It was the first of my immensely enjoyable visits with Ross Sea party descendents. Over the next few years, I met the children, grandchildren, and cousins of many of the men. Though modest, they are proud of their ancestors' achievements. Some observers have said that the Ross Sea party's sacrifices were for naught, since Shackleton never used the depots that cost so much to build. But the relatives have the quiet assurance that, as the youngest expedition survivor, Richard Richards, put it, "It was something that the human spirit accomplished." And, in my judgment, their accomplishment is best expressed in the epitaph for the lost men that the survivors of the Ross Sea party left behind in Antarctica in 1917:
Things done for gain are nought,
But great things done endure.*
(Thanks for reading my postings this week and following my reminisces about writing The Lost Men, and to Powell's for hosting me ? it was the next best thing to being in Portland!)
*a paraphrase of lines from Swinburne's "Atalanta in Calydon"