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TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic September 13, 2013 - 7:55 am

Taissumani, Sept. 13

The Polar Exploitation Club

KENN HARPER
An illustration of a 1909 postcard published by Jules Deutsch Co. showing the two rival claimants to the North Pole, Peary and Cook. (IMAGE COURTESY OF K. HARPER)
An illustration of a 1909 postcard published by Jules Deutsch Co. showing the two rival claimants to the North Pole, Peary and Cook. (IMAGE COURTESY OF K. HARPER)

In September 1909, the American press was full of articles and commentary on which explorer — Robert Peary or Frederick Cook — had been the first to reach the North Pole. Most coverage of the issue was serious, with each side having its supporters, and considerable debate ensuing in the press.

But one magazine, Life, published a humorous letter to the editor claiming that Cook had done the polar exploration fraternity a disservice by actually claiming the pole, and putting an end to the never-ending quest.

Here is the letter:

“Honored Sir,

“I have satisfactory proof that Dr. Cook left the United States with the deliberate intention of going to the North Pole. Those who are ignorant of the gentlemen’s agreement, regarding the poles, may not see anything wrong in this. As a member of several organizations interested in Polar exploitation I wish herewith to denounce the Brooklyn physician for discovering the North Pole at this time.

“For the last twenty-five years there has been in force a tacit understanding among us, which, to the everlasting glory of science and civilization, has never before been violated. Among other necessary stipulations we have bound ourselves not to question each other’s stories and, above all else, not to reach either pole until the year 1912. Men like Nansen, Sverdrup, Fiala, D’Abruzzi, etc., have been within easy striking distance of the goal, but invariably have resisted temptation and contented themselves with beating the last man’s record or taking observations, naming a cape or two and writing magnificent stories of privation and hardship.

“Commander Peary showed himself to be the noblest of them all, as year after year he froze his ship comfortably into the ice, played pinochle, hunted and wrote books and magazine stories until the relief ship arrived. With Peary in the north we were sure the pole was as safe as if under lock and key. Let me assure you that the temptation to an able-bodied, ambitious man like Peary, with nothing to do but eat and amuse himself, was stupendous. Yet none of us doubts that this season he would have restrained himself as before, had not the wretched news come to him of Dr. Cook’s deliberate, inexcusable rape of the North Pole. Of course this left the Commander free to march right up to the spot as, indeed, he immediately did. Nobody blames Peary in the least; but what shall we say of the behaviour of Dr. Cook?

“This one brazen act of his, infinitely worse than his ruination of Mt. McKinley, has disorganized everything. At once there will be a vulgar, unrestricted rush for the South Pole, and next year, doubtless, half a dozen different expeditions will reach it. Then who will take care of the poor Eskimo? Look what he was fifty years ago. Now he shoots with a rifle and smokeless cartridges, enjoys the light of matches and of the Gospel and rejoices in religion, rum and gumdrops. No more thrilling stories, such as have entertained the whole world for centuries; no more well-stocked ships and snug winters frozen in the good old ice. No more books and magazine-wisdom and no more lectures to instruct the people and return handsome profits. Think of poor Wellman, who was caught in a southerly gale and came to earth quickly, lest he be blown across the pole in spite of himself. He has given up the whole business now, and so must we all. Thousands of men and women, widows and innocent children, depend for their living on the non-discovery of the polar antipodes.

“Dr. Cook knows this and cares not. I have no doubt that the American people when acquainted with these facts will disqualify the Brooklyn meddler as they would the winner of a race who has run foul, and that they will give the crown to Robert E. Peary, that soul of honor, who of all men has most successfully dodged the North Pole.”

In a cute play on the name of the Norwegian polar explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, the letter was signed “with deep regrets” by “Capt. Freezoff Nonsens.”

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