A Yearning for the High Seas

Reviewed by Steven V. Roberts
Sunday, November 9, 2008


The Heroic Adventures of Elisha Kent Kane

By Ken McGoogan

Counterpoint. 381 pp. $28

As an explorer, Elisha Kent Kane displayed great courage, spending three winters in the Arctic and leading an ill-fated expedition to safety over 1,300 miles of treacherous terrain. Yet as a lover, he was a cad, allowing his domineering family to repress his romance with a celebrated spiritualist and deprive the woman of her inheritance.

These two themes thread through this compelling biography by Canadian historian Ken McGoogan. Kane is nearly forgotten today, but when he returned home in 1855, the New York Daily Times devoted its entire front page to the story. McGoogan draws heavily on Kane's journals, and they read turgidly at times, but his word pictures can also glisten like sun on fresh snow. Take Kane's description of Greenland's Humboldt Glacier (which he discovered and named): "Here was a plastic, moving, semi-solid mass, obliterating life, swallowing rocks and islands, and ploughing its way with irresistible march through the crust of an investing sea."

Kane was the first-born son of a "striving" and snobbish Philadelphia family who trained as a physician and lit out for distant territories, exploring volcanoes in the Philippines and battling marauders in Mexico. "Elisha cannot live without adventure," his mother wrote, and that spirit led him to sign on as a surgeon with a polar expedition in 1850. They were searching for two targets: a lost explorer, Sir John Franklin, and a "polar sea," a warm-water El Dorado spawned by fantasy, not fact. Kane didn't find either one, but he did discover a calling, and in 1853 he mounted his own Arctic mission as commander of "the sturdy brigantine Advance."

Between those journeys he had fallen hard for Maggie Fox, a 19-year-old "spirit rapper." (Maggie and her sister purported to convey messages from the dead through a series of popping noises, which they actually made by snapping their double-jointed toes.) The scientist was bewitched by the charlatan, by her "strange mixture of child and woman, of simplicity and cunning." But his passion was at war with his position, and position won. As he was leaving, he salted Maggie away in a remote village to be trained in a gentlewoman's arts and transformed into a respectable bride. "When you are thus changed, Maggie," he wrote imperiously, "I shall be proud to make you my wife." Thanks a heap, pal.

Kane proved to be a gifted captain, calculating the currents in Baffin Bay and harnessing the Advance "to a monster iceberg and treating it like a draft horse." That maneuver enabled him to discover the Kennedy Channel, a route used by later explorers to approach the North Pole. But then winter ice sealed his ship in place. The best parts of the book are descriptions of this frozen, fearful world. During 140 days of darkness, sailors "could not see to count their fingers," and one wrote of feeling "suffocated by the oppressive gloom, the horrid silence, the changeless appearance of surrounding objects."

The 15-member crew survived only by adopting the ways of Inuit natives, who passed on such priceless wisdom as how to shield your nose from frostbite by clenching a foxtail in your teeth. "We are now more than half Esquimaux," Kane wrote. But after they escaped their crystal prison and returned to civilization, Kane reverted to his all-patrician identity. He couldn't give Maggie up but wouldn't take her out, either. He concocted a private "wedding" witnessed by her family but lacking legal standing. In failing health, he altered his will, leaving his brother $5,000 secretly intended for her. Kane died four months later, but his brother withheld the bequest, pressuring Maggie to turn over her lover's letters and preserve the family's honor. She resisted, keeping the letters and later publishing them. So she never got her inheritance, died penniless and is buried in an unmarked grave.

Kane deserves recognition for his explorations. But the daring and decency he showed his shipmates in the Arctic deserted him in dealing with his lover in America. McGoogan insists that Kane "deserves absolution" because he meant to provide for Maggie. The evidence in this book compels me to a different conclusion: Yes, Kane's brother failed him, but only after Kane himself let Maggie down by caring more about his family's reputation than her welfare. There is no statue to Elisha Kent Kane. If there were, it would be stained by this betrayal. ยท

Steven V. Roberts, who teaches at George Washington University, is completing a book about immigrants.

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