Adriana Craciun, Writing Arctic Disaster: Authorship and Exploration

Adriana Craciun, Writing Arctic Disaster: Authorship and Exploration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2016) 326 pp. $40.00 PDF, £31.99 Pb, £96.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781107125544

Adriana Craciun’s Writing Arctic Disaster: Authorship and Exploration is essentially a study on dynamic narratives of discovery and mythmaking. As such, one of its central goals is to examine 'how changing codes of authorship, publication, and the materiality of writings transformed British Arctic voyaging and its histories' (5). As Craciun notes, historical accounts of Arctic exploration tend to focus on 'linear progress' (18) wherein author-explorers (82) begin by retracing previous expeditions and then proceed to chart new territory, with each new expedition building progressively on the last. Consequently, although each travel narrative purports to break new ground, when viewed as a serial collection, these histories exhibit a 'recursive' (19) property that traps Arctic exploration narratives in a flat, meta-narrative cycle that obscures the complex, 'actively layered' (21), dynamic geographical, political, and social dimensions of the Arctic. In short, an overemphasis by contemporary scholars on historical Arctic discovery narratives obscures the diverse and frequently inconsistent understandings of the Arctic by Britons as they shifted throughout the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries (13). Craciun’s focus on 'exploration cultures' (22) as opposed to mere voyage narratives paints a vivid, multi-disciplinary, and refreshingly nuanced portrait of the Arctic as more than simply an empty landscape, offering a fresh and much-needed counter to contemporary scholarship that often reduces the region to 'blank' space (8).

Resisting the linear causal narratives that characterized many historical expedition accounts, Craciun instead inverts it to structure the chapters in Writing Arctic Disaster. Beginning with the 1818 Franklin expedition/disaster that led to a resurgence of interest in Arctic exploration, Craciun works backwards throughout her study, employing a 'recursive schema' that allows for the 'visualization and historicization of distinct disciplinary trajectories, normally examined as part of asynchronous accounts' (21). This schema effectively allows Craciun to interweave diverse and seemingly unconnected narratives and counter-narratives into a constellation of stories and artifacts that combined to form a de-familiarized British genealogy of Arctic disaster. The effectiveness of this approach is especially apparent in the first chapter, which outlines the afterlives of British disaster relics. Here, Craciun highlights the central question that Victorians addressed as they began to collect relics from the Franklin disaster: '[how] should these relics be collected, exhibited, and understood?' (35) Of course many initial spectators viewed the relics as sacred exhibitions of military and scientific ingenuity and sacrifice, but this changed as accounts from Inuit peoples of survivor cannibalism among Franklin’s men began to circulate. When skeletal remains of what were believed to be Franklin’s men were discovered, the British experienced a kind of collective cognitive dissonance as they struggled to reconcile heroic explorer narratives with the horrors of cannibalism. Additionally, many relics of the Franklin disaster were discovered and repurposed by the Inuit. When some of these relics were returned to England, they did not fit easily into a single classification schema, further complicating British interpretations of their cultural status. By highlighting the ambiguous, emotionally fraught, and multicultural dimensions of disaster relics, Craciun brilliantly exposes the unstable social grounding of progressive expedition narratives, which appear increasingly thin in light of the fact that disaster relics often raised more questions than they answered.

Although Craciun consults numerous historical disaster narratives and is attentive to the intersections between Arctic exploration accounts, literary genres, and publication networks (particularly in Chapter Two), the point of Writing Arctic Disaster, its central thesis, is that written accounts, and specifically published books, when taken by themselves, are inadequate representations of historical understandings of the Arctic. Craciun illustrates this in Chapter Four partly through an emphasis on the practice of corporate voyagers inscribing their names on rocks to mark their presence in the Arctic and leave a record, however crude, of their isolated existence in that hostile land. However, the most concentrated form Craciun’s thesis takes occurs at the end of Chapter Two where she argues that 'the printed book was not the origin and end of Arctic exploration, but the norms of authorship, production, distribution, and readership governing nineteenth-century book history as if it were' (123). Craciun’s attentiveness to the role that indigenous contributions played in shaping British views of the Arctic do much to support this claim, and her discussion of the extensive relations between First Nations peoples and employees of the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) in Chapter Three are among the most richly interdisciplinary and historically illuminating in her study. Although Writing Arctic Disaster is focused largely on British perceptions of the Arctic, Craciun’s focus on the hybrid narratives that necessarily arose from inter-cultural dialogue (between James Isham and the Cree, for example, in Chapter Three) highlight the indispensable role that indigenous peoples played not only in influencing Arctic narratives, but in shaping the explorers themselves. Their indelible impression could perhaps have been more clearly and prominently featured in Writing Arctic Disaster’s introduction, as it seems that indigenous peoples were seen by a number explorers/voyagers as an oasis in the seemingly frozen Arctic desert, where their assistance could mean the difference between life and death.

Craciun’s emphasis on Arctic exploration cultures is a welcome addition to contemporary, multidisciplinary scholarship on British Arctic exploration, which, as Craciun notes, is both rich and wide-ranging, encompassing archival periodical studies, theatrical events, popular novels, and – increasingly – indigenous perspectives as well. Despite its somewhat thick theoretical approach, at its core, Writing Arctic Disaster’s primary messages are unpretentious and clear: historical perceptions of the Arctic are mutable and multifaceted, and so historical research should draw on multiple sources and be wary of master-narratives – a fine starting point for a study that admirably seeks to lend depth to Arctic spaces that have too long been characterized as barren and empty.

Stephanie L Schatz, Purdue University