|"I wanted Dr.
Cook to win—who would want Peary to win? He
was so unlikable."
Bryce, New York Times, 1997
|The pretentious subtitle "Polar Controversy: Resolved", and mass of this volume hold great promise,
but it doesn’t deliver. A better subtitle might be "Cook's long-dismissed
claims ground to dust, with some gratuitous jabs at Peary."
essentially a biography of Cook that plays up positive aspects of his
career, but concludes that his exploring "achievements," Mt. McKinley and
the North Pole, were complete hoaxes. Add in Cook's federal mail fraud
conviction for selling phony oil investments, and one wonders how a rational
person could share Bryce's sympathies, reflected in a 1997 New York Times
review: "'I wanted Dr. Cook to win,' he [Bryce] said. 'Who would want Peary
to win? He was so unlikable.'"
True to these statements, Peary is the enemy in this book. Bryce repeats and
amplifies personal attacks on Peary from Cook's 1911 book: Peary fathered
Eskimo children, stole Cook's furs and ivory, bribed people to testify
against Cook, etc.
These character attacks had been written long before this book. Ultimately,
Peary did not suborn perjury from Barrill (Cook's McKinley climbing
partner), but at worst paid extortion to get his admission of the truth.
Peary didn't pressure Cook's Eskimo companions to lie, but got an
essentially accurate account from them. Considering how many years and how
much suffering Peary invested in trying to reach the North Pole it is
understandable that when his experience told him that Cook's claim was
bogus, he went on the attack.
Bryce offers precious little critical analysis of Peary’s claim in this
massive tome -- 5 pages or so, by my count. Essentially, Bryce tells us that
Peary's claim has been discredited, and that is that. He has not produced,
and no prior critic has discovered, a single piece of evidence showing that
Peary faked his claim. Bryce and other critics merely find Peary's own
narrative unbelievable, and deplore the lack of "proof."
It is a bit odd that Bryce is so concerned about lack of positive proof (if
there could be such a thing) to support Peary's claim, but so willing to
give Cook the benefit of every doubt.
A comparison of Peary's North Pole claim to Cook's will serve to illustrate
the discrepancy. Cook reported the existence of two landmasses and a "sunken
glacial island" along his route to the pole. They do not exist. By contrast,
everything that Peary reported about his trip (lack of land, depth
soundings) is true. Peary is criticized for taking only a Black man and
Eskimos to the pole. But these witnesses consistently and repeatedly over
many years confirmed the essential facts of the trip. On the other hand,
Cook's only witnesses directly contradicted his account of his trip, first
in 1909 when questioned by members of Peary's expedition and on numerous
occasions thereafter. In these circumstances it is odd that Bryce devotes
hundreds of pages to Cook’s bogus claim, but dismisses Peary’s out of hand.
The author claims to find direct evidence against Peary such as a photo in
which the sun is at exactly the proper altitude to place Peary at the Pole.
Bryce's conclusion: this is proof of fraud. Peary, he claims, set up this
shot as phony supporting evidence, but never published it, since it would
not constitute absolute proof. By this dubious rationalization, Bryce
attempts to transform evidence that supports Peary into evidence against
Bryce also claims that a certain photo Peary published has been tampered
with, and would convict Peary. This is outrageously sloppy scholarship. The
document Bryce refers to states that the negative of the photo in question
is at the National Geographic Society, and that an un-retouched print of the
photo appears in the U.K. edition of Peary's book. The negative and print
utterly demolish Bryce's claim that the sun had been cropped out of the
photo. It is inexcusable that Bryce did not check out these sources.
Bryce also exhumes the argument that Peary's diary is a fake because it is
too clean. The Congressional subcommittee examining Peary's evidence in 1910
commented on the cleanliness of the diary. Peary explained the care with
which he protected the diary from the elements and satisfied the
questioners. It is worth noting that Captain Scott's final diary, recovered
in Antarctica where he died of starvation is similarly a very clean book. In
fact, Peary critic Dennis Rawlins himself has described it as immaculate.
The filthy condition of some polar diaries reflects the use of blubber for
fuel and food. Peary used alcohol and pemmican. Bryce does not mention any
Ultimately, the "evidence" against Peary comes down to questions of speed
and navigation. At least a dozen experienced arctic dogsledders, ranging
from contemporaries of Peary to the present, have published their views of
Peary's claimed distances. The vast majority, excluding Wally Herbert, who
himself claims Polar priority among dogsledders based on his 1968 trip, have
stated that Peary's speeds were credible. Responding to one of the early
critical works by British cleric Gordon Hayes, Peter Freuchen, an
experienced Arctic dogsledder who maintained a trading post in Greenland for
many years, said he found it funny that anyone cared what Hayes thought
about Peary's dog sledding distances. I suspect he would find it funny that
anyone would care what Bryce thinks about this subject.
The other major argument against Peary (a trained surveyor) is that his
method of navigation was inadequate. Surveyors at the Coast and Geodetic
Survey discussed Peary's navigation with him, and concluded his methods were
adequate. At least two modern authors have come to the same conclusion.
Bryce makes no attempt to address these views, other than to fall back on
Cook's old stratagem: everyone who disagrees with him is biased and/or on
the payroll of the "Peary Arctic Trust."
Whatever the merits of the arguments regarding distances and navigation,
Bryce should have given his readers the benefit of these competing views
before presenting his own conclusion. Cook & Peary is a job half done.
Douglas R. Davies