Little America: Town at the End of the World

Carter’s is a fairly well-written although wholly derivative account of the various bases known as Little America, including a solid chapter on the first winterover experience.

p. 91: “Even a book lying against a cold wall steamed like a teakettle when opened in a slightly warmer atmosphere.”

p. 94-99, Antarctic University was started on May 6, 1929, with lectures in geology, aerial surveying, radio operation etc, instigated by Larry Gould. [Gould was a professor of Geography at Michigan, and followed his same course outline on the ice]: Nearly everyone attended at first, and six weeks later some twenty of them were still clinging to the course and maintaining their interest. “It is rather pleasant,” Gould would write on June 11, with an implicit back-of-the-hand swipe at the rah-rah Big Ten students back home, to be “teaching people who are entirely sincere in their attitude.”

p. 95-96: At nine o’clock all these games were supposed to cease, and at ten Professor Gould called “Lights out.” Men were permitted to read in their bunks, however, using candles allotted for that purpose. Some saved and re-used their tallow in glass jars or tin cans.

p. 97-99: No attempt was made to organize religious services. With individual members of the expedition professing Catholicism, Lutheranism, Greek Orthodoxy, Judaism, or nothing in particular, it would have been difficult to find common ground. “But there was a great deal of interest in reading the Bible,” Gould remembers, “from men of whom one would least have expected it.” Reading, of all kinds, was in fact one of the expedition’s most effective weapons against the monotony, the crowding, and the oppressive cold. The dour machinist Victor Czegka, for example, who at the age of 49 was still able to lift 650 pounds off the floor, could certainly have held his own in an argument; instead, “when he was mad at everybody, he used to climb up in his bunk and read Dickens.”

Gould had picked the books for the expedition’s library, within the limitation that most of them came as donations; “I don’t think we ever catalogued them.” Owen arranged them along the north and west walls in the administration building. On the top shelf on both sides sat the classic Everyman editions; then two shelves of novels, ranging from The Vicarof Wakefield to Zane Grey; then on the north side, an extensive selection of the great polar literature such as Nansen’s Farthest North, Shackleton’s South, Sir Douglas Mawson’s Home of the Blizzard, Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World; below these, a row of detective stories, and at the bottom Dr. Eliot’s Five-Foot Shelf. Under the window on the west wall stood the Encyclopedia Britannica, a few books of poetry, and uniform sets of Dickens and Kipling. A round iron stove, comfortable chairs, and adequate lighting attracted the Little Americans, many of whom now sported both luxuriant beards and shaven heads, to the library corner. “At night,” Owen wrote, “one sees a group of youthful-faced but bald men, each holding a book with one hand and meditatively rubbing his cranium with the other like venerable members of a sedate club.”

Altogether absent from that library, so far as Professor Gould can recall, were the writers we usually think of as “typical” of the 1920s such as Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Popular novelists now forgotten, Joseph C. Lincoln and Donn Byrne, were more widely read than any other authors, closely followed by Mark Twain. The classics also had their devotees; “books from the Everyman’s Library are scattered on every bunk.” Larry Gould that winter got through the entire Forsyte Saga (as far as author John Galsworthy had then carried it) and Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe. Richard Byrd absorbed floods of philosophy, well-leavened by murder mysteries. The single book in greatest demand was W. H. Hudson’s Green Mansions, possibly because of the extreme contrast between its tropical setting and the Ross Ice Shelf—although people also read extensively in the accounts of earlier polar expeditions. Conrad was read a great deal; Kipling hardly at all.

Reading is of course not everybody’s dish of tea. Chris Braathen’s model of the City of New York “kept him so busy he didn’t open a book.” Airplane pilot Alton Parker ambitiously set out to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, starting with Volume I, letter A; he got as far as “ammonium tetrachloride” and threw the tome down in disgust: “The stuff in that damn book is no good for an aviator.” On the other hand, men who had never before cracked a book learned a new and rewarding pleasure; ice cream maker and dog driver Jim Feury, with no more than a grade-school education, opened a personal door into the world of reading by way of O Henry’s short stories.

p. 99: [Pete] Demas…volunteered for the job of night watchman, which up until that time has been rotated alphabetically. The watchman had each half hour to observe the aurora, and frequently check the direction and velocity of the wind; twice each night he had to make the rounds…. But the rest of the time his post was in the library, and there, fortified by hot coffee in a thermos jug, Demas could study his scientific and technical books or enjoy the classical philosophers and tragedians. [Gould gave Demas a birthday present of Michael Pupin’s From Immigrant to Inventor.]

p. 101: The Scott and Shackleton expeditions, of course, had also had books; copies of The Secret of the Island, by Jules Verne, and Tales of Mystery and Imagination, by Edgar Allan Poe, left behind by members of Scott’s last expedition in 1912, were destined to be found—in reasonably good condition, although they had been out in the open for almost fifty years!—by the American geologist and explorer Robert L. Nichols in 1959, and in due course the National Science Foundation would return them to their surprised and grateful original owners. But Scott and Shackleton had not had radio….

p. 105, with the return of the sun: Professor Gould wrote on August 9, “the camp seems to bestir itself more each day. . . . “There is an increasingly genial attitude of the various men toward each other. The hardest part of the night is gone.” Times reporter Russell Owen, who during the long darkness had known periods of depression and disorientation when he had “felt as though I had tossed my stories into the air when I handed them to the operator, that they went forever drifting,” similarly perked up. “For us, the winter is essentially over,” Gould wrote on August 21, the day before sunrise, “and it has been a great time.”

p. 106: And now that it was over, what the Little Americans remembered from the dark season, Gould believed, were the many quiet hours of reading and the many friendly acquaintances they would always cherish, rather than the momentary frictions that would pass with the melting solar ways.

p. 107: Far out on the Bay of Whales, rising from open water, a screen of frost reminded news reporter Russell Owen of the mysterious curtain through which the hero of Edgar Allan Poe’s strange Narrative of A.Gordon Pym had vanished into the unknown south. “And here I was on the other side of that curtain, the side Poe did not care, with all his imagination, to pierce. It was as fanciful as anything he had ever dreamed.”

p. 179-201: Chapter 7, “To Walden Pond with Gasoline Engines,” is an excellent retelling of Byrd’s perilous period of isolation for five months at Bolling Advance Weather Station, an experience from which he never fully recovered his heath.

Rear dust jacket has photo of Byrd in the Little America library. Also found on p. 122.