Six Came Back: The Arctic Adventure of David L. Brainard.

David Brainard’s diary, kept during the Lady Franklin Bay Arctic Expedition which had started out in 1881, is here edited by Bessie Rowland James. Brainard was a Sergeant at the time but attained the rank of Brigadier-General by the end of his career. A remarkable diary for its clarity, regularity, modesty, and dispassionate approach to whatever happened.

p. 25, Sunday, August 28 [1881]: Work suspended for the day and we assembled in men’s quarters to listen to reading of the Bible. This is the beginning of regular Sunday services. All games for pleasure or money are prohibited on the Sabbath. There is no objection to necessary work or to hunting. It looks as if the day will be spent walking. Arguments are plentiful….

p. 30, Oct. 4: Lieut. Greely has had shelves put in our rooms and is filling them with books and magazines contributed by persons in the civilized part of the world who took an interest in the fortunes of his little party….

p. 36, November 14: The first issue of the Arctic Moon, edited by Lieut. Lockwood, Sergt. Rice and Pvt Henry will appear Thanksgiving….

Sunday, November 20. Divine service at the usual hour; all present. Lieut. Greely is organizing a school. Only one member of our party cannot read or write.

p. 41-2: February 1. [1882] The steady light from the returning sun brightened up the southern horizon at noon and almost dissolved the resplendent beams of the full moon. I was able to read Harper’s Monthly by turning the page towards the south.

p. 97: October 26… A very interesting lecture this evening by Lieut. Greely on tides. Also a reading from Longfellow’s poems….

p. 102: December 5. The monotonous routine of our life is felt more keenly every day, even though our stay in the Arctic is gradually approaching the end. Our time, after the usual hour’s work in the morning, is spent in reading, writing or discussion. Several have applied themselves to study under the Commanding Officer, but nothing seems to hurry the flight of time.

Sunday, December 10. Service was omitted this morning because the Bible was mislaid. Our dogs ate a portion of the original weather record today.

p. 162: Lands opened in the direction of Cape Prescott this morning, but we were unable to get into them. Our time is passed principally in reading, sleeping and eating.

p. 190-91: Sunday October 21. A lemon was issued to each of us this morning in lieu of lime-juice. The scraps of newspapers in which the lemons were wrapped have been removed and carefully dried for future reading. It will be a rare treat to receive news again from the civilized world. We have already learned from scraps that Garfield died and Arthur is President.

[The editor on p 191 adds an example:]

[In one of the torn newspapers the men encountered for the first time the word ‘dude.’ It had come into vogue while they had been out of touch with the world. From its use by the newspaper, they had little trouble figuring out the meaning. This particular item made them laugh despite their disappointments and since it was re-read often at Cape Sabine when their spirits were at low ebb, it is printed below to bring a little cheer to the reader.]

(From the Courier-Journal, Louisville, Ky., May 19, 1883.)


The Prince of Wales Says That the Reverse in Waltzing

Must no Longer Be Indulged in

Wash., May 28.—A bit of fashionable intelligence was reported to a society gentleman today. The fact has gone out in the best London and Continental society that the reverse of the waltz shall no longer be permitted. The reform seems to have been originated by the Prince of Wales and, of course, it was immediately taken up by the smaller fashionables in London. The ill-natured say His Royal Highness never did dance well in his golden youth….]

Another example from the same paper predicts the problems to be faced by the Cape Sabine contingent is given on p. 193-5, in a remarkably prescient way that apart from the author’s (Mr. Henry Clay) concern for the men could not have been much comfort.

p. 196: To prevent our minds from becoming torpid, an hour or so each evening is devoted to reading aloud. Gardiner reads the Bible, Lieut Greely, the army regulations (a copy was left for this abandoned Polar party in the wreck cache!) and Rice, one of Hardy’s novels, Two on a Tower.

p. 249, March 28The evening readings which have been a source of so much gratification were discontinued this evening, owing to an inclination on the part of some to sleep rather than to hear them.

p. 265-66, April 22: We have discarded reading at present owing to the scarcity of light and lack of interest. Our conversation flags for want of subjects, and all are asleep by 7 P.M. Undoubtedly it is better for us that our troubles are drowned in sleep.

p. 271-72: Will anyone ever be able to decipher this writing? It is in great part illegible, the sentences disconnected and incoherent and written in semi-darkness with great rapidity.

p. 281, May 22: The meager amount of food consumed does not require our bowels to function oftener than from twelve to eighteen days. This act is always attended with great pain and followed by extreme exhaustion.

p. 282, May 25: My God! This life is horrible; will it never change?

Brainard’s diary ends on June 21, shortly before the rescue of 7 of the explorers and Elison was to die shortly after getting some decent food. This is one of the most straightforward and seemingly honest of exploration diaries, told with a dry crispness but enormous effect.