The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen. By Stephen Bown. (Boston, MA: Da Capo Press, 2012. Pp. xxii, 357. $27.50.)
Version of Record online: 4 MAR 2014
© 2014 Phi Alpha Theta
Volume 76, Issue 1, pages 164–165, Spring 2014
How to Cite
Short, J. R. (2014), The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen. By Stephen Bown. (Boston, MA: Da Capo Press, 2012. Pp. xxii, 357. $27.50.). Historian, 76: 164–165. doi: 10.1111/hisn.12030_51
- Issue online: 4 MAR 2014
- Version of Record online: 4 MAR 2014
In much of the English-speaking world, Roald Amundsen [1872–1928] exists only as a counterpoint to a contemporary, the English naval officer R. F. Scott. Scott's fatal attempt to reach the South Pole contrasts with Amundsen's success. For the British, Scott was an epitome of Edwardian amateurism, his failure a sign of heroism and dignity, while Amundsen's success seemed too easy and too professional. For too long, Amundsen has been a cardboard cutout figure standing against the British love of amateur failure compared to foreign, professional success; Stephen Bown's new biography provides a much wider perspective.
Amundsen's achievements in the polar regions are worth noting. Between 1903 and 1926, he completed journeys through both the Northwest Passage and the Northeast Passage and reached both the North and South Poles. Amundsen developed his skills over many years. He was a member of the Belgian Antarctic Expedition from 1897 to 1899. His bitter experience of a winter in Antarctica made him prepare with great care for subsequent journeys. In 1903, he sailed from Norway, escaping just in time from pressing debts and angry creditors, to find a way through the icy reaches of Northern Canada. The Northwest Passage had long been a goal of many a doomed explorer. In a small ship that wintered in Inuit villages, he reached Nome in 1906. His sensitivity to cultural difference allowed him to see how the indigenous people coped with the extreme cold, and that knowledge guided his planning for the next expedition. His inability to cash in on the adventure—the news was widely leaked before he could sell his story—also made him acutely aware of tightly controlling the news of his explorations. Amundsen's exploits were widely publicized. He was feted and honored and began worldwide lecture tours.
In 1910, he set off for another polar expedition. He told everyone he was headed for the North Pole, but after leaving Norway he headed south. Using skis and dog sleds and carefully placing supply depots along the route he managed to reach the South Pole on 14 December 1911. Thirty-three days later, Scott's poorly equipped team—they had ponies rather than dogs and few members of the expedition could ski well—made it to the pole but died in the return. The British press was bitter in their criticism. In Norway, Amundsen's status as national hero was confirmed. In the USA, he became a popular celebrity, embarking on successful lecture tours and never-ending fundraising trips.
However, Amundsen was always looking to fund the next adventure. In 1918, he set sail from Norway north and east in a small ship, Maud. After numerous delays, the ship made the Northeast Passage by 1926. Amundsen was injured on the trip and his finances, shaky at the best of times, began to collapse; Maud was salvaged by creditors. In 1925, Amundsen, with the backing of rich American Lincoln Ellsworth, attempted to fly to the North Pole. They did not make it, but the next year, as part of an Italian airship expedition, Amundsen was probably one the first people to pass over the North Pole.
Bown tells an exciting story very well. The narrative moves as quick as a sled pulled by strong huskies across the ice. Readers follow both Amundsen's exploration and his passage across the landscape of exploration, funding, intrigue, and national rivalries. Bown obviously admires the Norwegian, which leads to a very generous interpretation of Amundsen's behaviors, but this is a necessary prerequisite in any biography. Bown draws heavily on contemporary US press accounts—a reliance that is almost heroic in its assumptions of reliability. Despite these criticisms, this is a fine, engaging biography that recounts the exploits but makes the case that there was little science in the efforts. Amundsen was exploring when there was nothing much else to explore. The polar ice caps and the icy seas of the North Pole were all that was left. The explorations had to be funded and financed, and so the story is as much about the emergence of celebrity culture and the making of national folk heroes as the revealing of new geographical realities. Amundsen, perhaps the last real explorer, was definitely the first celebrity explorer.