Scott and Amundsen: The Last Place on Earth (Anglais) Broché – 7 décembre 2000
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What most people know of the conquest of the South Pole is that Captain Scott got there and then died heroically on the return journey; that when the Polar party lay tent-bound and apparently doomed, Captain Oates unselfishly said, "I am just going outside and may be some time," and took himself out to die, so that his comrades might live; that Scott represented self-sacrifice and endurance, and glorious failure, the personification of the British ideal of plucky defeat. Scott's expedition was essentially scientific; he was beset by bad weather. Roald Amundsen is a sort of afterthought: Oh, yes, the dour Norwegian actually got to the Pole and planted his flag first, but that's a detail; he was very lucky and a little devious. So much for the Pole.
Mr. Huntford proves all of this wrong, and much more, to boot. Thus, the kerfuffle.
It is a measure of the power of this book that when it first appeared in Britain, it caused an uproar; and a few years later, a television series that was adapted from it created a flurry of angry letters to newspapers and a great deal of public discussion in which the book was rubbished and its author condemned--even vilified in some quarters for suggesting that Fridtjof Nansen was engaged in a sexual affair with Kathleen Scott while her husband lay freezing in his tent. But what had Mr. Huntford actually done? He had written a riveting account of two expeditions intending simultaneously to achieve the South Pole. His book is well documented, soberly and sometimes wryly written, much of it is thrilling, some of it as dramatic as exploration can possibly be, and to my mind few things are more dramatic.
But the Polar quest was not just exploration, a journey of discovery. It was indeed (although Scott tried to deny it) an unambiguous race to be the first at the South Pole. National pride was at stake--Norwegian and British; two different philosophies of travel and discovery--skis versus trudging, dogs versus ponies, canvas and rubberized cloth versus fur anoraks and Eskimo boots; two cultures--Norse equality ("a little republic" of explorers) versus the severe British class system; and two sorts of leadership, more particularly, two different and distinct personalities--Roald Amundsen's versus Captain Scott's.
The great surprise in the book is that Amundsen is not a moody, sullen Scandinavian, but rather a shrewd, passionate, approachable, thoroughly rational man, who tended to understate his exploits, while Scott--quite the reverse of the British stereotype--was depressive, unfathomable, aloof, self-pitying, and prone to exaggerate his vicissitudes. Their personalities determined the mood of each expedition: Amundsen's was spirited and cohesive, Scott's was confused and demoralized. Amundsen was charismatic and focused on his objective; Scott was insecure, dark, panicky, humorless, an enigma to his men, unprepared, and a bungler, but in the spirit of a large-scale bungler, always self-dramatizing.
Mr. Huntford's judgments are unsparing: "It was Scott who suited the sermons. . . . He was a suitable hero for a nation in decline." Amundsen had made the conquest of the Pole "into something between an art and a sport. Scott had turned Polar exploration into an affair of heroism for heroism's sake." Mrs. Oates, who was privy to a running commentary on the Scott expedition through her son's letters home--Oates was throughout a remarkable witness--called Scott the "murderer" of her son. As for Oates' opinion, "I dislike Scott intensely," he wrote in Antarctica.
Far from being a belittler or having an ax to grind about the phlegmatic British (for he has written elsewhere with justified admiration of Shackleton), Mr. Huntford merely points out that Britain took Scott as a necessary hero; it is not the British character that is being assailed in this book. Mr. Huntford demonstrates that, all along, Scott was the problem. Though he knew little of actual command (and was unsuited to it), Scott was ambitious, seeking advancement, even glory, in the Royal Navy. He was a manipulator, and he knew how to find patrons, which he did in Sir Clements Markham, a wonderful sly subsidiary character in the narrative--vindictive, pompous, queenly, attracted to Scott more for Scott's being strangely epicene. This femininity in Scott's personality was remarked upon by one of Scott's own men, Apsley Cherry-Garrard--the youngest in the expedition--in his masterpiece of Polar exploration, The Worst Journey in the World. Cherry-Garrard also mentioned how Amundsen had been underrated as "a blunt Norwegian sailor" rather than "an explorer of the markedly intellectual type," sagacious and weather-wise. And Scott, Cherry-Garrard wrote, was easily reduced to tears.
The weather has always been regarded as the determining factor in Amundsen's success and Scott's failure. Yet it offered little advantage: Conditions were pretty much the same for both expeditions. The fact was that Amundsen was far better prepared, and Scott left no margin of safety for food, fuel, or weather. In a journey of four months Scott had not allowed for four days' bad weather. Parallel diary entries in a given period show Amundsen hearty and bucked up as he skis through fog, and just behind him Scott's diary shows him fatigued, depressed, complaining, slogging along. Mr. Huntford sees this not as a difference in style but in approach:
Scott . . . expected the elements to be ordered for his benefit, and was resentful each time he found they were not. This was a manifestation of the spiritual pride that was Scott's fatal flaw.
The difference between the two rivals is expressed in the way each called on the Deity. Scott did so only to complain when things went wrong; Amundsen, to give thanks for good fortune. In any case, Scott was an agnostic and believed in science; Amundsen was a Nature-worshipper. For that reason alone, Amundsen found it easier to accept the caprice of blizzard and storm. He and his companions were in tune with their surroundings; they were spared the angst that tormented Scott and, through him, pervaded the British expedition.
The Norwegian expedition, though vastly underfunded, were all of them skiers, had a better diet, simpler but more sensible gear, and the bond of friendship. Skis were a mere novelty to the non-skier Scott, whose class-ridden expedition had plenty of money and patrons. He had planned to depend upon ponies and motorized sledges, but when these proved useless he was forced to haul sledges by hand. In the base camp, long before Scott's party set out for the Pole, one of Scott's men--significantly, it was the one Norwegian, Tryggve Gran--wrote, "Our party is divided, and we are like an army that is defeated, disappointed and inconsolable."
Amundsen had heart and compassion but could also be an odd fish in his way. He had a prejudice against doctors. He wouldn't take one on an expedition. "He believed that a doctor," Mr. Huntford writes, "because of his priest-like rôle, meant divided command." On the other hand his men were master navigators. Only one of Scott's men could navigate and he was not taken on the Polar party, though at the last moment Scott decided to take an extra man, which meant that rations would inevitably be short.
The long shadow over this quest for the Pole was cast by the towering figure of Nansen who, Mr. Huntford wrote, was canoodling with Kathleen Scott, who was in her way just as formidable a person. The loan of Nansen's ship, the unsinkable, the uncrackable Fram, was an immense benefit to Amundsen; Scott's creaky Terra Nova was no match for it, and indeed the Fram ultimately had the distinction of sailing both farthest north and farthest south. The Fram was crucial,
for Amundsen needed a seaworthy and powerful purpose-built, expedition-tested ship. His mission was secret, he left home much later than Scott, and had almost no patronage. Yet in almost every instance, Amundsen makes the right, most astute judgment and Scott the wrong, most ill-informed one, which is why this book seems to me so valuable, for it is a book about myth-making and heroism and self-deception, the ingredients of nationalism.
This book was a sensation when it first appeared, and now rereading it twenty years later I still find it an engrossing and instructive narrative, with vivid characterization and a mass of useful detail. When you finish it you know much more about human nature, for it is more than a book about the South Pole. It is about two explorers, two cultures, and about the nature of exploration itself, which is to me a counterpart to the creative impulse, requiring mental toughness, imagination, courage, and a leap of faith. Most of all, this book about a race, which was the last great expedition that ended the Age of Discovery, is a study in leadership.
Paul Theroux's most recent book is Sir Vidia's Shadow. His new book of travel writings, Fresh-Air Fiend, will be published in the spring of 2000. --Ce texte fait référence à l'édition Broché .
Revue de presse
of polar exploration . . . a fascinating book."--The New York Times
"An extraordinarily rich reading experience."--Los Angeles Times
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the South Pole was the most coveted prize in the fiercely nationalistic modern age of exploration. In this brilliant dual biography, the award-winning writer Roland Huntford reexamines every detail of the great race to the South Pole between Britain's Robert Scott and Norway's Roald Amundsen. Scott, who died along with four of his men only eleven miles from his next cache of supplies, became Britain's beloved failure, while Amundsen, who not only beat Scott to the Pole but returned alive, was largely forgotten. This account of their race is a gripping, highly readable history that captures the driving ambitions of the era and the complex, often deeply flawed men who were charged with carrying them out.
The Last Place on Earth is the first of Huntford's masterly trilogy of polar biographies. It is also the only work on the subject in the English language based on the original Norwegian sources, to which Huntford returned to revise and update this edition.
Roland Huntford is the former Scandinavian correspondent for the London Observer. He is the bestselling author of two critically acclaimed biographies of Ernest Shackleton and Fridtjof Nansen as well as the novel Sea of Darkness. He lives in Cambridge, England.
Jon Krakauer is the author of Into Thin Air, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and Into the Wild. His work has appeared in many magazines, including Outside, Smithsonian, and National Geographic. He chose the books in the Modern Library Exploration series for their literary merit and historical significance--and because he found them such a pleasure to read. --Ce texte fait référence à l'édition Broché .
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On the morning of November 1st, 1911, a little cavalcade left Cape Evans in the Antarctic, straggled over the sea ice and faded into the lonely wastes ahead. Lire la première page
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I was not disappointed. Huntford narrates the entire lives of both Amundsen and Scott, with edifying discursions on Nansen, Shackleton, and other Polar explorers. Huntford knows Norwegian and thus was able to consult primary sources for Amundsen's expedition directly; he provides many excerpts from the letters and diaries of both British and Norwegian expedition members. He also reveals some of the omissions in the edited version of Scott's diaries.
As a minor quibble, Huntford only rarely gives full dates, so that I found myself frequently having to page back a considerable way to remind myself which year or even which month it was. An appendixed chronology would have been immeasurably helpful.
As other reviewers have noted, the author is highly critical of Scott -- occasionally unfairly so, as when he notes that Scott's first depot journey brought "a ton of supplies not quite to 80 degrees South" where Amundsen's party had "moved three tons another two degrees of latitude closer to the Pole", omitting to mention that Amundsen started about a degree farther south than Scott. But from the evidence Huntford adduces, even without his interpretations, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Scott was criminally unprepared, negligent, and generally incompetent. It is not as though he had no information about what he would be facing -- his previous expedition encountered nearly all the same problems, but he seems not to have learned anything from it. Huntford shows how Scott's diaries and their careful editing combine to portray Scott in a much more favorable light than he deserves -- a case of the loser writing the history books.
Huntford also reveals what might charitably be called "traditional" attitudes toward women. For example, speaking of Kathleen Bruce, Scott's future wife, Huntford says, "She was a predatory female; more predatory than usual, that is." Fortunately, since nearly all the principal figures in the book are male, this only surfaces occasionally, as when Huntford describes Amundsen as having "an almost feminine sensitivity for the undertones and cross-currents on which a leader has to play".
Despite its flaws, "The Last Place on Earth" should be among the first books you read on Polar exploration, or true-life adventure in general. Once the race for the Pole was on, I found it as hard to put down as any fictional thriller.
Scott and Roald Amundsen engaged in a great struggle to reach "The last place on earth," the South Pole. Each had been to polar regions before, each had become national and even international celebrities due to their trekking. Each was aware of the other party's presence on the Antarctic Continent during the same months of 1911-1912 as they raced to be the first men to stand at the bottom of the world.
Scott and Amundsen were two different breeds. Scott was a helpless romantic. Even after bitter experience and near tragedy in previous expeditions, he refused to learn from Eskimos, Norwegians or others who were battling around the turn of the century to achieve various cold weather firsts (first to the north pole, first to traverse the Northwest Passage -- which went to Amundsen -- first to cross Greenland, etc.) Thus, Scott relied on British pluck and manliness instead of skis, dogs, deer and seal suits and a properly suited diet.
Amundsen was a consummate student on the other hand. He possessed not only the gift of great vision and the ego necessary to pursue it, but also the humility to know that his trip did not have to feature every facet made anew, but should be the culmination of what others had learned when surviving and moving over the planet's most forbidding environment. Thus, Amundsen took dogs to Antarctica, wore clothing he observed the Eskimos using during his journey through the Northwest Passage, relied on skis for human transportation and dieted in a way observed to prevent scurvy.
Amundsen also worked at his project. Starting years before his trek, he organized the people, finances, equipment (much specialty made and field tested in Norway's northern regions) and talked, talked, talked to those whose experiences had something to teach them. Contrast this disciplined approach to organization and logistics with Scott's haphazard throwing together of men, equipment and élan and the outcome of the race is preordained to the reader before it has begun.
(the contrast between the two approaches is such a stark lesson on planning and organization that I suspect this book will show up in business school reading lists if it has not already).
Amundsen's journey to the South Pole was uneventful compared to Scott. Conditions were harsh, temperatures low, blizzards raged, but the Norwegian's party averaged a workman like 15 or so miles a day with dogs, skis and proper provisions. Scott, on the other hand, was not sure of his starting date, did not map out nor account for food consumed during the trip and relied on man-hauling his sleds the 1400 miles round trip to the Poles and his main camp. With the same weather and conditions, Scott and his polar attack team wound up dead after what their diaries reveal was a miserable existence on the Polar Ice Cap (they did reach the Pole, expiring on the way home).
The only area in which Scott excelled over Amundsen was in romantic writing. Scott's published works on his earlier journey to Antarctica are apparently a moving and heroic read. Amundsen was about as workmanlike a writer as he was a captain. For this and other reasons lain out by the author (in his mind much having to do with a decaying empire's need for heroes performing heroic deeds -- even heroic dying) Scott is remembered much the way Pickett's Charge is -- a glorious and manly statement of such heroics that it has made the underlying (and preventable) disaster a footnote to the story.
This is a riveting book that I found hard to put down. Although the author probably takes a few too many turns at whacking Scott when his shortcomings are evident (we get the point), he has succeeded in writing a first rate thrilling adventure, historic debunking and interesting management study.
While Huntford has been criticized for partizanism -- as if it were possible to be passionately interested in anything, and not develop some degree of bias -- his fair and reasoned description of events presents all the information any reasonable reader might need to identify for themselves instances in which a point of interpretation might be contested.
But it would be a sorry mistake to dismiss this book as a polemic. There is no better source for information on Scott's career, Amundsen's life and exploration, or the polar bids of either man available in English today. Mr. Huntford's research and presentation are remarkable. This is a wonderful book and great fun to read, and you will be the richer for the time you spend with the people who populate its pages. My greatest regret on completing the book was that there were not another five chapters for me to read yet (and fortunately for me there are the author's biographies of Shackleton and Nansen to be had).
Truly one of the cornerstones of the modern literature of Antarctic exploration!
I think Huntford is also reacting to the lionization of Scott. For many years, Scott WAS the discoverer of the South Pole to British schoolchildren. The fact that a Norwegian had gotten there first came as something of a shock to Alistair Cooke (certainly an educated man), who hosted the televised version of The Last Place on Earth on Masterpiece Theatre. As Huntford points out, Scott's wife Kathleen and her friend, Sir James Barrie (of Peter Pan fame) had a significant hand in the editing of his diaries, so as to give the impression that Scott was more of an heroic figure.
And as for man-hauling being a vindicated technique over dogsled; only when you're being re-supplied by airdrop (something Scott didn't have the luxury of). I have to laugh at the modern explorers who compare their radio-monitored, airplane resupplied, superlightweight modern technology treks as being "in the footsteps of" Nansen, or Shackelton, or Amundsen, or even Scott. Those men were harder than iron.
The book smashes through the beautiful language of Scott's diaries, and sees into the dry language of Amundsen's. It is an excellent piece of non-fiction, and an adventure tale, and a great pair of biographies. I highly recommend it.
In saying this however (And I stress that I am a Shackleton person and don't rate Scott much) I question how exact it is in that there is so much debunking of Scott that Huntford seems to just stop short of accusing him of murder (I am also amazed that Sir Peter Scott did not sue Huntford when the book first came out, it says much about the man)with regards to Oates walking to his death. I do agree that Amundsen was a brilliant tactician at Polar exploration and Scott was an arrogant incompetent, but Amundsen was also a bit of a glory-seeking oppurtunist and Scott did have some decent remarkable talents, telling a good story for one, that would have been best suited in areas other than Polar exploration. If the RGS, Markham, Scott etc.. had a dangerous fault it was that they allowed emotions pervade areas where sentimentality was destructive.