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The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture Hardcover – July 1, 2006

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Editorial Reviews


“A wonderful book to read and ponder. Michael Robinson takes us on an exhilarating voyage into the American encounter with the Arctic from Elisha Kane to Robert Peary and Frederick Cook. The characters are alive, the scenes are vivid, and the stories are riveting. But this is not another book on the Arctic explorer. Robinson has delivered a long-overdue argument, one that is both nuanced and elegant. The lived experience of the explorer began and ended not on the ice floes of the north but in the committee rooms, newspaper offices, lecture halls, sideshows, circuses, and private dining clubs throughout the country. Robinson shows brilliantly that the Arctic explorer reflected the changing culture of the country. Progressively cut off from science, the explorer found himself in the pockets of the great press barons in whose hands scandal and failure made better copy than did geographic success. Like so much of America, the explorer had become a brand, a disturbing sign of the future.”
(Jordan Goodman, author of The Rattlesnake: A Voyage of Discovery to the Coral Sea)

“Others have investigated how the crucible of Arctic exploration shaped individual explorers, but Michael Robinson imaginatively turns the frame toward an American public that persisted in supporting adventurers from Elisha Kane to Robert Peary.  Originally justified as scientific ventures, the expeditions created a palpable ‘Arctic fever’ in American public culture which refracted messages of manliness, the power and limits of technology, and national ambition.  In a narrative analysis alert to symbols as well as realities, The Coldest Crucible is ultimately about testing the mettle of the Americans themselves.”
(Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, editor of Women in Science)

“In this sharply written and lively study, Michael Robinson explains the rise and fall of Arctic explorers as American icons. Robinson humanizes these men by placing them in a much larger web of scientific authority, masculine identity, patronage, and the fickle taste of the general public. What emerges is a much more nuanced view of ‘Arctic fever,’ complete with heroic tales but also human failures.”
(Susan Schulten, author of The Geographical Imagination in America , 1880-1950)

"Michael F. Robinson is concerned with the perception of Arctic exploration in the United States, rather than with the exploration itself....Robinson has a real thesis, and he presents it with admirable clarity and a firm understanding of its shadings and nuances."
(Jonathan Dore Times Literary Supplement 2006-12-22)

"Robinson casts a fresh light upon some of the most important blanks on our map of the role of popular sentiment, nationalism, and the rising mass media, in the evolution and valuation of Arctic exploration. He demonstrates a keen eye for significant detail, and a deep engagement with his primary sources, which promise strong work to come. It is to be hoped that he will soon make a second and more extended expedition."
(Russell A. Potter Arctic Book Review 2006-10-01)

"Robinson's account is full and interpretive. It is both exciting and revealing. It tells us a great deal about the pure scientists (such as those who today fly off on space adventures) and those who stay on Earth but fly high by exploiting the discoveries of their betters."

(Ray B. Brown Journal of American Culture 2007-03-01)

"This monograph is clear, detailed, meticulously researched, and elegantly written. . . . [Robinson] offers a new and convincing interpretation of the cultural significance of Americans' devotion to Arctic exploration in this period. . . ."

(Kathryn Morse Reviews in American History 2007-01-01)

"This book makes an obvious contribution to the historiography of nineteenth and twentieth-century America, as well as to polar studies per se. It also joins a growing body of work that studies the way a nation's polar expeditions are organized and celebrated in order to gain a better understanding about the country itself. . . . Anyone interested in modern U.S. history or the history of polar exploration will read this book with profit and enjoyment. It deserves—and will hopefully reach—a wider audience as well."
(John McCannon American Historical Review)

"The author's emphasis is always behind the scenes, back in America. The questions he raises are much more culturally resounding than what is often encountered in the narrowly circumscribed work of those who 'do' arctic history. . . . This is a very welcome book."
(Richard C. Davis Canadian Journal of History)

"A fascinating look at an aspect of exploration history that has largely been overlooked by others. Few northern historians have asked what larger issues of American culture might have been at work to change popular interest in northern exploration from an avid scientific curiosity about the people and landscape into a desire simply to go further faster than anyone else."
(Colleen Mondor Eclectica)

“For too long, American Arctic history has seemed separated from the narrative of national identity—a list of epic tragedies or an endless controversy surrounding Frederick Cook’s and Robert Peary’s enduring dual claims for the North Pole. Robinson has done an admirable job of placing that history within a cultural framework. . . . The ideal book for those who want to understand why Arctic exploration mattered to generations of Americans . . . and how that story revealed far more about the United States than it did about the Arctic.”
(Kelly L. Lankford Journal of American History)

"Robinson shows that the history of polar exploration is more than a story about geographical discovery and scientific data-gathering. It is also an exciting story about enterprising entrepreneurs who had to adapt to the ideals and discussions of their time."
(Par Eliasson Journal of Northern Studies)

Winner of the 2008 Book Prize by the Forum for the History of Science in America
(Forum for the History of Science in America)

About the Author

Michael F. Robinson is associate professor of history at the University of Hartford.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 200 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; First edition (July 1, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226721841
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226721842
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.7 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,682,877 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Roger D. Launius VINE VOICE on February 17, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Michael F. Robinson's "The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture" focuses on the public perception of American Arctic exploration to illuminate developments in the political and cultural history of the United States between 1850 and 1909. He approaches the Arctic as "a faraway stage on which explorers played out dramas that were unfolding very close to home" (p. 3). He unpacks the political and cultural demarcations of American culture and uses the polar explorers as a means of illuminating U.S. society and culture. Most important, Robinson finds that the explorers offered an unequivocal statement of American exceptionalism that all could embrace. In the end, he asserts that Americans used the Arctic as a surrogate for other controversies and dramas played out far from the snow-covered region.

There is much in "The Coldest Crucible" to admire. Robinson makes a succinct, well-structured argument, using Arctic exploration as a stage on which to dramatize what he thinks are the core elements of the American nation in the nineteenth century. Robinson is at his best when he documents the manner in which the Arctic served as a unifying theme in a nation divided by slavery in the 1840s and 1850s. At a critical level stories of the search for Sir John Franklin's lost expedition diverted the public from the more serious issues taking place on the national stage. I immediately thought of the many diversions of minor stories in the media in the 2002-2003 time period rather than focusing on the huge story of the nation's politicos lumbering toward what became the quagmire of Iraq.

But diversions were no less useful in the post-Civil War era, but Robinson tends to interpret Arctic exploration differently in that era.
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