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The Greatest Show in the Arctic: The American Exploration of Franz Josef Land, 1898–1905 (American Exploration and Travel Series) Hardcover – May 6, 2016
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"[Capelotti's] book is an excellent read that has the makings of a script for a dramatic film. For the discerning scholar, it is an essential work for further research on an increasingly important region in the High Arctic all too frequently passed over or simplified in mainstream historiography of polar geography and exploration."
-Aant Elzinga, Polar Research
"Capelotti's purpose is to describe what happened and analyze why the expeditions failed so abysmally. Thanks to access to new source material and close reading of the correspondence, the author acts like a detective on the trail of the various expeditions, from the political background to the treacherous ice to the incompetent leadership. This is no hero story, but more often it has the aspect of a doomed plot. With the key at times the logistical details - the number of polar bears shot, killed and slaughtered sled dogs and ponies all presented with chilling objectivity - Capelotti evokes a picture of both astonishing dedication and icy futility."
-Torgny Nordin, Svenska Dagbladet
A "succession of engagingly written and sometimes brilliantly researched volumes has produced new and detailed accounts of one expedition after another, enriching the official published and archival resources with newsprint, memorabilia and the letters and diaries of participants preserved by their descendants. Peter Capelotti is one such exploration historian, who in 2013 published Shipwreck at Cape Flora, a fine account of the five voyages of the British amateur yachtsman Benjamin Leigh Smith to Svalbard and Franz Josef Land in the 1870s and 80s. Now he has written an even more impressive portrayal of three more expeditions to [Franz Josef Land]... And P. J. Capelotti is surely right in attributing the disabling paralysis of indecision that overcame all three leaders to their growing realization of the appalling gap between the breezy promises they had made in New York and the physical and mental reality of a long-distance dogsled journey over sea ice. It was a gap that none of them ever came close to bridging."
-Jonathan Dore, Times Literary Supplement
"painstaking research ... that has uncovered the remarkable intricacies of the American exploration of Franz Josef Land"
-William Barr, Arctic Book Review
"P.J. Capelotti's latest book seems a natural outgrowth and culminationof interests that have occupied him for a number of years... Therefore,Capelotti (Professor of Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University,Abington campus) is eminently qualified to write this thorough study ofthe three American expeditions that attempted to reach the North Polefrom the remote islands above Arctic Russia. He does not disappoint."
-Robert M. Bryce, Polar Record
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Baldwin's expedition, with all that money could purchase, again failed to provide leadership and esprit de corps among the team. Rather than seeking the stated goal he contented himself with exploring the Franz Joseph Islands, naming bays and inlets after industrialists and patrons. While all the while the other members of the expedition made futel trips over the ice to stash away supplies.
The final attempt by Anthony Fiala was doomed by poor choices of fellow explorers.
Capeolotti has researched these expeditions thoroughly and written well of the vastness of the Franz Joseph Lands and its hazzards. One is left with knowing that good intentions and lots of money are not what make a success of ventures such as these. Leadership was the missing element in each of these adventures, particularly those in which Baldwin had a major role. He was indeed a madman and I praise Capelotti for spending years with this man through his journals and those of his fellow explorers. I longed for the brilliant leadership of someone like Shakelton who could get this circus on track.
I enjoy reading about Arctic exploration and thing The Greatest Show adds to this genre, although I think it could have benefitted by some extra editing.
This is the story of American exploration, and Capelotti places it in the context of American exploration of the Arctic — from the rescue missions in search of the British expedition of Sir John Franklin to the early twentieth century.
Three expeditions are the particular topics of this book. A Chicago journalist named Walter Wellman led the first, the Wellman Polar Expedition of 1898–19899. A Midwestern meteorologist named Evelyn Briggs Baldwin led the second, the Baldwin-Ziegler Polar Expedition of 1901–1902, and a Brooklyn photographer named Anthony Fiala led the third, the Ziegler Polar Expedition of 1905–1905. These men led expeditions that attempted to reach the North Pole from staging areas in Franz Josef Land.
Capelotti tells the stories and provides scholarly interpretation, but he also lets the explorers speak for themselves so the reader can get to know them as individuals rather than merely as topics. Capelotti includes stories of the Gilded Age economy and its capitalists who sponsored American expeditions in the chance or hope of glory should their expedition be the first to reach the North Pole. He also explains how newspapers created a now long-lost geographic literacy through their coverage of exploration. Finally, he writes of geography, of the land itself.
Franz Josef Land became one of three routes for attempting to reach the North Pole. Robert Peary has his base on northwestern Greenland for his attempts over the “American Route” northward from there. The Spitzbergen islands north of Norway were a second route. And Franz Josef Land, the third. The three Americans expeditions that used Franz Josef Land as a base for launching attempts to reach the North Pole were “remarkably inept,” and they failed “in increasingly spectacular ways,” according to Capelotti (p. 16).
I love the stories, the details, and the people woven together in this readable narrative of adventure, geopolitics, and the Arctic.