(HOST) Commentator Willem Lange likes best reading stories written in the first person, mostly because they’re about…well, persons.
(LANGE) I read a lot of books written in the first person by adventurers and explorers. They’re adapted from journals kept during their trips. The line between journal and published account is often blurred in the best of the books because the author expos-
es his feelings, and avoids the moralizing and grandstanding common to the Age of Exploration.
Robert Falcon Scott’s reaction to arriving half-dead at the South Pole in 1912 and finding he’d been beaten there by Roald Amund-
sen: “Good God! What an awful place this is!” In later journal entries, as he sensed he and his comrades were doomed, he wanted to leave something for the folks back home: “If we had lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman.” If the whole party hadn’t died a few days later, that would sound like the finale of HMS Pinafore.
Here’s one of my favorites: “For the first time the conviction seeps through me that we really are going to go all the way….We follow the ridge as it curves around to the right…..I cut around the back of one crag only to find another staring me in the face. It seems endless. Suddenly I realize that the ridge ahead doesn’t slope up, but down….The summit.” That’s Edmund Hillary describing the greatest moment of his life, reaching the summit of Mount
Everest in 1953. There’s no exclamation point. It would
have been unnecessary.
In 1881 Lieutenant Adolphus Greely, United States Army, sailed with twenty-three men to explore the straits between Greenland and Ellesmere Island and, if possible, points north. Greely’s journal describes it as a military operation. Discipline disinte-
grated. By June of 1884 his men were dying of starvation.
Then he discovered one of the men was apparently stealing food.
“I…questioned him…. he admitted…he had taken…sealskin thongs…. He…showed neither fear nor contrition. I ordered him shot…” What Greely couldn’t bring himself to reveal was that the soldier had been cannibalizing the corpses.
His expedition was a disaster. But his journal is terrific, because
it deals not only with the day-to-day logistics, but with human relations in conditions of terrific stress.
It’s been an example for me in writing my own journals. Each
entry begins with date, place, time, weather conditions. Then it describes what we did that day and what we saw; what we anticipate the next day. But most important are the other men: how their individual attributes affect the experience. Reading over those years of hen-scratchings, I’ve found that under stress we tend to become what we are essentially. But all that’s going to stay in the journals till after we’re gone. We’ve still got a few trips ahead of us.
This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.
Willem Lange is a contractror, writer, and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.