Matthew Henson Essay - Critical Context

Michael Gilman

Critical Context

Few books had been written about Henson prior to his death in 1955. Two of these books, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole (1912) and Dark Companion (1947), were written by Henson himself, the latter cowritten with Bradley Robinson. In these and other reports, according to Gilman, significant contributions by this African-American explorer were downplayed or omitted in order to appease the racist sentiments of the time. In another book, Northward Over the “Great Ice” (1898), Peary presents his account of the expeditions to the North Pole. It is not known what role Peary assigned Henson in this book, however, as newspaper accounts of the time, according to Gilman, reduced the accomplishments of Henson to that of “a colored servant.” Although few encyclopedia references were available, one, as late as 1980, described Henson as simply a dogsled driver who accompanied Peary.

In the 1960’s, shortly after the long-awaited recognition of Henson, other books started to appear about him. These were, for the most part, adult accounts. With the push to produce literature by and about African Americans, however, there has been a resurgence of books about not only Henson but other famous African Americans as well. These biographies have been directed particularly at the young adult and children’s level.

Gilman has added to this collection a significant book about a dedicated and courageous individual. His account is not the only one; there are several biographies of Henson that are written for different reading levels. Henson played his part during the expeditions and after them in an unobtrusive, nonviolent manner. He worked extremely hard, never gave up, and valued knowledge and expertise. These qualities are worthy attributes to which young people can aspire.