(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Roland Huntford’s Shackleton is a lengthy and well-documented biography that describes a man’s lofty aims and compelling personality rather than assessing his accomplishments. Sir Ernest Shackleton spent the most important part of his life exploring the Antarctic, yet Roald Amundsen was the first to reach the South Pole, and the myths that surround the heroism and hardship of such expeditions are tied to Captain Robert Scott’s fatal quest. Why, then, does Shackleton merit such an extensive biography?

Shackleton seems to be the most human and interesting man among this group of explorers. Amundsen, despite his successes, would be a better subject for a technical book on polar exploration than a biography. Scott seems too rigid in his adherence to rules and prescribed codes, resulting, perhaps, from his career in the British navy, to be a compelling subject. In contrast, Shackleton retained the freewheeling style of the merchant marine throughout his life. In addition, Shackleton made it his aim not merely to discover new places—which he never did—but to be a hero as well. Unfortunately, Shackleton tried to play the hero’s role in an unheroic time that reached its nadir in the trench warfare of World War I. Such unpropitious circumstances, however, failed to daunt his belief in himself and in his role as a hero. He remained true to that ideal, even though its time had come and gone.

Shackleton was always an outsider of some sort. He was born Anglo-Irish but spent most of his life in England; thus he was doubly displaced. His father was a rather unsuccessful physician whose practice barely supported his family, but he did manage to send his oldest son, Ernest, to a public school, Dulwich.

Shackleton was never a scholar or team leader at Dulwich, and he could be described as an outsider or nonconformist, though he was the leader of a small group of boys. The school helped to form his ideals by exposing him to the Victorian poets, especially Robert Browning, and Shackleton was fond of going off into the woods to declaim large chunks of Browning’s poetry. Many of Browning’s poems are filled with urgent striving for something higher and better. Often, the poems do not define the goal or end of that striving—a characteristic common in Shackleton’s own life.

After he was graduated from Dulwich, Shackleton did not enter a university, since he had decided to find adventure somewhere, and a life at sea with the merchant marine seemed the most immediate way to find it. He enjoyed his early voyages, finding some of the adventure he desired so much in the exotic ports that he visited. He advanced in rank and was well liked. His life at sea was circumscribed and unheroic, however, so he obtained a berth with the Union Castle Line to improve his position. He was successful there, but not in the terms of his boyhood dreams or of the poems that spoke of a heroic life. He was also unsuccessful in his suit for the hand of Emily Dorman, a young woman slightly older than Ernest, because her father would not give his consent to their marriage: He thought that Shackleton did not have the position or the prospects suitable for a woman of Emily’s class. As a result, Shackleton felt trapped in a career that earlier had seemed to be the path to adventure. During this time Scott began to organize his first expedition to the Antarctic, and Shackleton volunteered to join the group of explorers: Here was a project worthy of his dreams, and the rewards were fame and an otherwise unattainable bride.

One of the organizers for the expedition, Sir Clements Markham, was impressed by Shackleton and forwarded his name to Scott. Scott’s response is significant: He said that he “had no time to attend to it,” and he left the matter to Albert Armitage, his second in command. This casual reply suggests that Scott, although the leader of the expedition, could not be bothered to select the men upon whom he might have to depend for his life in the wastes of Antarctica. One can see in this lack of leadership the seeds of the later rivalry between Scott and Shackleton. For a time, though, Shackleton was happy just to be on the expedition and to have a chance to be one of the four who would dash for the pole.

Scott was unprepared for the terrible experience of the Antarctic. Dr. J. W. Gregory, the scientific director of the expedition, wrote thatScott . . . has no experience of expedition equipment . . . On questions of furs, sledges, ski [sic] etc., his ignorance is appalling . . . he does not seem at all conscious of these facts or inclined to get [the] experience necessary.

Nor was Scott an involved leader as the ship sailed to Antarctica: He stayed in his cabin and let the first mate run the ship. Shackleton, in contrast, was actively involved in the journey and was popular with both officers and crew.

Scott finally did select Shackleton as one of the four who would try to reach the Pole after keeping everyone uncertain for a time. The journey was a technical disaster: The men did not know how to use the skis or dogs, and soon they had to drag the sledges themselves. Scott was a poor leader: He was not only secretive but also given to grudges and resentment and could be very stubborn. He wanted to return to the ship immediately when Shackleton burned a hole in the tent, and he needed to be cajoled to continue the journey. On the other hand, he resisted all attempts to make him turn back when it became clear that the men were overextended.

The expedition did reach 82° 15’ but did not come close to reaching the Pole. On the march back, with the nearest depot a hundred miles away, the dogs dead or dying, and the party very short on food, Shackleton’s health became a problem. He was forbidden to pull the sledge and to his shame had to ride on it near the end of the journey. When they finally reached the ship, Scott had Shackleton invalided back to England, although Shackleton wanted to remain with the group. The separation of Shackleton from the main group...

(The entire section is 2471 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

The Atlantic. CCLVII, February, 1986, p. 87.

Booklist. LXXXII, February 1, 1986, p. 790.

Choice. XXIII, May, 1986, p. 1439.

Library Journal. CXI, January, 1986, p. 79.

Nature. CCCXIX, January 16, 1986, p. 186.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, February 2, 1986, p. 11.

The New Yorker. LXII, March 24, 1986, p. 118.

Newsweek. CVII, January 13, 1986, p. 66.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, December 13, 1985, p. 47.

Washington Post Book World. XV, December 29, 1985, p. 1.