Travelling Passions: The Hidden Life of Vilhjalmur Stefansson

by Gfsli P▀lsson
374 pages,
ISBN: 0887551793

Post Your Opinion
George Fetherling
Like most other famous explorers in modern times, Vilhjalmur Stefansson found that he also had to be an expert at raising funds, attracting publicity and, perhaps just as important, churning out non-fiction books about his expeditions. He published two dozen works in all, the best known of which, such as My Life with the Eskimo and The Friendly Arctic, remain addictively readable. But nowhere in any of them does he touch on what his latest biographer has revealed about his personal life.
Gfsli P▀lsson, the author of Travelling Passions: The Hidden Life of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, is an anthropologist from Iceland. In 1987 he was conducting research on the Icelanders, including Stefansson's parents, who settled in Manitoba in the late 19th century. An American colleague happened to mention that while in the North herself, she had met Stefansson's son, whose mother was Inupiat. The son had died some years earlier but his own children were still alive, and Palsson got to spend considerable time with them, setting down what they knew of their family's history.
At the very moment he was doing so¨the coincidence is almost unbelievable¨a local character in New Hampshire found batches of seventy-five-year-old love letters, priced at a dollar or two each, in a flea market. These were the correspondence that had passed between Stefansson and his Toronto fiancTe, Orpha Cecil Smith (known as Cecil), whom he forsook for the Inuit woman. Putting these two fortuitous finds together permits Palsson to show how "Stefansson's renown as an explorer [Ó] has overshadowed both his private life and his contributions to anthropology." This is certainly true of the private life. The author faces a larger challenge making his case for Stefansson's greatness as an anthropologist, given that his career was marked by controversy right from the beginning, when he dug up ancient Icelandic graveyards without permission and shipped the bones to an American museum.
Stefansson was born in 1879 in the Manitoba colony called New Iceland, but when he was two his parents and some of the other settlers moved across the border to North Dakota. There, even more so than in Canada, they lived an uneasy existence with their First Nations neighbours. "It can be argued," P▀lsson writes, "that the multicultural environment of immigrants and Aboriginal North Americans, in New Iceland and elsewhere, during Stefansson's youth, had an effect on his decision later to struggle with the mountains and vast distances of the Arctic regions." He doesn't actually pursue this idea at all, but he does bring to Stefansson's attitude towards the Inuit certain insights that a Canadian, British or American biographer probably would lack.
"When referring to Aboriginal people in his journals," P▀lsson explains, "Stefansson sometimes uses the Icelandic word skraelingi [which] was originally used to refer to Saami in Karelia in Finland and Russia. In Old Icelandic texts, however, the word is used for native inhabitants of Greenland, and has a fairly neutral sense. The stem of the word is related to the verb skraelna, which means 'to wither or dry up,' and is likely to have been originally related to Inuit skin clothing. Later, not least at the time Stefansson was growing up, it was often used in a more loaded sense to refer to any sort of 'savages' or 'barbarians'."
The adjectival form referred "to things that were primitive, ramshackle, or underdeveloped. Such use was clearly in contradiction with the relativism that Stefansson generally practised in his works. He even went so far as to reverse the usual value scale, and regard Inuit culture as superior to Western culture [ . . . ] It should be borne in mind, however, that in his journals, which were generally written in the heat of the moment soon afterwards, not least when he was under pressure, he may have allowed contemporary prejudices free rein even though cautioning against them, and even opposing them strongly in his public works."
Mainly what P▀lsson does is to tell the story of Stefansson's romantic complications in the context of his three Arctic expeditions, which he summarizes in some detail.
The first was the AngloűAmerican Polar Expedition of 1906, a search for unclaimed lands in the Beaufort Sea. To comply with the terms of their financial backing, the organizers were compelled to take along an anthropologist¨Stefansson¨to study life and customs of Inuit and others in the Mackenzie region and collect artefacts for Canadian and American museums.
Landing at the whaling station on Herschel Island, he met a Danish sea captain named Klengenberg, whose reputation was in decline because he had shot his ship's chief engineer and, as a result, had been forced to put down a mutiny. Klengenberg told Stefansson tales of fair-skinned and blue-eyed Inuit who had never seen a white person and made knives and other tools from copper. Anecdotal evidence about such people had in fact been circulating as far back as the 17th century and had reached the ears of Sir John Franklin in the 19th. Stefansson became excited, believing, hoping, that these were descendants of the ancient Norse who had journeyed first to Iceland and then Greenland before, it's thought, disappearing into what's now the Canadian Arctic. In search of them, he "travelled great distances by sled and dog team," without luck.
Stefansson's second great undertaking, the so-called StefanssonűAnderson Expedition sponsored by the Canadian government and the American Museum of Natural History, lasted from 1908 to 1912. Its stated purpose was to make contact with these "blond Eskimos", now known as the Copper Inuit.
As P▀lsson explains, Europeans in the North often engaged Native "seamstresses". Such women "fulfilled a variety of roles. In addition to sewing and repairing warm fur and skin clothing and footwear for the men, cooking their food, looking after their camps, and providing them with company, these women also provided emotional support and an outlet for their lust. Often relations between seamstresses and guests became very intimate . . . " So it was with Stefansson and a woman named Fanny Pannigabluk, who stayed with him until late 1911 and became the mother of his son, while Cecil waited in the south for his return, unaware of the other liaison.
In his primary objective, Stefansson was somewhat successful. As he wrote to one of the sponsoring institutions:

"West of Coppermine we found over 200 people who had never seen a white man, whose ancestors had never seen one, who knew of no past relations with the people to the west, and whose territory was supposed by geographers to be definitely known to be uninhabited (so labelled on official charts of the Canadian Government) . . . The general appearance was non-Eskimo¨a sort of 'portly' appearance . . . It is hard to be specific in this matter, but the general impression is definite. My Eskimo companion was impressed no less than I."

When word of the discovery reached the outside, the press went wild. A representative U.S. headline read: "AMERICAN EXPLORER DISCOVERS LOST WHITE TRIBE, DESCENDANTS OF LEIF ERICSSON." Stefansson became an international celebrity. Roald Amundsen, the greatest living Arctic (and Antarctic) explorer, pronounced the whole affair ridiculous. Nonetheless Stefansson lived with the Copper Inuit for a year, but from that point forward he was never free from nagging criticism.
His third and final large-scale mission, the Canadian Arctic Expedition, lasted more than five years between 1913 and 1918, and was marred by discord as well as tragedy. It utilised three vessels. Stefansson was in the flagship, the Karluk, which left Victoria for Herschel Island by way of Nome, but got separated from the others in a storm and never reached its destination. It became trapped in pack ice and Stefansson went ashore for supplies. The ship then drifted and was crushed in the ice off Wrangel Island, where most of the crew waited for rescue. Four others perished, and some people held Stefansson responsible. All this while, Stefansson was still in touch with the ever-hopeful Cecil while also resuming his relationship with Fanny.
This was the journey on which Stefansson did indeed "discover" some of the last unknown land masses on earth, islands he tactfully named after Canadian politicians. One bizarre consequence of the shipwreck was that members of the expedition claimed Wrangel, off the coast of eastern Siberia, as Canadian territory, an act that almost led to hostilities between Canada and the new Soviet Union when both countries effected landings and planted their respective flags. Incidentally, the flag from the Karluk is among many Stefansson artefacts in the Vancouver Maritime Museum.
In the 1920s, Stefansson settled in Greenwich Village and worked away on his books, the most popular of which tried to dissuade readers from the notion that the Arctic was an almost impossibly inhospitable place. On the contrary, he argued, if one learns from the Inuit how to adapt to the environment, it is perfectly liveable and indeed full of great economic possibility¨though his own scheme for raising reindeer herds as an exportable food source proved profoundly unworkable.
On a visit to Italy in 1922, Stefansson met the successful American novelist Fannie Hurst, the author of Lummox and Imitation of Life, with whom he had a long and evidently intense affair. They became involved, naively, with the idea of establishing a Jewish homeland in the USSR. When he was sixty-two he married a woman of twenty-seven, and they collaborated on what was to be the extensive Encyclopedia Arctica (only the first volume of which ever appeared). He was offered a teaching post at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. As late as 1935, Cecil was still in communication with him, and it was from his summer home nearby that the years' accumulation of love letters eventually found their way to that flea market in a neighbouring town.
Stefansson long believed that the Soviets pursued a more intelligent policy regarding their own Arctic lands and waters than Canadians did for theirs. This hardly made him a communist¨he was in fact an anti-Communist¨but it did contribute to the persecution he was subjected to during the McCarthy era. When actually denounced as a Communist, he replied bravely, "What an honour." What he was in fact was an enthusiastic and articulate champion of what he saw as the great economic promise of the North, a region he thought perfectly suited to more aggressive settlement and sensible resource development so long as one abided by the lesson of the Inuit about how to live in harmony with the region. One can't help but wonder whether Stefansson's constant promotion of the North's potential influenced John Diefenbaker's similar¨and similarly unrealised¨views on the subject.
As for Stefansson's work with the Copper Inuit¨well, he was mistaken. Scientists now know that the people descended from part of the Thule Culture, though DNA evidence is said to support the idea that distant ancestors of some Inuit in the central Arctic intermingled with Greenlanders.
P▀lsson doesn't wish to detract from Stefansson as a great Canadian of Icelandic parentage but neither is he willing to trap himself. There is recent evidence, he tells us, that raises "questions concerning journeys by the Norse people and Inuit in mediaeval times and their relations through the centuries [and so there is] every reason to wipe the dust off Stefansson's theory of the interbreeding of Inuit and Norse in the Middle Ages in the light of new methods, new knowledge, and new attitudes." Yet he has to admit that Icelandic archaeologists "do not indicate that Stefansson's theory on the Copper Inuit is grounded in fact. Perhaps his imagination took control, forcing him to see what he wanted to see: the Norse characteristics for which he was looking."

There has been a good deal of interest in Stefansson in recent decades, including writings by Canadians as different as Pierre Berton and Rudy Wiebe. Travelling Passions for its part has come to us rather circuitously. In writing it, P▀lsson has cannibalised several of his own earlier works, including an edition of Stefansson's diaries. The result was published in Reykjavik three years ago as Fraego og firnindi¨aevi Vilhjalms Stefanssonar. Now it appears in a translation by Keneva Kunz and with a thoughtful and enthusiastic foreword by Adrienne Clarkson. ˛

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us