The Life of Sir Ernest Shackleton, c.v.o., o.b.e. (Mil.), ll.d
by Little, Brown & Co. 1923. xvi+312 pp. $5.00.. Boston:
ON what terms would a man endowed with the qualities that make up the great adventurers of history — men of the stamp of Sir Walter Raleigh—fulfill his destiny in the twentieth century? One answer is to be found in the career of Sir Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer, whose greatest exploit was that of reaching Farthest South in 1909, three years before the South Pole was actually discovered by Amundsen and Scott, He began his sea training in the British merchant marine at the age of sixteen; he took part in Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic in 1901-03, and after some years ashore, spent in miscellaneous work, conceived the project of organizing an expedition to reach the Pole. It was a personal enterprise, and his success in getting support was due to an unusual combination of personal qualities.
Confident in his power of leadership and in the adequacy of his preparations, which, indeed, marked a new era in such expeditions, he set sail in 1908, and with three companions succeeded in coming within a distance of ninety-seven miles of his goal. This was 366 miles beyond the point at which Scott had stopped in 1902. The exploit brought him a crowded year of fame in which his lectures, with their pictures of penguins and tales of unbelievable hardships heroically endured, fascinated crowned heads, men of science, and popular audiences. At the age of thirty-six he had reached the high-water mark of his career.
After a few years filled with speculative ventures in cigarettes, Hungarian gold mines, and other will-o’-the-wisps, he turned to I he only kind of adventure in which he could hope to command success: ‘I suppose I am really no good for anything but the Antarctic.’ His proposal to cross the polar continent from one side to the other was deemed hair-brained by many, but his belief in himself brought him money as before. The expedition, which sailed in the first week in August 1914, was a complete failure, but the disasters that befell the ship and the party presented him opportunities for heroic leadership to which he rose sublimely and which fully matched those deeds that others were performing on the fields of France.
Shackleton returned too late to take any but a minor part in the Great War; in the first years of the peace he was again unable to fit himself into the world that he found in England; with great difficulty he organized another expedition, but when, having reached South Georgia it was about to enter the Antarctic regions, he died suddenly, a worn-out man, at forty-eight.
Shackleton’s biographer glories in the excitements and heroisms of the great adventurer, and his vivid narrative does them full justice. But his long knowledge of Shackleton has given him a full understanding of his hero’s complex nature, and his analysis of the man’s strength and weakness, though interpreted by love, is none the less searching. Indeed, when the reader finishes the Epilogue, he has become as much interested in the contrasts of Shackleton’s character as in his achievements.
Comparison between Shackleton and Scott, contemporaries and rivals in Antarctic exploration, is inevitable. To Shackleton the scientific aspects of polar exploration were of secondary interest, and he was incapable of pursuing steadily a professional career in the navy, as Scott did. Above all, great as was his power over others, it is difficult to imagine in him that self-command and elevation of spirit which, in Scott’s last letters, constitute one of the great revelations of our age. Shackleton could lead his men into the game and play it superbly; when it was over he was out of his sphere and could do nothing but wait for the next match.
HENRY GREENLEAF PEARSON.