The British Library’s collections enabled me to explore the popular culture of 20th-century polar exploration and the changing nature of American cultures of masculinity, writes Marionne Cronin. The British Library’s strong collection of American periodicals and newspapers provided important insights into the ways in which the flight of American aviator Richard Byrd in particular was represented for specific audiences – particularly how notions of masculinity and technological heroism were presented to women and children.
In May 1926, American newspapers were alive with the story that the American aviator Richard Byrd had become the first person to reach the North Pole by air. While several historians have argued that Byrd’s use of aircraft marked the end of the era of heroic polar exploration, contemporary reactions suggest that aerial polar exploration continued to fascinate interwar American publics and that they continued to understand it as a heroic endeavour. But, if the introduction of aircraft heralded the end of heroic polar exploration, why was Byrd celebrated as a national hero? Lurking behind this question are others: how was it that explorers continued to be seen as exceptional men, even when ensconced in the protective shell of a machine that seemed to be doing all of the difficult work? How did
aviation become part of the narrative of heroic exploration and what effect did the use of aircraft have on popular cultures of exploration? And, perhaps most importantly, what can this tell us about broader trends in American interwar culture?
Images of the Arctic landscape played key roles in 19th and early 20th-century Anglo-American polar narratives. Constructed as an untamed, wild space beyond the limits of the modern, civilized world, the polar environment supplied the necessary setting for the explorer’s enactment of a set of interlocking heroic, masculine, and national identities. In particular, the direct encounter between the explorer’s male body and the powerful forces of this wild space, by turns alluringly beautiful and fatally dangerous, provides the opportunity for the explorer to demonstrate his masculine heroism. The introduction of aircraft, with their ability to lift the explorer above the dangers of the Arctic’s icy surface, however, seems to fundamentally destabilize both this relationship between explorer and environment, and the Arctic’s status as a space untouched by the modern world. Previous expeditions had deployed modern or cutting-edge technologies such as Robert Falcon Scott’s motorized sledges or Robert Peary’s steamship, the Roosevelt, but placing aircraft at the centre of his expeditions in the way that Byrd did represented a departure from previous treatments of technology. Indeed, according to some scholars, the use of aircraft presented such a challenge to the existing narratives that it marked the end of the era of heroic exploration. And yet, chroniclers of Byrd’s expedition, including the explorer himself, sought to preserve his status as heroic explorers. To do so they produced complex, sometimes ambivalent, re-imaginings of polar exploration as they sought to integrate heroic masculinity within a technologically advanced practice.
My research investigates the popular culture of 20th-century American exploration by analysing the narratives and images surrounding American aviator Richard Byrd’s interwar polar flights. Exploring the popular culture of 20th-century polar exploration offers important insights into the changing nature of American cultures of masculinity – particularly the relationship between notions of masculinity, technology, nature, and heroism.
My research approaches exploration as an endeavour that encompasses more than simply the journey itself, but also involves the process of converting the expedition into consumable narratives. As existing scholarship on the history of exploration demonstrates, representations of explorers and expeditions often functioned as expressions of more general historical and cultural contexts. Thus, I draw on a variety of historical sources, including print media, in order to evaluate what popular images of Byrd can tell us about broader cultural trends. By examining Anglo-American press coverage of the expedition my work explores the renegotiation of these narratives. Extending the history of exploration into the interwar period, my research challenges the assumption that the introduction of aircraft automatically produced an image of a conquered North, and illustrates how writing technology into the narratives of polar exploration produced complex, layered, and sometimes contradictory images of masculine heroism. At the same time, this material also demonstrates the ways in which polar exploration continued to function as an important field for the expression and negotiation of national identities.
My project greatly benefited from access to the British Library’s strong collection of American periodicals and newspapers that are not available elsewhere in the UK. During my fellowship I consulted a broad range of publications from across the United States, including 18 newspapers from cities on the East coast, the West coast, in the Midwest, and the South, all of which carried coverage of Byrd and his flight. Access to media covering a variety of geographical locations and political positions afforded me a more nuanced, nation-wide picture of American popular cultures of exploration than that available through standard papers of record such as the New York Times. I also had the opportunity to consult a number of American periodicals, including Woman’s Home Companion, Popular Science, McCall’s, and Boy’s Life. This material provided important insights into the ways in which Byrd’s flight was represented for specific audiences – particularly how notions of masculinity and technological heroism were presented to women and children.
During my fellowship I completed two chapters of a book-length project based on this project. The material from the British Library provided essential information for these chapters, which examine changing American notions of masculinity and popular cultures of technology and modernity. I also contributed an entry on aerial exploration for the British Library’s Science Blog, and appreciated the opportunity to present the results of my research as part of the Eccles Centre’s Summer Scholars programme, as well as at the University of Aberdeen Museums, the ‘Heroes’ conference hosted by The Hero Project, and ‘Debunking National Heroes’ at the University of Manchester.
Marionne Cronin is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Aberdeen.