Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"A Tribute of Respect to the Dead": Narrative Containment and Focal Substitution in Leopold McClintock's "The Voyage of the 'Fox'"

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"A Tribute of Respect to the Dead": Narrative Containment and Focal Substitution in Leopold McClintock's "The Voyage of the 'Fox'"

Article excerpt

In 1859, Captain Leopold McClintock was lauded as a hero upon his return to England from a two-year Arctic expedition that was declared by the Athenaeum as "one of the most important voyages ever made in the Arctic Seas" (24 December 1859, 845). McClintock and his crew of 24 had pushed Lady Franklin's converted luxury schooner Fox into the Eastern pack ice during the winter of 1858-59, prosecuting a final search for the remains of Sir John Franklin's missing crews and eventually discovering a single piece of paper outlining the lost expedition's intentions to march en masse to the Arctic mainland. McClintock's vastly popular published narrative of the expedition was accorded, as a Chambers's Journal editorialist put it, "great value as a simple and satisfactory narrative" of heroism and sacrifice (C J: January-June 1860, 39), but the present essay argues that it was actually neither transparent nor straightforward. McClintock's "simple tale" is in fact the product of a series of complex narrative negotiations that rejuvenate Arctic exploration generally--and Franklin specifically--as a suitable subject for nationalist pride (Murchison xxxvii). Examining both the written and the visual texts of Voyage, this paper analyzes how McClintock uses a dual strategy of narrative containment and focal substitution to rewrite the story of Franklin's expedition as a monument to British fortitude and duty, and to discourage any imaginative reconstruction of Arctic disaster by offering himself and his crews as visual and narrative stand-ins for members of the lost expedition.

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In 1859 Captain Leopold McClintock was lauded as a hero upon his return from a two-year Arctic expedition, an expedition declared by the Athenaeum as "one of the most important voyages ever made in the Arctic Seas" (24 December 1859, 845). McClintock and his stalwart team of 24 had pushed Lady Franklin's converted luxury schooner Fox into the Eastern pack ice to nestle in the frigid archipelago of islands during the winter of 1858-59, prosecuting a final search for the remains of Sir John Franklin's missing crews by man- and dog-hauled sledge. McClintock discovered piles of refuse from Franklin's crews, a number of skeletons, and a single piece of paper outlining the lost expedition's intentions to march en masse to the Arctic mainland. Though the information on the rust-stained paper was partially incorrect, partially irrelevant, and inconsistent with much of the other physical evidence McClintock located, he declared upon its discovery that his task was concluded, and that the mystery and manner of Franklin's disappearance had been solved. Upon his return the popular press largely agreed, with many editorials signaling a triumphant end to the twelve-year-long quest: "Such is the tale now told" (Athenaeum 24 September 1859, 399). The tale that McClintock told in his Voyage of the Fox in the Arctic Seas, that Franklin's "heroic men perished in the path of duty," was a revision of a report received in 1854 that Franklin's crews had succumbed to cannibalism before perishing on an island just north of the mainland (McClintock, 318). Though the Times had issued McClintock's initial report to the Admiralty into print with minimal fanfare (concluding its leader with the firm "Let the dead bury the dead" [23 September 1859, 7]), the majority of public responses to McClintock's expedition and its subsequent narrative were far more positive. The reason for the press's "high opinion of Capt. McClintock's literary performance" was not his narrative skill, but rather the nature of the story he told: that Sir John Franklin had died a hero (Athenaeum 24 December 1859, 845). (1)

As Jen Hill points out, questions and answers about Franklin, his men, and his missing ships echoed through larger "discussions of the nature and boundaries of national identity" during the period, making the discovery of his fate (and heroism) not just significant to Arctic enthusiasts, but to the nation (114). …

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