Explorer: The Life of Richard E. Byrd
Matuozzi, Robert N., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Explorer: The Life of Richard E. Byrd * Lisle Rose * University of Missouri Press, 2008 * xxiii, 544 pp. * $34.95
Reviewed by Robert N. Matuozzi, associate professor and librarian at Washington State University. His article "Richard Byrd, Polar Exploration, and the Media" appeared in the special issue of the VMHB on Admiral Byrd (2002).
"Polar politics and personalities have always divided historians and distorted history" (p. 66). With this offhand observation, Lisle Rose clues the reader to something very important about the historiography of modern polar exploration and more particularly about early twentieth-century American polar exploration and its discontents. Among historians and scientists, popularizers, partisan supporters, fellow explorers, and assorted polar buffs (altogether a relatively small fraternity), the careers and accomplishments of the major figures from this era have sometimes been the source of bitter controversy and dissension, if not outright skepticism and revisionism. The degree to which the available documentary evidence from this period has been sifted, analyzed, parsed, assembled, and repeatedly debated would make a medieval theologian blush with shame (or envy). This is especially true regarding the privately funded polar expeditions of Richard Byrd, Frederick Cook, and Robert Peary. The lingering historical disputes associated with their major expeditions are made knottier by the claims of the principal participants themselves. Additionally, the dramatized news stories produced by the rival media organizations they collaborated with to partially fund and publicize their polar exploits offer a problematic first draft of history.
What is the observer to make of this polar hubbub? It seems there have been more or less two spins. One involves the deliberate misrepresentation and distortion entailed by the construction of a heroic icon. The other involves the deliberate misrepresentation and distortion entailed by the deconstruction of a heroic icon. Both freely substitute innuendo and tenuous speculation for reliable evidence and conscientious analysis. Moreover, both camps indulge in ad hominem attacks, motive-mongering, wishful thinking, and hyperbole in an odd bid to stir up controversy and make news. A third approach - producing a critical approximation of historical and biographical truth - is somewhat marginal in the polar literature for not being openly partisan. Furthermore, this thumbnail overview excludes versions that recycle ad nauseam the received opinions and shopworn allegations stemming from old polar disputes.
We cannot reasonably expect historians to come to their task without preconceptions. We do expect them to work in good faith, honestly and carefully evaluating all the available evidence with an open mind. Given this murky state of affairs, Lisle Rose's well-researched and wonderfully written biography of Richard Evelyn Byrd is perhaps the best account we are likely to have of this curious and complex figure. It is certainly the most thoughtful and entertaining book-length description of Byrd's polar expeditions since Eugene Rodger's Beyond the Barrier: The Story of Byrd's First Expedition to Antarctica (1990). Significantly, these are the first historical monographs on Byrd substantially based on the Byrd Papers at Ohio State University. …