Richard E. Byrd and the Legacy of Polar Exploration: Introduction

By Hofstra, Warren R. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Richard E. Byrd and the Legacy of Polar Exploration: Introduction


Hofstra, Warren R., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Introduction

THE life of Richard E. Byrd spanned an epoch in American history. At the same time that this renowned explorer and aviator stood out as a symbol of his times, his life was so deeply influenced by the defining tendencies of those times that it, too, could be called epochal. Born in 1888 in Winchester, a small Virginia town on the edge of the Appalachian Mountains, he died sixty-nine years later in the great port city of Boston. He entered the world at a time when trains were the fastest means of travel, telephones were a novelty, electricity was still the plaything of inventors, and human flight was regarded as impossible by most Americans. The United States was industrializing rapidly, but it was not yet recognized as a great power among the industrial nations of the world. And much of that world was still unknown, with vast areas around its poles appearing on maps as empty white spaces.

In 1957, the year Byrd died, human history entered the space age with the first orbiting satellite. Meanwhile, scheduled air traffic across the oceans was rapidly becoming commonplace, and voice communications encircled the globe. The international news media, employing radio, television, and a small army of reporters and commentators, had come to shape, if not determine, perspectives on global politics. As the world's leading industrial producer, America had become a superpower engaged in a Cold War in which the survival of the human species seemed at stake. During this same age, many Americans were growing worried that what would be termed the "military-industrial" complex had become so inextricably linked to central power in Washington, D.C., that democracy itself was in peril. The life of Richard E. Byrd was intricately woven into all of these developments-he helped shape them just as his career was shaped by them. To examine his legacy, then, is to address the central issues of our recent past.

The national and international scope of Byrd's legacy does not mean that his story is not at the same time a Virginia story. Richard E. Byrd was a member of a notable Virginia family whose roots extended deep into the seventeenth century and whose members have played prominent roles in the affairs of state to the present day. Few other names are so closely associated in the public mind with the Virginia experience. The state's history has been shaped by numerous individuals like Richard E. Byrd who left the Old Dominion to achieve fame, fortune, and political power elsewhere. Virginians have long been in the front ranks of American explorers, and many moved west with the nation as its frontier pushed across the continent to the Pacific Ocean in the nineteenth century. Byrd, moreover, returned to his native state on numerous occasions, often visiting family after a recent achievement before proceeding to massive celebrations in New York and other major cities. He lectured frequently in Virginia's large and small towns about his expeditions. In addition, the great historical themes embodied in the life of Richard E. Byrd profoundly affected all the people of his home state. Its agrarian past and the catastrophe of the Civil War delayed the industrialization of Virginia until its revolutionizing effects coincided with Byrd's life. The new media so influential in shaping Byrd's career in the 1930s also drew Virginia into the mass culture of American life as Virginians responded to the national crisis of the Great Depression. And finally, just as Byrd's contributions to science and exploration assumed national significance amid international tensions leading toward World War II and throughout the Cold War following it, so did the Virginia economy come to depend increasingly upon national defense at this same time.

The essays in this issue of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography are not intended as a comprehensive life-and-times biography of Richard E. Byrd. They are, instead, four separate reflections on his career and its meaning in history. …

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