Writing the Edge of Nation: Cultural Histories of the Arctic


For many of us who are south of the Arctic Circle, the northernmost region of the planet has historically been imagined as cold, desolate, and remote: an icy wilderness at the end of the earth. It has been imagined as a space that is outside of politics, culture, and human history, and yet precisely because of this perceived remoteness, it has also been deeply constitutive of ideas of nation, gender, and nature, particularly for Western empires. In this essay, I wish to critically analyse ten cultural histories of the Arctic to discern the major themes, methodologies, analytical frameworks, and sources that have been explored by this varied set of authors. It is important to mention at the outset that not all the present authors are historians, with several working in fields including anthropology, natural history, and literary studies. This is, however, perhaps the point: the Arctic is a physically, politically, and culturally ambiguous space that cannot be easily defined. The liminality of ice floes and contested borders have perhaps influenced the shifting nexus of colonialism, gender, and wilderness that the present authors seem to focus on. The Arctic, it will be apparent, is in no sense a settled space. Indeed, in the introduction to The Idea of North, Peter Davidson develops the refrain “everyone carries their own idea of north within them,” which precedes each varying notion of the north that he briefly touches upon, many of which challenge traditional imaginaries of an icy polar north. As he sets course toward the true north of his study, it quickly becomes apparent that Davidson’s panoply of ‘norths’ offers a veritable ocean of possible meanings for the term. And so, he charts poetry, paintings, histories, novels, films, and accounts of exploration that flow toward the idea of north, but ultimately, for Davidson, never reach it. This is perhaps his point: “The more we try to capture the essential ideas of north […] the more the true north recedes […] As a descriptor of place, ‘north’ is shifting and elusive, yet, paradoxically, it is a term that evokes a precise – even passionate – response in most people” (Davidson, 23).


The history of the exploration, political engagement, and artistic representation of the Arctic is one which foregrounds above all else the idea of difference. The voyage from the settled home to incomprehensibly shifting ice floes was a passage from the legible to the illegible, the known to the unknown, the civilized to the wild. It was, in many ways, a journey that inscribed the dichotomy of wilderness and civilization onto the psycho-geography of the nation. This inscription was the drawing of a boundary line that demarcated the limits of empire, beyond which was terra nullius, or empty space. So, such voyages to the Arctic were not simply about the discovery of distant lands or new sea routes – which themselves were of course lucrative colonial enterprises – but they were at least as much about defining the home nation. The binary that these journeys revealed and re-inscribed each time they were taken is a central operation of how the nation secures itself: by identifying the site of difference, the nation defines what it is not and thus what it is. It is as if the Arctic has been deployed as a mirror upon which the nation hopes to reveal a secure image of itself. This is of particular import to the various periods that many cultural histories of the Arctic are concerned with, which by and large centre on the 19th and early 20th centuries, during times of national introspection, growing imperial ambitions, and ambivalence about empire. Indeed, the theme of mirrors and the reflecting nation is specifically developed in many of these cultural histories as a metaphor of alterity and the definition of the self through the identification of the other.

This is most apparent in Yuri Slezkine’s Arctic Mirrors, a greatly impressive history of how the indigenous peoples of northern Russia have featured in and affected Russian national identity throughout a dizzying stretch of centuries. As the title suggests, Slezkine is arguing that we can better understand the construction of Russian identity by looking at what was constructed as the ‘other’ in relation to the ‘normal’ Russian citizen. The ‘numerically small peoples of the north,’ Slezkine demonstrates, held an important and contested place in Russian culture and the minds of Russians. By defining this ‘other’ of the North – which was achieved through political discourse, policy making, and artistic and popular culture – Russians were able to define what they themselves were not, thus constructing a stronger sense of their own Russianness and identity as such. Slezkine states that his book “is a history of that relationship, a story of Russia’s confrontation with its remotest ‘living ancestors,’ a study of the place of the ‘small peoples’ in the Russian empire and in the Russian mind.” Slezkine tells us that the ‘small people of the north’ “have been the most consistent antipodes of whatever it meant to be Russian […] they have provided a remote but crucial point of reference for speculations on human and Russian identity, while at the same time serving as a convenient testing ground for policies and images that grew out of those speculations” (Slezkine, ix). Which is an idea that is equally well captured by John McCannon in his rather different study of Russia’s relationship with its Arctic region, Red Arctic. McCannon argues that:  “[T]he language used in the USSR to describe the North reveals as much about attitudes toward the Soviet Union itself as it does about the polar world. The Arctic myth touched upon the way the Soviets perceived their nation’s future, past, and present. In effect, the Arctic itself became a looking glass, helping the Soviets to create images for themselves out of those they used to depict the northern periphery” (McCannon, 89).

The theme of cultural difference and the delineation of the self/other dichotomy is present too in Karen Oslund’s innovative study of North Atlantic imaginaries, Iceland Imagined. While the region addressed in her book is not always the Arctic per se – it is often, as the title suggests, Iceland, which sits just below the Arctic Circle, but she is also interested in areas of Greenland – the theme of ‘North as different’ is impressively explored by the author. Oslund begins her study with a personal anecdote of her first visit to Iceland, in which she remarks on the striking contrast between the shiny modernity of Reykjavik’s architecture and the reason that many tourists visit the island nation, namely to explore the rich history of its medieval literature. Defining precisely what Iceland’s status is within the community of states seems singularly difficult, occupying as it does a geographical position on the ‘outskirts’ of Europe. Crucially, it is not just on the margins or outskirts of European geography, but also on the margins and outskirts of European identity too. For European tourists in Iceland in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, Iceland provided a dark mirror upon which one might reflect upon European modernity. It existed in a position of alterity to the Western European mind, as a foil against the entire project of the Enlightenment. Along these lines Oslund asks us: “According to which standards of measurement can we call this small island in the North Atlantic European? If we find it different in some way, in some way not European, as European travelers to Iceland from the eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century often did, how are these differences then used to define European norms?” She argues that it is precisely in such a complex site of difference that we can most clearly determine how differences are deployed in the construction of identities. “By looking at the edges of Europe in the North Atlantic,” she continues, “we can understand what it means to be European by identifying which aspects of life on these borders traveling Europeans found to be exotic, strange, and disconcerting” (Oslund, 7). Oslund locates the European imaginary of the North Atlantic within the broader European imaginaries of the colonial world. Drawing on Edward Said’s highly influential work of postcolonial theory, Orientalism, Oslund states that she is attempting to reveal how the European gaze operated in similar ways in the North Atlantic as it did in the Orient and Pacific. However, she also insists that there are inherent differences in how this gaze constructed the North Atlantic from other ‘marginal’ spaces of the globe. She claims that territories more distant from Europe “did not call [European] categories into question,” that is to say they were so remote from the lives of European travellers as to not challenge the conceptual apparatus with which they were viewed. For European travellers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the more distant the territory, the less challenged their simplified imaginary of the place would be, and so its category as being totally ‘other’ would not be disturbed. Through a process of alterity, European travellers defined the ‘home,’ the ‘self,’ and the ‘normal’ when counterpointed with the ‘foreign,’ the ‘other,’ and the ‘different’ of faraway places. But, Oslund tells us, “in the North Atlantic, a region considered both ‘close’ and ‘small’ in the European imagination, the categories of ‘self’ and ‘other,’ ‘home’ and ‘away’ became less distinct. The result was a sense of confusion about where the North Atlantic was with respect to the ‘civilized world’ and by what measures this civilized world could be recognized” (Oslund, 9-10). Indeed, Oslund specifically draws on the imagery of mirrors as she explains that “[t]ravel writers from [European] regions used the journey into foreign lands to reflect on conditions at home. Their use of non-Western regions as mirrors of themselves is a dominant motif of this literature” (Oslund, 19).

Oslund is not the only of these authors to draw on Said’s work, nor indeed the only to draw more broadly on postcolonial theorists. While historically (and presently) much of the Arctic has been imagined as empty space by Europeans and Americans, and while it is true that it was never a formal colony in the way that North America or India were, for example, the postcolonial analytics of alterity and ‘othering’ are tremendously helpful for authors like Oslund in understanding how and why imaginaries of the Arctic have been so important for nations further south to situate themselves within the world. The reason for this is precisely the peculiar position that the Arctic holds within the tapestry of European colonial spaces. In White Horizon, a highly insightful study of the Arctic in the 19th century British imagination, the literary scholar Jen Hill notes that the Arctic functioned during that century as “a blank space on which to map white deeds that in turn produced a legible national identity, one that could be transported back to the metropole” (Hill, 9). Hill draws on a number of postcolonial authors including Said, Benedict Anderson (specifically Imagined Communities), and Homi Bhabha to explain how the Arctic, like any ‘exterior’ or ‘other’ place, has historically performed a vital role in the construction of British national identity. It is, after all, by showing the limits of national space that one can grasp what the national space precisely is. She ties this notion of the construction of national character and space into the work of both Anderson – specifically his oft-cited theory of the ‘imagined community’ – and David Harvey – whose Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference demonstrates how spaces are discursively constructed. Drawing extensively on the culture and national mythology that developed after Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated 1844 Arctic expedition to discover a navigable route through the Northwest passage, Hill suggests that: “[I]f the Arctic was for Britons a place to reify, stabilize, and naturalize a definition of Britishness that could provide an antidote to increasingly unstable and multiple versions of Britishness that existed at home and in the colonies, the metonymic chain broken by the missing bodies of the Franklin expedition had far-reaching implications for the stability of Britain’s sense of itself not only as a nation, but as a colonial and imperial power” (Hill, 15).


Hill opens White Horizon in precisely the same manner as Lisa Bloom opens Gender on Ice, with a reference to Joseph Conrad’s immensely enduring novella of colonial ambivalence, Heart of Darkness. Hill draws attention to the brief mention of Sir John Franklin within Conrad’s opening page, demonstrating that for Conrad’s readers, figures like Franklin were part of a famous litany of ill-fated Arctic explorers that were still very present in the contemporary imagination of 19th century Britons. Hill cleverly deploys this reference with the double intention of situating her study within the field of colonial literature and highlighting an ambivalent view of imperialism and the attendant moral decline of Europe that existed at that time. Hill tells us that Conrad’s reference to a doomed polar explorer “maps Arctic geography onto the national imagination,” which instigates “a meditation on Arctic exploration and the limits of the European imperial project” (Hill, 1). Hill seems to be performing an associative technique that mirrors Conrad’s own, using the latter’s well-known novella to resituate the cultural study of the Arctic within the 19th century colonial imagination. Hill also draws on the literature of Mary Shelley, Jane Austin, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charlotte Brontë and others to delineate an imaginary of the Arctic as “the limit of both empire and human experience” (Hill, 3). In Hill’s view, the Arctic was imagined in 19th century Britain as an ‘empty space’ in which white, Victorian masculinities and nationalisms could be inscribed through exploration and mapping. So, Hill’s work is clearly positioned at the critical end of cultural research, setting out to critique the literature of the era with the desire to unearth historical performances of nationalism and masculinity, which in turn reveal cultural insecurities about space and race. Indeed, Hill identifies the notion of the Arctic as “a test limit for ideas the Romantics and Victorians had about themselves, a place in which they experimented with and made legible forms of identity and their attendant anxieties” (Hill, 3).

Turning to cultural works such as novels and popular accounts of expeditions to unearth imaginaries of the Arctic is hardly unique to Hill, nor to the context of 19th century Britain. As Sherrill E. Grace has noted in her impressively wide-ranging and interdisciplinary study Canada and the Idea of North, “the North has been and continues to be written about and represented in verbal images and tropes, and in a range of sign systems besides language. Indeed, what we know as North is the product of this writing, these representations” (Grace, 21). For authors such as Grace, the idea of North and how it affects national identities is contested within the realm of culture as much as within politics. We can also see this in Lisa E. Bloom’s ground-breaking work on the construction of American masculinity in the early 20th century, Gender on Ice. In this study, Bloom interrogates the history of 20th century US imperialism in the Arctic in order to access a much broader debate in cultural studies about gender, nationalism, and the politics of imperialism. Bloom is interested in analysing the narrative of imperialism in the Arctic to discover who and what is considered ‘American.’ She draws considerably on The National Geographic throughout her work, arguing that the popular magazine significantly constituted imaginaries of the U.S. as a powerful empire at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. The National Geographic Society, which then as now published the magazine, was a financial backer of the explorer Robert Peary’s contentious 1909 expedition to locate the North Pole. In the foreword to Peary’s subsequent account of the expedition, Gilbert Grosvenor (an editor of The National Geographic) foregrounds science in the narrative of Peary’s expedition. Indeed, Bloom notes how Peary is depicted by Grosvenor as a scientific manager, resourcefully bending nature and Inuit people to his will. “One of the implicit arguments made in Grosvenor’s mythological account,” Bloom tells us, “is for the universalism of science. Science has a magical effect in the narrative. It transforms everything it touches, making ships unsinkable, and turning ordinary men into supermen.” (Bloom, 24).

By studying the print media of the day, Bloom seeks to develop Benedict Anderson’s theories of national identity formation through the press, incorporating a “broad process of gender exclusion and racial discrimination that occurs within the domains of discourse and institutional practices that sanction nationalism.” She situates The National Geographic within “the discursive space that normally belonged to governmental institutions” (Bloom, 57). The magazine constructed itself as a purveyor of knowledge that brought the previously obscure work of scientists to the broader public consciousness. It sought to create a new visuality of knowledge and science through the extensive use of photography. It also brought together and melded ideas of U.S. democracy and U.S. technology (Bloom, 62).

The importance of print media in forming public imaginaries of the Arctic has been pervasive throughout much of the history of European and American engagement in and exploration of the region. For Robert McGhee, the arts and media have been essential elements in bringing the Arctic to public consciousness in the first place. He argues that with such great geographical distance separating the physical reality of the Arctic from people in more temperate parts of the world, many have had to rely more on cultural factors such as mythology, literature, and artistic conventions, than on hard facts about the Arctic. He argues that: “Most of the books that set out to portray the Arctic have ignored this component of our multi-layered human reality. They describe the temperatures and the seasons of the lands around the pole, the many forms of sea ice and their vital importance to the life of the region, the marvellous animals and tiny resilient plants, the ingenious, resourceful natives, the intrepid explorers and investigators who brought the territory into the realm of science” (McGhee, 9).

His own work, he tells us, charts this history in a different way, focusing not on themes of isolation and alien peoples, but rather on a “global history of human endeavour.” In other words, he is interested in history of the Arctic that foregrounds the region as peopled rather than terra nullius. McGhee argues that the themes of emptiness and isolation have coalesced to “form a vision of a distant and fantastic Arctic as seen through the window of Western culture,” which has formed the foundations of travel books, scientific reports, and government policies on the region. This has made the region less of a real place and more of a “dream of a unique, unattainable and compellingly attractive world” (McGhee, 10).

In a work not entirely dissimilar to McGhee’s, Peter Davidson allows his eclectic interests to shine through in an extremely diverse range of sources. In The Idea of North, Davidson draws extensively on poetry, painting, novels, and films. He is at his best in this eclecticism, which delineates the variety of ways that writers and artists have imagined the North and the various themes of isolation, community, femininity, masculinity, hauntings, illusion, abandonment, distance, sadness, and a multitude of others. He is interested in fictitious Norths, such as Vladimir Nabokov’s Zembla in the novel Pale Fire (118) or Philip Pullman’s reimagined Svalbard in Northern Lights (122); he is interested in otherworldly Norths created by science fiction authors such as M John Harrison and Ursula K Le Guin (124); he is interested in how Chinese and Japanese writers and artists imagined the North (186); and he is interested in imaginaries of northern England, both the Arthurian land of Gawain and the Green Knight, the novels of the Brontës, and the bleak industrial North (215). While Davidson’s analytical framework may not be fully stated, and indeed seems so broad as to be almost an intuitive grouping of thematic areas, it is worth bearing in mind that his book is very much aimed at a general reader rather than an academic audience. What it all adds up to is perhaps best thought of as a compendium of the myriad imaginings of what the North is. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to view Davidson’s book as an intellectual history of his own obsession of what north means. Ultimately, there may not be much more of an argument in this book other than the refrain that Davidson develops in the introduction: “everyone carries their own idea of north within them.”

The Wild North

An inescapable facet of northern and Arctic imaginaries is the stark presence of nature, which is depicted in many different ways, but most often as hostile. Certainly, the idea of wilderness is generally synonymous with uninhabited and ‘natural’ places in which humans – through neglect or inability – have not yet made their mark on the land. Cultural histories of wilderness and the Arctic can reveal that wilderness is in fact no more natural than the modern city. As William Cronon has argued, “far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, [wilderness] is quite profoundly a human creation” (Cronon, 69). That is to say, that through a process of alterity, wilderness is a social construction derived from the experience of modernity and civilisation. Rather than a space that is outside of human history and time, it is an essential constituent of how the post-paleolithic mind has constructed the human world (c.f. Oelschlaeger) and shaped the dominant anthropocentric ontologies at the root of Western society. It is a complex idea that aided the European Enlightenment to both industrialize nature in an unprecedented way and justify the violence and racism of colonialism. The idea of wilderness is locked into a way of thinking about the world that places white men at the very center.

The Arctic has historically been imagined by outsiders in such ways. Since the earliest European engagement with the region, it has been imagined as a space beyond the pale of human history and culture. For the outsider, it has held “a longstanding significance as a critical and exceptional space of modernity […] utilized and imagined as a location where the past, present, and future of the planet’s environmental and geopolitical systems are played out” (Körber, MacKenzie, Westerståhl Stenport, 1). Political discourse and artistic performances / representations have frequently served to naturalize and exoticize notions of ‘wilderness’ in outsider imaginaries of the Arctic. And yet, as Susan Kollin has argued, far northern frontiers are not marginal spaces at all, but spaces that are deeply constitutive to ideas of territory, nation and identity (Kollin). The Arctic has featured so heavily in the imaginations of non-Arctic people precisely because it has been the alter of civilization, a strange mirror that shows the hidden half of civilization’s face. In this way, imaginaries of the Arctic have almost without exception foregrounded ideas of nature and wilderness, with huge consequences for human interaction with the region. As Julie Cruikshank has noted in her remarkably rich and academically disruptive history of social imagination in the Mount Saint Elias mountains: “long-contested views of nature weave uneasily through a history of encounters among humans and glaciers and into contemporary discussions about Protected Areas, parks, and a new World Heritage site that now encompasses the region” (Cruikshank, 4).

In Red Arctic, John McCannon identifies a cultural antagonism toward nature as one of the key constituents of the Soviet Arctic imaginary. The Arctic epitomized an imagined “battleground for the war against the environment.” McCannon argues that the region “became the ultimate enemy, personified by Stalinist discourse as a tangible, anthropomorphic opponent” (McCannon, 93). While battling the elements is hardly something unique to how a nation delineates its sense of political and national authority within and outside of its borders, McCannon discerns two powerful symbols that were unique to the Soviet Arctic imaginary: the polar bear and the North Pole. The former, McCannon tells us, featured in countless photographs and films as a lifeless corpse before the feet of a hunter, or deployed as a motif involving “the placement of Soviet aircraft, the most potent symbol of the country’s technological prowess, above a group of polar bears, who stare quizzically up at the sky as if they were confused primitives.” (McCannon, 84). The latter, McCannon correctly notes, has throughout history carried a vast repository of symbolic meaning for the West. He distinguishes the North Pole from the other exotic and seemingly unattainable sites on the periphery of empire, noting that “the pole represented the literal and figurative top of the world: mastery over it amounted to mastery over the highest of high grounds, strategic or sacred.” It was an alluring and intriguing “blank space on the map,” which Hill and Bloom also identify as highly formative to British and American imaginaries of nation and empire. McCannon analyses well-publicized events such as the Cheliuskin adventure, “a Robinson Crusoe story writ large,” in which the crew of the Cheliuskin was driven off course by ice floes and stranded. With the ship’s hull damaged, the crew were put in immense danger. In his memoirs, crew member Ernst Krenkel writes with considerable malice about the ice, describing its advance with words such as ‘onslaught,’ thus developing an imaginary of hostile nature in the Arctic (McCannon, 85). This is an image that is not unfamiliar in McGhee’s The Last Imaginary Place, in which he notes that he came to know the Arctic initially through the literature of European exploration, which for the most part described the region as “a place of infinite hardship and danger. Its beauty lay in its wildness, the absence of the familiar, and the testing of human spirit in clean combat between intrepid men and relentless nature” (McGhee, 34).

In Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez’s wildly popular blend of natural and cultural history, we can discover a depiction of arctic nature that is rather different. For Lopez, the pristine whiteness of the Arctic inspires dreams and the desire for peace. To spend time above the Arctic Circle is to exist ‘timelessly’ in a “vast bowl of stillness,” or in a land that “seems guileless.” In his highly personal narrative, he views muskoxen “grazing so placidly in the hills to the south and in the sedge meadows to the east,” and finds them “so resplendent with life.” (Lopez, 44-45). Lopez’s book is perhaps an outlier in the present selection, due only in part to its huge commercial success. It is a work that skirts between memoir, natural history, cultural history, and flirts with novelistic traditions. His major analytic is perhaps less illuminating that the other examples within this essay, particularly in his accounts of expeditions such as Franklin’s, in which suggests that within the quest for the Northwest Passage we can find “one of the oldest of all human yearnings – finding the material fortune that lies beyond human struggle, and the peace that lies on the other side of hope” (Lopez, 308). Later, he describes arctic history as “a legacy of desire – the desire of individual men to achieve their goals.” (Lopez, 309).


Despite Lopez’s apparent lack of critical analysis – and perhaps total absence of an acknowledged methodology – his rather beautiful book does raise some interesting thematic and analytical terms. The notion of desire, which runs throughout his loosely structured and dreamy book, is an interesting way to approach some of the ideas that he ultimately does not fully critique. When he writes that arctic history is about “the desire of individual mean to achieve their goal,” (Lopez, 309) we can perhaps fill in the blank spaces and move toward the analytical framework of masculinity that is so often deployed by several of the other present authors to further understand how the Arctic has been culturally constructed at various points in history. Indeed, Sherrill E. Grace notes that the “North has been constructed and represented as a feminized space in which to test white male identity, virility, and competence” (Grace, 73). This is certainly not unique to how Western explorers and their broader societies have constructed Arctic space – Cynthia Enloe’s Bananas, Beaches and Bases and Anne McClintock’s Imperial Leather have demonstrated the predominance of gendered language and culture in the history of other colonized spaces – but Hill and Bloom in particular have developed gender as a key analytical category in their studies of the Arctic in highly impressive ways. As Bloom notes in Gender on Ice: “Ideologies of gender were central to polar ‘discovery,’ and exploration narratives are a rich source for the analysis of stereotypes of white masculinity during this era. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, polar exploration narratives played a prominent part in defining the social construction of masculinity and legitimized the exclusion of women from many public domains of discourse. As all-male activities, the explorations symbolically enacted the men’s own battle to become men” (Bloom, 6)

Bloom’s methodology in her work is an interesting one, particularly given that she published her study in 1993. While she doesn’t use the term itself, Bloom points toward the theoretical perspective of feminist intersectionality – a term that only emerged four or five years before Bloom’s study – citing a considerable influence by feminist theorists on color, race, class, and lesbianism. She situates her influences both inside and outside of the academy, stating that she has drawn considerably on feminist and gay activists (Bloom, xi). In particular, Bloom is influenced by feminist and queer theorists of masculinity. She draws on Arthur Brittan’s formulation of masculinism, which distinguishes between the ideology of masculinity and the essence and way of being of masculinism. She argues that “[t]he story of polar exploration raises inescapably the issue of the relation between masculinism and nationalism in the popular media. As modern nationalism became defined through polar exploration in the early twentieth century, important norms emerged that demarcated ideals of manliness” (Bloom, 11). By drawing on the work of theorists of nationalism such as Benedict Anderson and Paul Gilroy, Bloom explores process of masculine identity formation and racial and sexual exclusion within the practices and discourses of nationalism. Gender is, for Bloom, something that is both discernible from and articulated within narratives of US polar exploration, and links in highly complex ways with the US nationalism and the growing confidence in a nascent empire.

Hill similarly finds a complex nexus nationalism, gender, and colonialism at play in 19th century accounts of British exploration at the pole. In White Horizon, she often engages in a comparative approach between related literary works in order to enrich her analysis of the milieu in which each text was written. Contrasting Robert Southey’s Life of Nelson and Sir John Franklin’s Narrative of a Journey to the Shore of the Polar Sea, which are both accounts of their protagonists’ formative Arctic expeditions, Hill reveals a shifting confidence in Britain’s sense of nationalism and the solidity of the masculine body. In Southey’s account of the young Nelson, Hill identifies a stolid British masculinity behind a narrative of ‘boy becoming man’ in the hostile nature of a pristine arctic landscape. While embattled, the masculine body – a stand-in for the nation – relies on British pluck and confidence to overcome freezing winds and marauding polar bears. However, in Franklin’s tale of his own first Arctic expedition, written several decades later, Hill identifies a young naval officer who describes an arctic landscape that is far from pristine, and one in which the masculine-national body is emaciated and almost entirely annihilated by nature. By comparing these two widely read and highly influential accounts of British missions into arctic space, Hill unearths the considerable changes that a few decades had on British imperial confidence, which she argues has a great deal to do with colonial relations with India and a growing uneasiness with empire in Britain – particularly with regards to concerns over disease and the undoing of the masculine-national body in the humid colonial outposts of the tropics (Hill, 41). She also focuses on literary works that seem to be on the margin of British expansion into the Arctic region, namely those of 19th century women writers. The Arctic as understood by the 19th century British public was a space populated by white masculine bodies, a space that did not allow femininity. And yet Hill discovers a wealth of references to the region in the works of authors such as Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austin, Mary Shelley, and others. In studying the work of these female authors, specifically focusing on their careful positioning of the Arctic as a national imaginary, Hill reveals a site of both national and gendered contestation centring on how the masculine body was defined in the marginal spaces of empire.

Conclusion: Silence

In her highly innovative study of the entanglement of natural and cultural history in the Mount Saint Elias region, Do Glaciers Listen? Julie Cruikshank takes the novel approach of anthropomorphizing glaciers and imagining them as listening subjects in history of the North. The glaciers in her study bear witness to the competing narratives and conceptualizations of nature in a wide array of sources, covering indigenous oral storytelling, the journals of European (and other) travellers, and the practical work of geophysical scientists. But perhaps it is incorrect to view such an approach as novel, because the entire purpose of Cruikshank’s study seems to be to allow indigenous perspectives on what is animate, or what counts as testimony, into academic discourse. Noting the inclusion of nature within accounts of human affairs has been central to many oral traditions, and indeed Cruikshank tells us that one of her major objectives “is to provide an account of how interpretations of nature, social, and cultural worlds became gradually disaggregated in a place where they were formerly viewed as unified, and to examine the consequences of that fragmentation” (Cruikshank, 4). She is ultimately concerned with how knowledge is produced through colonial encounters and what place nature – specifically glaciers – has within human knowledge. She contests the assumption that the knowledge we might describe as ‘local’ or indigenous is simply something preformed and static which can be ‘discovered’ by explorers and scholars. Rather, she sees local knowledge as not something that is “crudely encapsulated in closed traditions, but is produced through human encounters.” She is also concerned with the place of nature within history, seeming to be wary of an apparently Western notion of human history as generally separate from nature. She rather sees an uneasy weaving of nature through human history, from indigenous beliefs about the animate nature of glaciers to the creation of Protected Areas and a World Heritage Site at the Mount Saint Elias region (Cruikshank, 4).

This very serious concern about what evidence we include in histories of the Arctic is something that preoccupies Sherrill E. Grace too. Through her research, she makes two highly pertinent historiographical points: firstly, “that the representations I was examining (indeed, had access to) were very largely by southern Canadians (and others – Americans, British, French),” and secondly, “that northerners, who comprise many different native and non-native groups, seems to have had, until fairly recently, few opportunities for self-representation in the South” (Grace, 22). Throughout her study, Grace’s major interest rests in representing as many of these varied voices as possible, partly in an attempt to rectify the general absence of northern perspectives from the cultural and historical study of the North. The often contradictory and unsettling ideas of north that exist are, Grace tells us, deeply constitutive of the identities of the littoral Arctic states, and in large part defines their ‘imagined communities.’ And yet it is as vital as ever to capture these indigenous northern voices if we are to develop histories of the North that do more than simply teach us about the nations and peoples south of the Arctic Circle – which is nevertheless indeed important and interesting but tells us less about the Arctic itself. And so, literary scholars such as Grace and anthropologists such as Cruikshank can perhaps point us in a more holistic direction, one that perhaps fosters a greater appreciation of the possibilities of interdisciplinary academic work on the Arctic. For the cultural history of the Arctic is far from settled and could do with a good deal more methodological unsettling yet.


– Anderson, Benedict, 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London and New York: Verso.
– Bloom, Lisa E, 1993. Gender on Ice: American Ideologies of Polar Expeditions. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
– Conrad, Joseph, 2002. Heart of Darkness. Ed. Cedric Watts. Oxford: Oxford Classics.
– Cronon, William 1995. ‘The trouble with wilderness; or getting back to the wrong nature,’ in William Cronon (ed.) Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.: 69-90
– Cruikshank, Julie, 2005. Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination. Vancouver, Toronto and Seattle: UBC Press and University of Washington Press.
– Davidson, Peter, 2016. The Idea of North. London: Reaktion Books.
– Enloe, Cynthia, 2014. Bananas, Beaches and Bases. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
– Grace, Sherrill E, 2001. Canada and the Idea of North. Montreal, Kingston, London, and Ithaca: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
– Harvey, David, 1996. Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference. Cambridge MA: Blackwell.
– Hill, Jen 2008. White Horizon: The Arctic in the Nineteenth-Century British Imagination. Albany: State University of New York Press.
– Körber, Lill-Ann, Scott MacKenzie, and Anna Westerståhl Stenport 2017. Arctic Environmental Modernities: From the Age of Polar Exploration to the Era of the Anthropocene. Palgrave MacMillan.
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