The Arctic Book Review

Letters to the Editor

The Arctic Book Review welcomes letters from readers. Correspondence should be addressed to the Editor,
Russell A. Potter, c/o the English Department, Rhode Island College, Providence RI 02908,
or via e-mail to .



Ken McGoogan

A publisher once told me that, excepting only the yelp of delight, the best review is a spirited denunciation. What counts is the passion, she said, because it signals a degree of engagement that potential readers find intriguing. The wily author shouts from the rooftops: "Enough tepid applause! Bring on the indictments!"

In my case, the Arctic Book Review has preempively obliged. Last issue, it published not one but two articulate screeds denouncing my new book, Ancient Mariner: The Arctic Adventures of Samuel Hearne – one each by Russell A. Potter and David M. Owen. For these, I am truly grateful. Both reviewers are well-informed members of The Arctic Tribe. And both recognized and reacted to the fact that, within that context, I am a dangerous subversive. Bravo!

One omission I do regret. While acknowledging my thorough research, neither reviewer mentions that my book sheds new light on Hearne’s family background, especially his mother’s remarriage, and overturns received wisdom concerning his naval career: Hearne was no “ordinary seaman,” as for decades historians have insisted, but rather a young gentleman who walked the quarterdeck – an officer-in-training.

These are quibbles. I write to address the larger challenges. Potter suggests that this book differs from my last, Fatal Passage, because in Ancient Mariner I am treating not a neglected but “an already-familiar”explorer. Certainly, Hearne is well-known to readers with a long-standing interest in northern exploration. But compared with all those who read English-language literature, be it fiction or non-fiction, I fear that we Arctic aficionados constitute a tiny tribe. Indeed, I would venture that ninety or ninety-five per cent of serious readers have never even heard of Samuel Hearne. With Ancient Mariner, I am trying to reach not just The Arctic Tribe but also that broader audience.

And that brings me to methodology -- the crux of the matter for both reviewers. Potter regrets my “fictive reconstructions of bygone moments,” and complains that I create “scenes for which there is simply no historical evidence whatsoever.” Owen writes that sections of the book read like historical fiction: “What is the line between likely imaginings and wholesale invention?”

For several years now, while teaching courses in “creative nonfiction” and moderating seminars with titles like "Where Fact Meets Fiction," I have been wrestling with such questions. And Potter and Owen are right in perceiving that I have a beef with the way history is conventionally written. I believe we can draw nearer the elusive truth – and also make history more vivid and accessible -- by combining scholarship with imagination, and by augmenting traditional “analytical narrative” with the techniques of fiction (scene, dialogue, point of view).

In a recent review of Voyages of Delusion: The Quest for the Northwest Passage by Glyn Williams (The Beaver, January 2004), I elaborate this perspective. I write that this excellent work is marred by eye-glazing patches of summary and unwritten scenes, and that the problem arises because Williams remains resolutely within the conventions of modernist history.

For example, I cite a passage in which Williams reveals that two bitter enemies confronted each other aboard a discovery ship. Because the records and log books have not survived, he moves on without elaborating, as mandated by the pseudo-scientific conventions of analytical narrative:

“Here, where even the dullest novelist would leap to reconstruct the confrontation scene, Williams refuses to speculate, to go beyond the dubious evidence of primary documents. He declines to dramatize his best guess, well-informed though it certainly is. One can’t help wondering what would happen if superlative historians like Glyn Williams stopped pretending that they practice science and accepted that they write literature. Maybe history would begin to regain its audience?”

Subversive, you see? Reviewing Ancient Mariner, Owen asks: Where do we draw the lines? The writer of historical fiction, I believe, has taken out a license to change dates, names and venues, and to invent, combine or kill off characters, whatever; the writer of historical nonfiction, on the other hand, must work within the known facts, changing and ignoring none of them. I take the position that, having assimilated the relevant journals, letters, biographies and histories, the non-fiction writer can then use imagination and craft to bridge gaps in the record.

Owen surmises that, at times, “a few facts or suggestions got stretched to cover a lot of empty canvas.” But where Fatal Passage comes out of the well-documented nineteenth century, Ancient Mariner derives from the far sketchier eighteenth. Inevitably, the gaps are greater.

This is not to say that I create scenes out of whole cloth – although Potter contends that I do, and offers an example: “When Hearne’s mother signs him up with Captain Samuel Hood, we’re brought into the room and treated to a long, detailed and utterly fictitious scene.” In fact, the record shows that Hearne’s mother did introduce the young man to Captain Hood, and that this happened early in 1757, as I indicate – not in 1756, as numerous historians have reiterated, following an erroneous primary source.

Having visited Portsmouth, I can also attest that the building in which this meeting happened has been torn down. Still, the scene is far from “utterly fictitious.” It is an extrapolation from the historical record, an approximation of a real event that occurred at a specific time and place – and is readily apprehended as such, I contend, by the literate general reader.

Owen makes the same argument using a different example. But the record shows that Samuel Hearne and Mary Norton did indeed say goodbye forever at Prince of Wales Fort during the wee hours of August 9, 1782. By casting that emotional farewell as a scene complete with dialogue, I signal the reader that this is an approximation – that, having thoroughly researched these people, this time and place, I offer my best guess as to how events unfolded. By this method, I tacitly acknowledge that The Truth is approximate and, having provided all relevant information, invite the reader to assess my recreation. Surely that is more honest, responsible, and valuable to the non-expert reader than declaring: “You're on your own: the record is silent.”

Potter takes me to task for waiting until page 287 to address allegations that Samuel Hearne was not present at the massacre he describes so vividly in his journal, and then of “boiling away the whole kettle into steam.” But I believe I demonstrate those allegations to be unfounded – indeed, “utterly fictitious.” Why, then, would I make this tempest in an academic teapot “the centre, rather than the periphery” of my biography?

A few politically correct historians yearn to believe that some mythical rewrite artist created Hearne’s massacre scene for him. In Ancient Mariner, I prove their “eyewitnesses” pretenders and their arguments specious. I make the case that, shocked by what he witnessed, Hearne plunged into denial. When writing his field notes, he did not feel equal to describing details. And so those details haunted him. Years later, in London, he could finally face – and so at last narrate – a more complete version of what he had witnessed.

Potter asserts that I attempt “to anoint Hearne as ‘the’ inspiration for Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Yet I observe that Coleridge drew upon numerous literary influences, that his skeleton ship derived from a friend’s dream, and that “several determining factors in the poem’s action” fell into place during a legendary hike with William Wordsworth. In fact, I contend that Samuel Hearne inspired only the archetypal figure of the haunted narrator. Surely a subtitle, which in this case alludes to “the sailor who inspired Coleridge’s masterpiece,” must be allowed some metaphorical elbow room?

Owen complains that the Ancient-Mariner theme “seems to be grafted onto the book.” I say that he feels this way because he has internalized the prevailing view that Hearne is primarily a northern explorer. The way I see it, the Ancient Mariner connection is the final piece in the jigsaw puzzle. Certainly, Hearne was a major explorer. But first and foremost, he was a haunted story-teller. And that, I think, is how posterity will come to regard him.

-- Ken McGoogan


Editor's note: We wish to clarify that we are certainly cognizant of the ways in which fact and fiction overlap, an ambiguity often further cloaked in the mists of incomplete records or conflicting testimony. What we object to is fiction that represents itself as fact to the reader -- who, whether one of the "Arctic Tribe" or merely the general public, deserves better.