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Challenge: An Anthology of the Literature of Mountaineering

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  • Publication Year: 1950

Challenge: An Anthology of the Literature of Mountaineering, edited by William Robert Irwin, xx + 444 pages. New York: Columbia University Press, 1950. Price, $4.75.

Dr. Irwin is an assistant professor of English at the State University of Iowa. He makes no claim to status as a climber of mountains; he must be accorded high rank, however, as editor of this anthology, among perceptive connoisseurs of mountain literature. Challenge, which is “not intended primarily for the specialist,” will yield hours of enjoyment to anyone who has a taste for mountaineering or good prose—or both.

An anthologist must constantly be plagued as Portia was: “O me, the word ‘choose’!” Dr. Irwin, having diligently surveyed the broad field, decided to stick to non-technical prose written in English, and to avoid overlapping Mr. Ullman’s mosaic rendering of the Everest story in Kingdom of Adventure. He decided also to give the reader more than mere tantalizing fragments. Of the 28 pieces he finally selected, 19 run to more than ten pages, and three to more than 25. Chronologically, the terminus a quo is somewhere in the 1840’s, when Frémont explored the Rocky Mountains and Thor- eau visited Katahdin. The later years of the century are strongly represented: here are Clarence King and John Muir, Leslie Stephen on Mont Blanc, Slingsby on Skagastolstind, Lord Bryce on Ararat, Mummery on Dych Tau. Nor do more recent times go unnoticed: here are Geoffrey Young on the Mischabel, Dorothy Pilley on a Pyrenean pass, Arthur Emmons on Minya Konka. It is pleasant also to find one of Godley’s essays, and Montague’s “Action,” and the final chapter of John Buchan’s Three Hostages. I would add that Dr. Irwin has turned up a number of things previously quite unfamiliar to me—for example, Sir Halford Mackinder’s article on Mount Kenya for the Geographical Journal, and Evelyn Waugh’s account, in Remote People, of an outing on a cliff near Aden. Checking over our own shelves, to see how many of the 28 pieces were already there in unanthologized form, I found that we scored just over 50%.

Dr. Irwin has himself supplied an introduction, helpful biographical and critical notes, a glossary and a list of suggestions for further reading. We found it most interesting to read an answer, by a literary scholar rather than a mountaineer, to the old question, “Why do people climb?” Dr. Irwin is not impressed by those who say “that devotion to climbing can scarcely be made intelligible to those not of the cult.” He analyzes the grounds for devotion, held back by none of the reticences that a cultist might think fit to guard, and concludes that the literature of mountaineering contains “record upon record of joyful experience, in which men achieved, perhaps but briefly, a harmony of the active and the contemplative which most of us are toiling all our lives to find.”

D. A. Robertson, Jr.

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