Return from the Pole

Publication Year: 1952.

Return from the Pole, by Frederick A. Cook. Edited, with an introduction, notes and bibliography, by Frederick J. Pohl. 325 pages, illustration, map. New York: Pellegrini and Cudahy, 1951. Price, $4.50.

In all the annals of exploration there is recorded no more prolonged and bitter controversy than the tempest generated over the claims of Frederick A. Cook and Robert E. Peary to the attainment of the North Pole. The most recent contribution to this unhappy chapter of geographical accomplishment, Return from the Pole, was finished by Dr. Cook shortly before he died in 1940; and thus—since Peary died in 1920—the last word has now been said by the principals concerned.

The book has been edited by Frederick J. Pohl, who has also provided an introduction to Cook’s text in the form of a review of claims, contradictions, arguments and rebuttals affecting Dr. Cook’s integrity. The mountaineer will be interested—but not impressed— at the appearance of the ghost of Mount McKinley to testify on Cook’s behalf. He will find Pohl’s “supporting” evidence shaky in the extreme, and the championing of Dr. Cook’s claims would have been far stronger had the Denali episode been omitted.

The critical reviewer of Return from the Pole will constantly seek geographic data upon which to evaluate the veracity of the text. There is little to be found. In fact, vague description is a characteristic of the narrative, until Cook has left the polar pack and penetrated the archipelago. Two points, however, are worth mentioning.

In My Attainment of the Pole (New York, 1913), Cook describes his landfall in Peary Channel as including a view of the mountains of Axel Heiberg Land to the eastward. He plots his route to pass close to—if not across—Meighan Island, which he failed to report, leaving its discovery to Stefansson eight years later. Pohl does not help Cook here, either, for he suggests that what Cook saw to the east was Meighan Island, not Alex Heiberg Land. The reviewer has seen both features, and it would be quite impossible to confuse them. Axel Heiberg Land is characterized by Alpine-type ranges, whereas Meighan Island is so low-lying that its small, slightly arced ice cap rises no more than a few hundred feet above the sea.

En route to the Pole, Cook reports the discovery of “Bradley Land,” an island some 30 miles long and 1000 feet high. Pohl correctly suggests that substantiation of this “discovery” would go far to support Cook’s claim to having reached the Pole. The reviewer spent some three hours of aerial reconnaissance on a clear day scouring the area defined by Cook, but failed to detect a single feature that would suggest the presence of land.

Happily, the matter of who first attained the North Pole is no longer of more than historical significance. The average reader of Return from the Pole can therefore afford to minimize the emotional aspects of controversy and center his attention on a vivid and strongly-written description of a very great journey, carried out and made successful only by the seizing and adapting to human needs of every conceivable device that ingenuity could summon towards survival. Dr. Cook may not have reached the Pole, but no one can deny that the 14 months during which he travelled at least 1400 miles embraced one of the great epics of polar exploration. Let this fact be the basis for reading Return from the Pole, for the scholar and student of the polar controversy will derive little from the text, or from Mr. Pohl’s arguments, to aid him in proving who first reached the “Great Nail.”

Walter A. Wood