Elisha Kent Kane Historical Society

 I: Introduction: The Culture of Kane, America in the 1840s and 1850s

(Return to Table of Contents)

Explanation of Paper 

Elisha Kent Kane was a doctor, an explorer, a scientist, an artist, a lover, and a hero. Before his early death at the age of 37, he managed to travel across most of the world, make two journeys to the Arctic, write one of the most successful books of the antebellum period, carry on a secret love affair with Margaret Fox of spirit-rapping fame, and to become so popular that when he died, the nation mourned his death for nearly a month as his casket wound its way from Havana to Philadelphia via steamboat and rail in a funeral procession seconded only by Abraham Lincoln's.

In this paper I hope to explain how Elisha Kent Kane became one of the most important American heroes of the Romantic age. By looking at Kane's writings and lectures I will show how he used his Arctic journeys to create himself as a national celebrity. I will also examine how this national acclaim affected him both positively, making him a celebrity, and negatively, as the invasiveness of the press disrupted the separation of private and personal spheres that was so important to the social structures of the time. I will then look at how the nation made him a heroic icon after his early death and examine what that suggests about the culture of the time. Finally, I will focus on Kane as a "whited sepulcher"-confident, inspiring, and super-human on the exterior, but afraid, jealous, and unsure on the inside.

Romantic America

 In order to properly explain why and how Kane became the hero of the 1850s, it is necessary to examine not only Kane's life, but the life of America at that time. The mid-1800s were a time of excitement and romance in America. The young nation had won its first international war by defeating Mexico in 1848, and so began stretching its influence across the continent, sending its explorers and adventurers into uncharted lands. These rugged individuals returned not only with exciting tales, but with vivid paintings and sketches, as well as volumes of scientific data that expanded the nation's prestige as well as the world's knowledge. With men such as George Catlin and Matthew Fountain Maury as their own men of exploration and science, America joined Europe's children of Humboldt in circumnavigating the globe in a quest for knowledge and economic power. The Wilkes Expedition sailed to Antarctica and across the South Seas, Commodore Perry opened the secrets of Japan and the Orient, and the exploration of the American West greatly expanded as the government sponsored expeditions and geographical surveying teams to explore and map the continent. These expeditions, especially those to the West, provided the nation with a sense of national pride and a spirit of romance that captured its imagination via books, museums, and elaborate shows ranging from P. T. Barnum's "humbugs" to George Catlin's early Wild West shows. (1)

Changing America

The United States also experienced vast social changes during this period as immigration, urbanization, and industrialization all increased dramatically. Between 1840 and 1860 more than 4,200,000 people, most from Ireland and Germany, flooded into the country. Proportionate to population, this was the largest influx of people the United States has ever experienced; by 1860 these immigrants account for nearly one out of every five people living in the country. Inventions such as the sewing machine (1846) and the Bessemer process for converting iron to steel (1856) helped fuel the already booming industrial complexes and sweat-shops of the cities. Improved farming technology also impacted the nation as it allowed more work to be done by fewer people. This, combined with the rising price of farm land, helped push Northern rural people out of the country and into the city for jobs. (2) In the South, urbanization was not such an issue, but the consolidation of small plantations by the wealthy gentry forced many poor family's off their land and into tenant farming and share cropping arrangements that led to abject poverty and conditions little better than slavery.  (3)

One historian notes that, "It might almost be said that the United States was a simple nation culturally when the `forties began and a complex one when the `fifties ended."  (4) This complexity became evident in several ways. The distance between the poor and rich expanded monetarily but shrank geographically as crowded urban areas pushed the groups together making their differences more obvious than ever. Communication improvements such as the telegraph (1844) and the rotary printing press (1847) also contributed to the complexity. In one way, these inventions amplified the disparity between the rich and poor as ideas and actions of discontent traveled quickly across the nation. In another way, the new communication technology helped pull the two groups together, as both were seeking escape from their mundane lives. Publishers mass-produced tales of adventure, exploration, and chivalry which the public, rich and poor alike, consumed voraciously via story-papers, magazines, and book editions.  (5)

Writing in America

The 1840s and 1850s are now recognized as America's literary renaissance as figures such as Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, Longfellow, Dickinson, Whitman, and Stowe all produced their most influential works during this time. Though these authors certainly provide some insight into the times, it is important to recognize that many of them were only marginally successful, if not completely unknown, during the period itself. Certainly Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Emerson's lectures, and Longfellow's poems were successful; but Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, Whitman, and Thoreau experienced limited success at best while Dickinson was completely unknown. Melville's South Seas adventure tales, Typee and Omoo, sold well, but his classic, Moby Dick, sold only 60 copies in its first ten years. (6)  Most of Thoreau's books were returned to him unsold, Hawthorne unfairly complained that the "damned mob of scribbling women" were flooding the book market, and Dickinson's poems literally never saw the light of day as she bundled them up in neat blue ribbons and shoved them in a drawer. By contrast, readers bought Kane's Arctic Explorations by the thousands.

The "best-sellers" of the 1840s and 1850s were not the books now held up as "classics," but exciting and emotional tales that provided America's growing population a literary escape from their mundane lives. Exploration and travel accounts, along with sensational literature such as George Lippard's The Quaker City, or Monks of Monks Hall (1845), the sentimental literature of the "scribbling women," and the chivalrous tales of Sir Walter Scott, were what the public was reading.  (7)

Popularity of Travel Writing

Of these genres, travel and adventure accounts have unjustly received the least attention by modern scholars. This is a serious oversight for according to records of book sales during 1850-51, novels and other works of fiction accounted for 249 books while "travels and works descriptive of countries" accounted for 121. (8) The omission of these travel accounts seems to stem from the modern idea that only novels can be best sellers. What is forgotten is that during the pre-Civil War period, the public read non-fiction accounts with as much enthusiasm as they read fictional tales. Historian Carl Bode notes that a "thirst for new experience and knowledge" prompted a nation-wide desire to explore new lands. "If this desire could not be satisfied in real life-and of course circumstances often barred even a mobile American's way-it might be satisfied secondhand through travel literature." (9) The fact that most of the urban population was living and working in cramped quarters certainly also contributed to this wanderlust.

A good example of the popularity and influence that non-fiction works could achieve are Lt. John C. Frémont's flamboyant accounts of his expeditions through the West. His books, written with the help of his energetic and well-educated wife, Jesse Benton Frémont, went through multiple editions and made Frémont so popular that in 1856 he became the newly formed Republican party's first presidential candidate. (10) Frémont's books, along with Bayard Taylor's View's A-Foot, and The Lands of the Saracen, helped make the West the most popular travel narrative genre of the 1840s and early 1850s. But thanks to the dramatic disappearance of British explorer Sir John Franklin beyond Baffin Island, accounts of Arctic exploration came into vogue in the late-1850s. In America, this fascination with the Arctic was led by Kane's account of his Arctic explorations which sold a remarkable 130,000 copies before the decade ended.  (11)

Here is a dominant literary force of the pre-Civil War period. Travel literature as a whole, and Kane's writing in particular, certainly had an impact on the major writers of the times. Emerson refers to Kane several times in his personal notebooks, and after listening to Kane tell of his Arctic adventures at a dinner at New York's Century Club, William Makepeace Thackeray turned to the host and asked, "Do you think the doctor would permit me to kneel down and lick his boots?"  (12)

But of the era's writers, Thoreau was probably the most voracious consumer of travel narratives. Describing "Thoreau's travels" William H. Goetzmann notes that, "For most of his life, Thoreau regularly read explorers' accounts, gleaning from them not only a vicarious spirit of adventure but also a feeling for the authentic observation of different forms of nature and ecologies at widely scattered points around the globe." (13)  In his study of Thoreau, John Christie calculated that in 1852 alone, Thoreau read at least 8,849 pages of travel narrative. This reading was not a passive activity for Thoreau. Christie notes that Thoreau, after having read Kane's Arctic Explorations, was prompted "not only to fill five pages of his Journal with Kane's arctic observations but to look over his own shoulder constantly upon the `arctic scene,' to compare the Eskimo's isolation to his own.... January 20 [1857] found him on his hands and knees inspecting Eddy Emerson's snowhouse and later recording in his Journal with unfeigned excitement his realization of a `good deal of Esquimau life.'" (14)

America's Use of Books

Seeing how people of the 1850s actively interacted with the books they read is an important part of understanding the era. Whether people were called to abolition by Uncle Tom's Cabin, to chivalry by Ivanhoe, to self-sacrifice by sentimental literature, or to roam their own back woods in search of far-away adventure by exploration narratives, it is certain that people enthusiastically embraced books as a part of their daily lives. This phenomenon helps explain not only why major authors embraced and addressed these popular works, but why writers such as Elisha Kent Kane became national celebrities. In his examination of this era, Goetzmann notes that "the investigation of all the exotic phenomena of the globe and their description in countless exciting narratives, scientific illustrations, paintings, prints, and even photographs became perhaps the primary influence of the formation of western civilization's Romantic yet scientific world view."  (15)  Kane seems to have understood what the American public wanted and used this knowledge to build both the accounts of his adventures, and the foundation of his much desired fame.

(Return to Table of Contents)