Elisha Kent Kane Historical Society
X: Controlled Celebrity
What caused this sudden change in their relationship? There seems to be two reasons, money and the press. When Kane returned from his expedition he was a hero, but he was also broke. His first book was a success, but it gained him nothing due to its garnished profits for fire expenses. The second expedition had gained Kane fame, but it had been conducted on a voluntary basis and thus he had collected no salary for three years. The result was that Kane was entirely dependent on his family for the first several months after his return and thus, it seems, forced to acquiesce to their wishes.
Knowing that he could make a great deal of money by writing another book, Kane immediately began work on the project. On November 15, 1855, he signed a contract with the aggressive young publishing company Childs and Peterson of Philadelphia. By April of 1856 parts of the book were already being printed. Kane asked for and received a $600 advance. (125) But Childs and Peterson solved not only Kane's money problem but his publicity problem as well, for by signing with them he had gained not only a publisher, but a press agent.
By the spring of 1856 the press had lost interest in Fox and Kane's relationship. It appears that the Kane family's denial of the relationship was accepted as true by the public at large. Kane remained in the news but did so in a controlled way, via press releases and promotional material carefully distributed by Childs and Peterson. The result was that Kane gained in popularity as an Arctic hero while Fox quickly disappeared from the scene. This turn in publicity was so complete that even gossipy biographies of Kane concluded that his relationship with Fox simply "dissolved" for no apparent reason. (126) With their relationship again hidden from public view, Fox and Kane were able to reunite.
Kane worked incredibly hard on his book, completing both volumes of Arctic Explorations in the Years 1853, `54, `55 by August of 1856. This work became the best-selling travel account of the 1850s, and "was said to be found along with the Bible on every parlor table in the nation." (127) It became Kane's legacy and the source of his enduring fame. In many ways Arctic Explorations is, to use Tompkin's phrase, the "Ur-text" of romantic travel literature. An examination of the book, its careful construction, and its enormous success, provides a telling glimpse into the mid-nineteenth century.
Kane had two goals for the book. He wanted it to be scholarly important, and he wanted it to be well-illustrated. Kane's publisher, George W. Childs, wanted a popular book. In his Recollections, Childs recalled pushing Kane to make the book less scientific and to enhance the sensational narrative. In the end, both got what they wanted. Childs agreed to publish sixty pages of scientific tables, an expensive and, in his opinion, useless project. In return, Kane agreed to write a very entertaining narrative. He wrote Childs, "I attempt to be more popular and gaseous-this latter inflated quality in excess. Most certainly my efforts to make this book readable will destroy its permanency and injure me. It is a sacrifice." (128)
Childs was only 26 when he took on this project, but he was already well known for his unabashed publicity campaigns and sensational media events. He knew Kane could tell a good story, and now that Kane was an international celebrity, he was sure that together they could produce a best-seller. Kane went with Childs because after the Harper & Brothers fiasco he wanted to insure that his efforts would not go monetarily unrewarded. Childs promised to do extensive publicity campaigns and he offered Kane a royalty of one dollar per sale, twice the normal rate. (129)
Though they disagreed over the text at times, Childs and Kane were of one mind about illustrations-the more the better. Because of this, Arctic Explorations is one of the best illustrated books of the times with large engravings or small woodcuts appearing on nearly a third of the book's 750 pages. Kane again hired James Hamilton to translate his sketches into paintings, which were then made into etchings. Hamilton, an Irish immigrant to Philadelphia, was by 1850 well known for his seascapes, which had earned him the title of "the American Turner." Hamilton was a friend of John Satrain, the well-known Philadelphia engraver, and may have first met Kane through this connection as they collaborated on his first book. Some evidence, however, suggests that Kane had Hamilton in mind before he ever returned from his first expedition. He had written his brother John while still at sea, "get `H' to put [my sketch] into colours if you can." (130)
When Kane began working on Arctic Explorations he had Hamilton move into the Kane family house so "that night and day might be given to [the paintings'] execution." (131) The paintings Hamilton produced during this period are stunning. Art historian Roger B. Stein noted that "The finest of the early representations of Arctic navigation came in the books by Elisha Kent Kane.... [Hamilton's] pictorial reorganizations of Kane's vision, dwarfing both men and ship beneath the sweeping forms of cliff and cloud... [become] an ironic statement of the triumph of nature over men in ships." (132) Long before the book came out, Childs began circulating large broadsides of Hamilton's illustrations. This, along with short excerpts of the text and a heroic biographical sketch by William Elder, helped Childs sell almost 20,000 copies of the work before it was ever published. (133)
The maps and tables that Kane so desired were exquisitely constructed as Kane, using his own funds, hired Charles A. Schott of the U.S. Coast Survey, Elias Durand, a Philadelphia botanist, and August Sonntag, the naturalist of his expedition, to help him assemble the appendix. (134) This scientific slant did not dampen Kane's prose, however, as he lived up to his promise to Childs. Though he said he was hoping to construct a narrative suitable for the eyes of both women and children, Kane did not spare the gory details of bear hunts, the incredible suffering of his scurvy-ridden crew, or the finer points of Eskimo life including the communal nakedness of long winter nights in warm, intimate igloos. These accounts were scandalous enough that Lady Franklin worried they would hurt the cause of polar research. (135)
Nobody else seemed to mind Kane's blood and breast realism though. Childs sent out review copies and obtained glowing affirmations from some of the nation's most respected men of letters and science. Washington Irving said, "It was this image of the author, continually before me, that made me read his narrative, so simply, truthfully, and ably written, with continued wonder and admiration." Louis Aggasiz said Kane had earned his "deepest interest, mingled with admiration," and Matthew Maury exclaimed, "His book of travels rivals in interest the most fascinating tales of romance... whoever takes it up, young or old, male or female, will find it difficult to lay it down unread." (136)