Elisha Kent Kane Historical Society
XIV: The Whited Sepulcher
From the time of his death until the beginning of the Civil War, Elisha Kent Kane loomed large in American culture, serving as its finest example of heroic manhood. A stream of accounts of his life and work appeared before the public. Sonntag's and Godfrey's books were joined by an account by expedition surgeon Isaac Hayes. (182) William Morton, Kane's shipmate and confidant, lectured on the Chautauqua circuit and, with expedition member James McGary, narrated a touring panorama show illustrating the Second Grinnell Expedition. (183) Even Danish-speaking Carl Petersen and Eskimo Hans Hendrik eventually published accounts of their experiences with Kane. (184) In the end, eight of the sixteen surviving members of the Advance published or participated in some form of account of Kane's expedition. Along with these came another biography of Kane by Samuel M. Smucker, and a book-length poem by George Walton Chapman. (185)
Despite all this hype, within a few decades the public had essentially forgotten Kane. Why was this? In Corner's opinion, Kane was just another victim of the Civil War. John Brown began his bloody battle for abolition just three months after Kane's death and soon after the "stonemasons were building forts, not monuments; the foundry men were casting not statues but cannon[s]." After the war, every city and town had its own local hero to grace its public square. Romantic heroes had no place in the aftermath of such destruction. (186)
There is certainly some truth to this analysis; however, I would argue that Kane "the Romantic Hero" did not really disappear. What did disappear was Kane "the celebrity." Returning again to Boorstin's analysis of "image," celebrity is the portion of fame that is constructed. A celebrity, then, is "destroyed as he was made, by publicity." Boorstin notes that the newspapers both make and unmake celebrities, "not by murder, but by suffocation or starvation." "No one," he says, "is more forgotten than the last generation's celebrity." (187)
This would hardly have been news to Kane, for his brother Thomas told him exactly this when he wrote, "[R]emember your newspaper friends.... It is they who made us and not we ourselves." Celebrity must end because news must continue being new. It is hardly surprising then that Kane began disappearing from newspapers and magazines in the decade after his death. What is important to note is that Kane did not disappear completely but simply changed from being both a celebrity and a hero, to being just a hero. As Joseph Campbell explains in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, heroes are part of the great "monomyth" which represent stages of separation and departure, trials and victories, and, return and reintegration with society. In other words, heroes embody and explain life-truths to their generation. This is what Kane did: He embodied the Romantic age.
Kane was a hero to the Romantic age because he projected everything they thought a hero should be. He bravely led his men out of the frozen Arctic, discovered the mythical Open Polar Sea, single-handedly bested a platoon of Mexican soldiers, dared the depths of a volcano to bring back its secrets, and wrote and illustrated an entertaining and scientifically important book.
What Kane thought of himself, however, seems to have been quite different. Kane used the biblical image of the "Whited Sepulcher"-a beautiful tomb that is appealing to the eye but contains only the dry bones of death-to describe his and Margaret Fox's lives. When the press was hounding them, and their families had turned against them, Kane wrote the following fairytale in a letter to Fox:
Kane was the hero of the nation and a role model for its youth, and yet he was unable to live up to his promises to Fox and felt that he had to sneak around behind his family's and the press's watchful eye to be with the one he loved. This behavior, although unintentionally, eventually caused her tragic demise. Fox had her own loathsome toad, however, as an entire movement recognized her as its founder and "high priestess," while she knew that all that they saw in her was built on a hoax.
Both Fox and Kane knew that large groups of Americans looked to them as strong, confident "beacon lights to weary pilgrims." Fox and Kane both seemed to enjoy this attention, but were unable to reconcile this with the fact that at center they were both as fragile, scared, and human as everyone else. The brighter the "little spirits" of the press and the American public polished their exteriors, the more keenly aware they became of the "loathsome toad" that dwelled within them. In the concluding lines of his fairytale letter to Fox, Kane addressed this disparity between their exterior image and interior reality.
Returning once again to Boorstin's dichotomy between heroes and celebrities, it seems that though Kane was a hero to the nation, he was never more than a celebrity in his own eyes. Heroes are made of substance; their actions and accomplishments shine from the interior of their very being. Celebrities must continually polish their exteriors for fear that the world will see their toad-like center. If Kane had viewed himself as a hero, he would not have cared about the press or his family's opposition, but would have simply declared his love for Fox and gone on with his life fearing no press account or familial outcry. He would have behaved like a hero.
It does seem that Kane intended to publicly marry Margaret Fox upon return from England. Had he done so, who knows what would have happened to his heroic image. When explorer John C. Frémont married Jessie Benton, defying the wishes of her powerful father, legislator Thomas Hart Benton, the public praised him. But as discussed earlier, the fact that the nation quickly forgot Fox in its celebration of the heroic "Dr. Kane" suggests that her presence may have been distracting to America's image of a hero.
America, it seems, wanted a perfect hero, and so they expelled what they disliked from the life of Elisha Kent Kane in order to construct the super-human "Dr. Kane." But super-humans are not real people, and as Kane discovered, the process of becoming a hero is a process of dehumanization. Given this, it seems that the final reason for Kane's lasting heroism was his early death. Just like John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, and Martin Luther King Jr. of the past decades, Elisha Kent Kane became the hero of the antebellum period because the real person got out of the way so the super-human hero could take its place.