Elisha Kent Kane Historical Society
VIII: A Hero at Home
While Kane was in the Arctic his popularity was growing at home. His first Arctic account, The U.S. Grinnell Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin, was in press when Kane left for his second expedition and was timed to be released for the Christmas season of 1853. But in December the Harper and Brothers warehouse burned and with it all but a few copies of Kane's book. Harper quickly reprinted the edition changing only the few illustrations whose woodcut blocks were also lost in the fire. The book finally came out in March of 1854 and was received with great praise. (102) Using Kane's sketches, James Hamilton, a talented artist from Philadelphia, did the artwork for the engravings, which added greatly to the book's public appeal. The text itself was both scientifically specific and easily understandable, making it very appealing to America's armchair explorers.
In his analysis of Arctic narratives, Frank Rasky said that Kane's first book "humanized the Arctic in terms that Americans could appreciate; it introduced genuine Yankee idiom to polar folklore. His narrative brims with freshly minted phrases: some over strained, some whimsical, some delightfully extravagant, like the early Mark Twain spinning yarns about The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." (103) Harper & Brothers supported the book by running an excerpted edition of it as the cover story of the March edition of Harper's New Monthly Magazine. The account concluded with an editorial flourish. "If the Expedition failed in its immediate object... it has yet subserved a purpose even higher than this. It has shown that there are men to be found... who are ready to expend their means and their lives for the sake of others.... Peace has its triumphs, nobler than those of war; and this is [one] of them." (104)
Unfortunately for Kane, Harper's' praise did not translate into profits. Trying to compensate for the losses they suffered in the fire, Harper & Brothers charged all the lost books against the sales of the reprinted edition. They also made Kane responsible for the cost of most of the illustrations. This meant that though the book sold well, it never made its author any money. Kane eventually bought the rights to the book for $1,200 in 1856 so he could have it reprinted elsewhere. As Judge Kane described the affair to his absent son, "It is a rascally account." (105)
From the time of the release of his first book until his arrival home more than a year later, Kane remained in the public eye. Just as his book was becoming widely read, concern for the safety of the second expedition began to grow. In November of 1854 Judge Kane addressed the American Philosophical Society asking its members to begin soliciting Congress for a relief expedition. At the same time similar efforts were begun in New York and Baltimore and were soon picked up by the press. Support came quickly as the rescue proposal made it through both Houses and the President by February of 1855 and Congress approved $150,000 in funding a month later. (106)
In October 1854, London papers had reported that John Rae had found artifacts from the Franklin expedition on King William Island (1,000 miles south of where Kane was searching) and had learned from the native tribes that Franklin and his men had all perished. (107) The United States now had its own lost Arctic hero and they were not going to let Kane's fate become that of Franklin's. On May 31, 1855, two years to the day after Kane set sail, a highly publicized rescue mission, with Kane's brother Dr. John Kane Jr. serving as physician, left New York in search of the Advance. Four months later the rescue mission returned with Kane and his crew. The nation went wild. (108)
"DR. KANE HOME AGAIN!, The Advance Left in the Ice, New Lands Found, An Open Sea Found, No Traces of Sir John Franklin, Life in the Frozen Regions, On Sledges for Thirty Days, DR. KANE'S OWN ACCOUNT." These headlines covered the October 12, 1855 New-York Daily Times which dedicated its entire front page to Kane's homecoming. The news spread rapidly across the country as every newspaper within reach of the telegraph ran stories of Kane's return. (109) And the written word was not the only way Kane's story was conveyed. Within hours of Kane's arrival, Broadway entrepreneur James Wallack had commissioned a play entitled "Dangers of an Expedition to the Arctic Sea and Safe Arrival of Dr. Kane." (110)
Kane was prepared for this reception. When John Kane Jr. left on the rescue mission, he carried with him several letters from his family. One was from his brother Thomas Kane. This letter, better than any other source, clearly demonstrates the Kane family's calculated use of popularity and the press for social and political gain.
"[F]ortune has made you the child of your whole country," Thomas began. He noted that the call for his rescue had united even the antagonistic Northern and Southern political factions as well as groups as diverse as the "misses of the Northern Young Ladies Seminaries" and the "ugly gritty of your naval men." He explained that all the military brass had embraced him as a "brother officer" and that he must thus embrace them as brothers for that is how the public wanted the reunion to be. He warned that other explorers had made claims about various lands and theories and that Elisha must thus watch what he proclaimed. Most importantly though, Thomas told Elisha how he should act to most impress the public.
When a nation makes a pet of a man, all it requires of him is to take his petting gracefully.... Your tack will be the official Scientifics-Science with the brevet of sword spunk and gentlemanly savior faire-Hurrah Horse and head of Bureau... or American Humboldt-and so forth. You have the chance of pushing this thing to its very farthest-a worthy aim for the ambition of any man. But a little study of a concise sham modesty of speech in public, and a composed and courteous demeanor universally, will compass more than... your head will ever master. If as act of grace only, remember your newspaper friends. Respect au fardeau! -It is they who made us and not we ourselves. (111)
Kane followed this advice to the letter. He expressed great gratitude to the rescue effort and its crew. He also lavished praise on his own men, even the ones who had deserted him. When he announced the discovery of the Open Polar Sea, he gave full credit to William Morton. The press reported this "sham modesty" exactly as Thomas had hoped. The Tribune exclaimed, "And well as he has earned his laurels, [Kane] wears them with a meekness that adds redoubled luster to his fame, for in his own heart he says, `I did no more than my duty.'" (112)
The difference in Kane's actions after the first and second expeditions is worthy of note for it illustrates the difference between heroism and celebrity and the corresponding change in Kane's life. When Kane returned from De Haven's expedition, he worked hard to put as much copy in front of the press as possible. He wrote articles, did interviews, and lectured continuously for several months. After his second expedition Kane did none of this. In fact, when he returned in 1855 Kane did exactly what De Haven had done in 1851. He briefly told his story the day he returned, turned in his official report a few days later, and then went home to rest. When De Haven did this, he disappeared. When Kane did it, he wound up in every newspaper and magazine in the country. What was the difference? Celebrity.
As Thomas had explained, the press had already embraced Kane before he ever reached shore. He did not need to promote himself, he only needed to "take his petting gracefully." This proved more difficult than it seems Kane had expected. No matter what he did, he was a media event. When he dined at the Century Club, the press reported it. When he signed a book deal, it was news. Kane did not need to write about himself because everybody else was writing about him already. His brother wrote an account of the rescue mission, the members of his crew published their accounts of the expedition, and even "Toodles," the sled-dog Kane brought back with him, found her way into the papers. (113)
What Kane quickly discovered was that becoming a hero meant also becoming a celebrity. He had the fame he had longed for, but it was no longer under his control. Before he had sought the spotlight; now he could not escape it. Being the properly modest man that he was, Kane abhorred celebrity as much as he had craved heroism. Kane found it extremely difficult to take his petting gracefully when the press made his private life front-page news. This is especially evident in his relationship with Margaret Fox.