Elisha Kent Kane Historical Society
The Making of a Hero, the Marketing of a Celebrity
Mark Horst Sawin, B.A.
Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School
of the University of Texas at Austin
in Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements
for the Degree of
Master of Arts
The University of Texas at Austin
ã Copyright Mark Horst Sawin, July, 1997
I would like to thank my supervisor, William H. Goetzmann, for his extensive comments, helpful suggestions, and infectious excitement about the romance of exploration and adventure. I would also like to thank my second reader, Howard Miller, for his careful edits and moral support.
Finally, I thank my wife, Erika Metzler Sawin, for her proof-reading, support, and love—not necessarily in that order.
Your heritage is in a goodly land. Its fields are wide; its skies are bright; and its people free. Choose you out its men of mark—the great and good—as patterns for yourselves. Ask of their experience, if in its silent teachings you may not find reason—nay more—encouragement, to hope for a good name too—a place among them.
- Matthew Fontaine Maury from an address delivered before the University of Virginia, June 28, 1855.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.
- Matthew 23: 27-28
Table of Contents
Introduction: The Culture of Kane, America in the 1840s and 1850s 1
Heroic Ambition: The Beginnings of a Hero 7
- An Arctic Adventure 15
- Hype and Hope: Marketing a Hero 21
- The Image: Hero or Celebrity 24
Fox and Kane: The Love-Life of a Hero 27
A Heroic Endeavor: The Second Grinnell Expedition 40
- A Hero at Home 42
- Celebrity and the Collision of Spheres 47
- Controlled Celebrity 53
- The Open Polar Sea: Filling the Needs of a Nation 56
Closing the Book: A Hero for the Romantic Age 60
- The Icon of an Age 65
- The Whited Sepulcher 71
Conclusion: Raising Kane 76
Introduction: The Culture of Kane, America in the 1840s and 1850s
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.
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.
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. 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.
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." 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.
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. 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.
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. 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." 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. 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.
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?"
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." 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  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.'"
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." 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.
Heroic Ambition: The Beginning of a Hero
Born into one of Philadelphia's most elite families, Kane grew up learning the ways of power and prestige. Kane's father, Judge John Kintzing Kane, was one of the most influential citizens of Philadelphia. Having graduated from Yale and passed the Bar by 1817, John Kane rose to power under the wing of Andrew Jackson, where he served in a position we would now call press secretary. He wrote the first printed attack on the United States Bank, and his fiery speeches made him the leader of the Democrats in the "Buckshot War," an 1838 Pennsylvania election dispute that grew so heated that federal troops were called in to restore order. In 1844 Kane became Attorney-General of Pennsylvania and in 1846 President James K. Polk appointed him U. S. District Court Judge of Eastern Pennsylvania—a position he used to strictly enforce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 by handing down stiff punishments to anyone caught helping transport or hide slaves. Kane used his charisma and political power in both business, as he insured the completion of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, and in philanthropic efforts such as the founding of Girard College, the Second Presbyterian Church, the Academy of Fine Arts, and the Musical Fund Society. Kane was also a prominent Mason and the president of the American Philosophical Society.
Put in modern terms, Judge Kane became one of the most powerful Democrats in the nation because he was an incredibly effective political advisor. In 1859, a year after his death, a biographical sketch noted that, "Judge Kane did not aspire to be conspicuous as a politician" but that he viewed himself primarily as "a writer of other men's speeches—a prompter of the stock performers on the stage, who could find his sufficient reward and enjoyment in seeing the drama enacted of which he might have claimed to be the author." Judge Kane was politically powerful because he knew how to manipulate public opinion. He wrote articles and speeches that could tear down national banks and heat political meetings to the point where troops were needed to restore order. This ability to impact society through the press was a skill Elisha would learn as he grew older.
Very bright but not especially disciplined, Elisha was denied admittance into Yale and instead opted for the University of Virginia, where he was not required to meet Greek and Latin requirements but could concentrate solely on his interests—physics, geology, mineralogy, and civil engineering. His professor, William Barton Rogers, was in the midst of mapping the geological formations of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Kane joined him on several of his excursions. Kane enjoyed these rugged outings and hoped to pursue a career in geology or engineering. But these hopes ended in 1838 and 1839 when he suffered several severe attacks of rheumatic fever. William Elder, Kane's contemporary biographer, noted that while home during one of these illnesses Kane's physician warned him that he should not pursue any active occupation for he could die "as suddenly as from a musket shot." Taking this to heart, Kane languished in bed for several weeks. According to family legend, Judge Kane could not bear the sight of his son in such a weak and miserable condition and so ordered him to get up and get back to work saying, "If you must die—die in the harness."
It was decided that it would be best for Elisha to chose a less strenuous career and so in the fall of 1839 he apprenticed himself to Dr. William Harris of Philadelphia. He began studying medicine at the University of Pennsylvania that same fall and graduated in March of 1842. Kane was a diligent student, a hard-working resident, and an impressive researcher as he published an article on kiesteine (a substance found in urine that can indicate pregnancy) in the American Journal of the Medical Sciences.
Just as Kane was ready to begin a medical practice, his life took another change of course. Without telling his son, Judge Kane contacted the Secretary of the Navy, Abel Upshur, and requested that Elisha be accepted in the service as a naval surgeon. No existent records indicate why Judge Kane made this decision regarding his son's life but George Corner, Kane's modern biographer, speculates that he sought the position because he felt the Medical Corps of the navy, with its opportunity for travel and research, better suited his son than would a private practice in crowded Philadelphia. This attitude is congruent with the times, as the common "recipe" for marine travel books during the 1840s and 1850s was to, "Take a weak-eyed Harvard boy and have him ship as a common seaman on a voyage round the Horn, thereby toughening his body, sharpening his sight, and bringing out all the basic strength of his character." Judge Kane may have been wanting to toughen up his young, academically-minded son. He himself had began his work career as a fireman with the Philadelphia Hose Company, a career that apparently ended only after he had a bad fall from the steeple of the flaming State House.
Shipping as a common sailor may have been the solution for toughening up a young man, but it was a bit too pedestrian for the Kane family. Judge Kane used his influence to secure Elisha a position as surgeon on Caleb Cushing's diplomatic mission to China—a popular idea apparently as Daniel Webster also insured that his son, Fletcher, would be on board. Shipping out of Norfolk aboard the Brandywine on the 24th of May, 1843, Elisha spent the next two years traveling the globe. This remarkable adventure, though never told publicly by Kane, became a large part of his legend after his death as Elder dedicated fifty sensational pages to it in his Biography of Elisha Kent Kane (1857). This journey was a turning point in Kane's life as it quickened his incurable hunger for fame and adventure.
From the time of his return, until June of 1846 when he shipped out again for another adventure, Kane seems to have been quite restless. Corner notes that upon his return Kane was ready to give up the Navy because he had suffered constant sea-sickness on the voyage and hated the rigid, authoritarian structure of the military. Elder commented that Kane's distaste for the military was extreme, noting that "The distinctions of rank which our naval service tolerates, without justifying, outraged his frank democracy of feeling." Questioning the military's right to order its officers was common at that time. Mexican-American War historian Robert Johannsen explains that many volunteers of the armed forces "resented military discipline and often refused to be governed by it.... Indeed, many Americans believed that this was but further evidence of the free democratic spirit that prevailed in the United States." The fact that Kane quickly set up a doctor's office in Philadelphia suggests that he did expect to end his military career—a career that had technically never began as his trip with Cushing was not a Navy mission and he had thus never officially been called into active service.
But at this time, tensions with Mexico were heating up and Corner argues that it was for this reason that Kane did not resign from the Navy. The Mexican-American War was certainly a war that appealed to the romantic sentiment of the times. When Congress declared war on May 13, 1846, and ten days later reports of Zachary Taylor's stunning victories in Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma hit the press, America's young men rushed to volunteer. 30,000 Tennesseeans volunteered for 3,000 military positions. It soon became apparent that the question across the nation would not be who would have to go, but, who would have to stay. Many volunteers who were turned away went to Mexico anyway to fight as irregular units. Having studied many of these volunteer's accounts, Johannsen reports that most "reflected their romantic perception of military life in a remote and exotic land" At least one likened his experiences to the adventures in the novels of Sir Walter Scott.
This helps explains why Kane was "bitterly bitter" when in June of 1846 the Navy sent him not to Mexico, but to the West African coast. Kane wanted to be a hero, and Mexico, not Africa, was the place to earn glory. But this desire for adventure and fame does not quite explain why Kane had already signed up for service in early March, two full months before active recruitment began. A likely answer to this date discrepancy can be found in two letters that Corner mentions with a "sense of bewilderment." On February 4, 1846, John Taylor Jr., Kane's cousin-in-law, responded to a letter from Kane which asked him to find a temporary home for a pregnant young woman identified only as "J——." Taylor suggested a good country family he knew and then went on to joke about Kane's prowess as a lover. A second letter dated May 27 from Dr. C. C. Van Wyck of Philadelphia addressed financial arrangements for boarding and caring for the girl, who was about to deliver. This letter is of a serious tone but ends by telling Kane not to trouble himself too much as he had already done "as much and more than could be asked of any individual in a like fix."
A letter by Kane to Helen (Nell) Patterson, the sister of his college roommate and one of his love interests at the time, develops this story further. Kane refers to a letter he recently received from "J—— the impure," exclaiming "(Oh dear Nelly!) in humility—[she] only blessed me." He assures Patterson that his love can do her no harm and that it "demands nothing" but asks that she still love him, "for you have seen your last of poor Elish... I cannot revisit Philadelphia." These letters seem to suggest that scandal as much as romantic adventure may have been Kane's incentive for heading back to sea.
Kane sailed aboard the United States for West Africa in June of 1846 but returned only nine months later as he came down with "coast fever" and was sent home. Though still quite ill, Kane went to Washington D.C. in April of 1847 to petition for a transfer to the Army and an assignment to Mexico. This trip only resulted in another onset of his illness, which left him convalescent for the entire summer. It must have been a difficult time for Kane because the nation was celebrating its war heroes and he was missing out on this opportunity for glory.
In his own home this hope for glory would have been further intensified by the fact that his younger brother, Thomas Leiper Kane, was becoming something of an adventurer in his own right. Having passed the Bar in March of 1846, Thomas began practicing law but quickly realized that such a domestic life was not what he wanted. Unable to serve in the war because of his sickly nature, Thomas threw his energy into philanthropic efforts and soon became a champion of the Mormons and their struggle to survive in the West. Labeled by the Latter-day Saints as their "Sentinel in the East," Kane used his family's political connections and his own gift of press manipulation (undoubtedly learned from his father) to help the Mormons with their flight from Nauvoo, Illinois, to their new settlement of Deseret in the Utah Territory. From June until October of 1846, Kane visited Nauvoo and the Mormon's "Winter Quarters" along the Missouri river close to Omaha, Nebraska. Once he returned to Philadelphia, he became a one-man publicity machine actively working to improve the Mormons' image in the press and lobbying Washington to appoint his new friend, Brigham Young, as the governor of the Utah Territory. It seems, then, that sibling rivalry may have been another factor in Elisha Kane's quest for glory.
Defying his family's wishes and his doctor's warning, in October of 1847, Kane stole away to Washington via a night train and again appealed for a mission to Mexico. General Winfield Scott had captured Mexico City more than a month earlier, but as it turned out, Kane made his request at exactly the right time as President Polk was rightly worried that General Scott and negotiator Nicholas V. Trist were disregarding his authority and negotiating with Mexico on their own terms. Kane's appeal gave Polk the opportunity to have a message carried directly to Scott demanding a full account of his activities. This was an ideal assignment for Kane as he was under the direct orders of the President and was responsible to no superior officer until he reached Scott at Mexico City.
Kane left for Mexico City on November 6, 1847 and after a routine trip to New Orleans and an exciting voyage to Vera Cruz on a ship that nearly sank, he set off for Mexico City on January 2, 1848, in the company of a rag-tag group of armed Mexican "skinners, bandits, and traitors" who were loyal to General Scott. On the fourth day of their trip, near the little village of Nopaluca, the party encountered a company of Mexican lancers accompanied by several high ranking Mexican officials including Brigadier General Antonio Gaona (the former Governor of Puebla), and his son, Major Gaona. A battle quickly ensued and in it Kane gained what he most sought, fame.
Reports of Kane's conduct in this battle began pouring back to Philadelphia by early March. The following came from The Pennsylvanian of March 24.
The story did not end here though. Kane's party took their captives into Puebla, where General Gaona was soon paroled to his personal mansion. The Gaona family was so grateful to Kane that they offered him the choice of their stables to replace the mount he had lost in battle. They were preparing a fiesta in his honor when Kane fell deathly ill. The Gaona family took Kane into their household, where their lovely daughters cared for him for nearly a month. The Philadelphia papers reported all of this in detail; one editor exclaimed that "the remarkable adventure of our young friend Doctor Kane surpasses the wildest dreams of romance." Upon recovery, Kane traveled to Mexico City where he delivered his message (by that time old news) to General Scott. But the fact that his mission was, in the end, unnecessary was forgotten. All the public remembered was the high-romance of his well-reported battle and illness. When he finally returned home in late March, Philadelphia gave him a hero's welcome.
But fame wore off quickly. As Kane lay ill in bed that summer, and then awaited his next commission in the fall, he was depressed to find that he was still just a common naval surgeon. He tried to get a post at the Philadelphia Naval Yard, but was denied because his rank was still only assistant surgeon. His father spoke directly to President Polk about getting him on a coastal survey of California and Oregon, but nothing came of it. Frustrated and tired of waiting, in March of 1849 Kane sailed aboard a store ship that ran a routine cruise to Madrid, the Mediterranean, and Rio de Janeiro. It returned in September at which time Kane joined another routine mission aboard the Walker, a steamer sent on a surveying mission to Mobile Bay.
On this cruise, Kane wrote his mother a letter from Charleston that nicely illustrates the young man's yearning for adventure.
Here is the romantic restlessness that characterized the age. Todd Lieber, a scholar interested in the psychology of the hero in American Romanticism, noted that at times "the heroic experience is characterized by an apocalypse of the imagination, a total abandonment of conventional external reality for private adventures, in effect the creation of a new world patterned solely by the imagination." The joking yet depressed prose of the above letter seems to reflect this imaginative apocalypse. Kane, hungry for adventure and fame but stuck doing mundane assignments, turned to daydreams of disaster to satisfy his longing for excitement. Fortunately, relief was only a few months away.
The Walker reached Mobile Bay, Alabama on the first of May, 1850, the same day the Senate, after a long and heated debate, voted 28 to 16 in favor of sending an American mission to the Arctic to join in the search for the lost British explorer, Sir John Franklin. Rumors of this expedition had been circulating since April of 1849 when Lady Franklin, Sir John's wife, first made an appeal to President Zachary Taylor to aid in the search. Kane knew of Lady Franklin's request before he left on the Walker, and on March 20, 1850 he posted a letter from Southwest Pass, Louisiana to the Secretary of the Navy expressing interest in a post on the expedition. On May 12 Kane received a telegram ordering him to report for duty with the Arctic expedition at once. In just ten days Kane managed to travel from southern Alabama to Philadelphia, pack and prepare for a year in the Arctic, and report for duty at the New York Navy Yard on May 22, 1850.
An Arctic Adventure
The search for Sir John Franklin and his men caused a boom in Arctic exploration as England and the United States sent out forty expeditions between the years of 1848 and 1859. Franklin had set sail for the Arctic on May 26, 1845 and was last seen by a whaling ship in late July in Melville Bay. In February of 1847, James Clark Ross (who had successfully explored the Antarctic aboard the Erebus and Terror which Franklin now had in the Arctic), proposed a rescue expedition to the British Admiralty. The Admiralty initially ignored this request but, as public pressure mounted, agreed to fund an expedition in the summer of 1848. When this expedition came back without any trace of the lost men, Lady Franklin began an extensive campaign to ensure that expeditions would continue to be sent. On April 4, 1849 she wrote to President Taylor pleading that the United States assist in the search. She offered a £5,000 reward (to which the British government added an additional £20,000) for the effective discovery and relief of the crews of the Erebus and Terror. Lady Franklin again wrote Taylor in December of 1849, this time inspiring him to request funds for an expedition. Congress was reluctant, but a private investor, whaling-tycoon Henry Grinnell, responded to Lady Franklin's pleas by purchasing two vessels suitable for the journey and persuading Congress to place them under naval orders. It was this effort that resulted in what became known as the First Grinnell Expedition. On May 20, 1850 the Advance and Rescue set sail from New York under the command of Lieutenant Edwin J. De Haven with the young Dr. Elisha Kent Kane serving as surgeon.
It is important to note that humanitarian efforts were hardly the only incentive for the United States to send an expedition to the Arctic. Lady Franklin knew this when she wrote Taylor. She told him that the United States should participate in the "noble spectacle" because it was one of the three great nations (England and Russia being the others) that were "possessed of the widest empires on the face of the globe." This was in essence a veiled threat that if the United States did not begin exploring in the Arctic, they would soon lose their status of "great nation." Manifest Destiny lay to the North as well as West.
Scientific prestige also offered an incentive to send an expedition. Matthew Fountain Maury, one of America's leading scientists and the father of modern oceanography, had a theory that the North Pole was surrounded by an "Open Polar Sea." He postulated that this open sea, together with the waters off the Antarctic at the other end of the globe, governed the circulation of the currents of the world's oceans. Maury had devised a charting system that tracked ocean currents, wind direction, and other oceanic information. From this he noted that ice flows and currents suggested that warm water flowed south from the North Pole suggesting a mild climate at the top of the world. This evidence was further supported by the fact that whales caught in the North Pacific sometimes had harpoons from Baffin Bay whaling fleets stuck in their hides. Since these whales could not tolerate the warm waters around the equator, the only possible way they could cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific was via an ice-free Northwest Passage.
Finding the long searched for Northwest Passage or proving that the Open Polar Sea existed was of utmost importance to oceanography. And to the nation at large, it was an issue of national prestige much like the space- and moon-race of the 1950s and 1960s. Though Maury's hypothesis was not publicly presented until the 1855 publication of his book The Physical Geography of the Sea, his theory was clearly set forth, perhaps for the first time, in De Haven's instructions from the Navy. This explains why De Haven was told to begin searching in Baffin Bay but to then proceed not southward, the logical (and indeed actual) route of Franklin's escape, but northward along the supposed openings of Jones and Smith Sounds. It is thus clear that the expedition was as much about exploration and science as about the rescue of Franklin. After all, the larger of the ships was named Advance, the smaller Rescue.
As the Grinnell Expedition followed the coast of Greenland into Baffin Bay and then crossed north and east into Lancaster Sound, they were hardly alone. In August of 1850 the Advance and Rescue were joined by ten other ships searching for Franklin. The British navy had sent four vessels, the Resolute, Assistance, Pioneer, and Intrepid, and had reassigned two whaling ships, the Lady Franklin and Sophia, to help in the search. British explorer John Ross had two privately funded ships, the Felix, and Mary, as well as a supply ship, the North Star, in the area. Lady Franklin's personally funded Prince Albert was also on hand. This Arctic traffic jam resulted in the first evidence of Franklin's whereabouts, as his winter quarters of 1845-46 were discovered on Beechey Island in the fall of 1848.
Lady Franklin's Prince Albert was the first ship back from the Arctic, as it left in August shortly before the discovery of Franklin's winter quarters. Prince Albert's surgeon, W. Parker Snow, quickly wrote up the results of their trip in Voyage of the Prince Albert in search of Sir John Franklin (1851). In an April 1851 article, Harper's magazine summarized Snow's book, focusing heavily on the American Expedition's contributions. This article is especially important to this study because it is the first account we have of Kane as an Arctic explorer. On August 22, the Prince Albert and the Advance met and Snow boarded the Advance for the afternoon. During this time he had a long talk with "the exceedingly slim and apparently fragile" Elisha Kent Kane. The Harper's article dedicates nearly a full column to Snow's account of Kane (more than triple the amount given to any other member of the expedition) and provides a clear view of both Kane's role on the ship as well as of his exuberant story-telling.
Snow noted that Kane was the "surgeon, naturalist, journalist, &c., of the expedition." Having no skill for writing, De Haven had happily turned over the responsibility of journaling to the young surgeon. And, as Kane was a trained scientist, his observations and impromptu studies often found their way into his report. But, as Snow's account shows, what made Kane especially memorable was his ability to tell a good story.
Years before Kane's books transported his readers to the brutality and beauty of the Arctic, his gift for story telling was already developed enough to operate in reverse: to take cold and miserable Arctic explorers back to southern climes and sunnier days. Snow's account is a testimony to Kane's ability to verbally recreate a location so vividly as to bring its exotic nature clearly into the listener's mind. This ability to convincingly put together a descriptive narrative certainly helps explain the enormous appeal and success of his later literary endeavors.
Unlike the Prince Albert, which headed for home in August, the Advance and Rescue continued on northward. After getting stuck in an ice floe and drifting north for several weeks, De Haven discovered and named the far northern portion of Devon Island, Grinnell Peninsula. The ships broke from this ice floe only to get trapped in another, this time drifting south. During the long, dark winter the crew suffered terribly from scurvy. As De Haven was desperately ill, Kane took the health of the crew into his own hands, ordering them to get out into the air for exercise (even in temperatures less than -50° F) and had De Haven increase the men's rations. Trapped in an ice pack which Kane measured at 5½ miles by 3½ miles, the ships drifted south along Baffin Island until June 5, 1851, when the pack suddenly broke apart, freeing the Rescue and, three days later, the Advance.
The ships headed South, making it to Greenland's Disco Island by the 17th of June where they stayed for several days and purchased much-needed provisions. Kane recorded that they "drank largely of the smallest of small beer, and danced with the natives, teaching them the polka." He was fascinated by the rugged people of Greenland's shore, especially the women. However, his finer senses, if not sensibilities, kept him at arm's length. He asked, "But what favorable impression that the mind gets through other channels can contend against the information of the nose![?] Organ of the aristocracy, critic and magister morum of all civilization, censor that heeds neither argument nor remonstrance... it bids me record, that to all their possible godliness cleanliness is not super-added."
The expedition set off for the north again in late June, hoping to cross Lancaster Sound for another season of exploration, but they soon became entangled in a young ice field. By July 10 the expedition was at a standstill before solid pack ice. Two days later they were again hailed by the Prince Albert, fresh from England, and this time under the command of William Kennedy. The three ships stayed together for over a month, battling to gain entrance into Lancaster Sound. On August 13, Kennedy gave up and headed for home, and after another week of fruitless labor, De Haven also turned south. The Advance reached New York on September 30; the Rescue arrived a week later.
Writing fifty years after the event, Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer, in his literary analysis of Kane's The United States Grinnell Expedition in search of Sir John Franklin, stated the obvious. "Little was achieved by this party. It left for the north in May, 1850, remained in the ice during the following winter and returned in the summer of 1851." De Haven's men found traces of Franklin's party, but with them they found cairns indicating that Sir John Ommanney had found them ten days earlier. The expedition participated in finding three graves from the Franklin party, but it was a member of Captain William Penny's party who first spotted the stone markers. They discovered and named "Grinnell Land," but this discovery was taken from them as late in 1851 a British map labeled the spot "Albert Land"; England claimed that Ommanney had discovered the area on August 26, 1850, thirty-four days before De Haven claimed to have seen it. As the Grinnell Expedition also failed to bring back any solid evidence about the Open Polar Sea or Northwest Passage, the voyage was basically a complete loss from the standpoint of science and discovery.
But as Oberholtzer pointed out, the one important thing the expedition did do was to leave "Kane's appetite well whetted for a greater performance." Having spent a month with the Prince Albert and having received both newspapers and letters from home via a whaling ship in the early summer, Kane surely knew that Snow had sung his praises and that he was thus already becoming a recognized name in Arctic exploration. Upon arrival in New York, Kane quickly set to work to keep this public recognition.
Hype and Hope: Marketing a Hero
Fate was working for Kane. On September 24, 1851, six days before the Advance reached New York, both the New-York Daily Times and Daily Tribune ran articles about the Grinnell Expedition and the discovery of Franklin's winter camp. Both of these articles were attributed to "E. K. Kane, Surgeon to the Expedition." As luck would have it, Kane's account of these events, written in July of 1851, was the first to reach England and the United States. Accounts from Captain Horatio Austin and Captain Penny arrived in England on August 12 and September 8 respectively, but both reports had been written before the discovery of the graves and Franklin's winter quarters. Thus, Kane had the honor of breaking the news to the public even though he and the Grinnell party were not the actual discoverers of the evidence. As this news was announced in America less than a week before the Advance arrived, the timing for publicity purposes could not have been better.
From the time of their arrival, Kane was the spokesperson for the expedition. De Haven, the obvious choice for spokesperson, was not inclined toward either publicity or literary endeavors. Three days after their return he submitted his required report to the Secretary of the Navy and then quietly withdrew from the public eye. This withdrawal left the stage wide open for Kane and he did not squander this opportunity. The day after they reached New York two articles appeared in the Times about the expedition saying, "We are indebted to the kindness of Dr. Kane for an outline of the voyage, and for many incidents connected with it of great interest." It is worth noting that Elisha was not the only member of the Kane family who found his way into the paper that day. Judge John Kane was also the subject of two articles as he had passed down a ruling of treason in the Christiana case, an early trial of the Fugitive Slave Act. In this issue of the Times, as in many later issues, Elisha was praised for his heroism and Judge Kane condemned for his controversial rulings without any mention being made of their being father and son.
From October of 1851 until his departure on the Second Grinnell Expedition on May 31, 1853, Kane was never far from the public eye. In October and November he continued to show up in the major newspapers. An open letter to Henry Grinnell was printed in the Times outlining Kane's theory on Franklin's probable whereabouts, and both the Times and Tribune covered a dinner given by the British residents of New York for Grinnell and the crew. The account of this event shows that by November Kane was not only the spokesperson but, in many ways, the hero of the journey. The Tribune reported that when he rose to speak he "was received with loud and prolonged applause." Kane used this spotlight to lay the groundwork for his next goal—his own expedition to the Arctic.
The Tribune reported that this speech ended with an eruption of cheers. Kane pulled not only on sentimental, philanthropic, and nationalistic strings, but he also founded his assertions in scientific evidence and in the spirit of adventure and discovery. In November Kane began a long and extensive lecturing tour, becoming the nation's most vocal proponent for the existence and possible navigation of an Open Polar Sea. He also believed that this Arctic Arcadia was a probable location of Franklin and his men. Over the New Year, Kane delivered three speeches before the Smithsonian Institute in Washington and, despite terrible weather, each of the lectures was filled to capacity.
Kane summarized the expedition with fascinating detail, explained the logical reasons for the existence of an Open Polar Sea, and then proposed that Franklin and his men were living in this sea, "unable to leave their hunting ground and cross the frozen Sahara which intervened between them and the world from which they are shut out." Kane ended by insisting that another American expedition must be sent northward to try and penetrate this open sea at the end of the world. According to the National Intelligencer, Washington's leading paper of the time, Kane captivated his audiences. It declared his lectures "One of the most interesting courses ever to be delivered at the Institution."
During January, Kane carried this message from city to city across much of the Northeast, drumming up support for a new expedition and collecting lecture fees to help fund the effort. By February Kane was again feeling the effects of his chronic illness and retired to his family's residence in Philadelphia where he rested and began working on a book about the journey. Though he did not appear publicly for a few months, it appears that Kane continued to work behind the scenes to keep his efforts before the public eye. One example of this is a small article that appeared in Philadelphia's Daily Pennsylvanian labeled only as "Item of News." Though it carried no by-line, it seems certain that the following was written by Kane:
Unsigned editorials that used the inclusive "we," were one of the methods used by the Kane family to help prod public opinion. Though Elisha never specifically addressed using the press to change public opinion, Thomas Kane talked about it extensively. In 1847, when he returned to Philadelphia after visiting the Mormons in Winter Quarters and Nauvoo, Thomas wrote many unsigned editorials to help them gain public support. He explained this process to Brigham Young:
Elisha, like his brother and father, knew how to use the press to his advantage.
The Image: Hero or Celebrity
It is because the Kane family possessed and used the ability to "manufacture public opinion," that it is necessary to look more closely at Elisha Kent Kane in order to gain an understanding of how he became a national hero. Daniel J. Boorstin's book, The Image, is a helpful tool for this project. Boorstin's thesis is that fame and experiences are often manufactured products created by the press. He argues that during the "Graphic Revolution" (which he defines as the advent of mass consumer reading* ) Americans began not just to report actual events and heroic endeavors, but to fabricate events and celebrities for their own purposes.
For example, if an old business wants to drum up sales it may throw a grand party celebrating its long commitment and service to the community. The press will show up and report this celebration and thus create an event of supposed importance when in fact nothing of importance has happened. Boorstin calls such events "pseudo-events" and notes that the press can create not just pseudo-events, but also pseudo-heroes, which he labels "celebrities." Boorstin explains that "The hero was distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark. The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media. The hero was a big man; the celebrity is a big name."
In this analysis I do not intend to suggest that Kane was not a hero, for even by Boorstin's criteria he certainly lives up to heroic status. But what I do want to show is that Kane certainly worked diligently at promoting both his projects and his own celebrity. Boorstin's dichotomy between the "real" hero and the constructed celebrity, though helpful, fails to account for the fact that many heroes, Kane certainly included, are a mixture of both.
Boorstin's model works well for people such as De Haven, who, as a member of the Wilkes Expedition and captain of the Grinnell Expedition, was certainly a hero. He notes that heroes traditionally scorned the press; in this sense, De Haven again fits the role. The question that must be asked is whether a person who did heroic things is a hero if nobody knows about them. De Haven, despite his amazing accomplishments, was never more than a footnote in history. Boorstin's theory is right about celebrities such as those created by P. T. Barnum and were nothing but press. Joice Heth, an old slave woman whom Barnum purchased and claimed was the 160 year-old childhood nurse of George Washington, was famous only because of Barnum's fabrication, not because of anything she did or, in fact, was.
Whether or not Kane would have become a national hero without the help of his own promotion is a question that can never be certainly answered. However, by looking at Kane both as the hero that he was, and as the celebrity that he (and later others) created, we can better understand how he became the icon of the Romantic age. This creation of "Dr. Kane" as both celebrity and hero becomes especially interesting during the last five years of his life. It is during this time that Kane became the celebrity that he wanted to be as well as suffered the price of his fame—the loss of privacy. To understand this period of Kane's life it is necessary to introduce the other hero/celebrity of our story, Margaret Fox.
Fox and Kane: The Love-Life of a Hero
Margaret Fox lived a guarded and mysterious life. Born in Canada sometime around October 7, 1833, she moved to Hydesville, New York in December of 1847 with her parents, John and Margaret, and her younger sister, Catherine.* Soon after their arrival, Maggie's parents began to hear knocking sounds in their small dwelling. As they tried in vain to find the source of these sounds, Maggie and Kate began to "play" with what their parents decided must be spirits from beyond. According to a Tribune article written more than a year after the fact, in March of 1848 Maggie merrily exclaimed one night, "Here, Mr. Split-foot, do as I do!" She then snapped her fingers in a distinct rhythm which the rappings immediately imitated. Maggie then raised two fingers and instantly two raps were heard to which she exclaimed, "Only look, Mother, it can see as well as hear!"
By July members of the community were flocking to the Fox cabin to hear Maggie and Kate communicate via this spiritual telegraph. Being a good Methodist, Mrs. Fox prayed earnestly that the rappings would stop and sought the aid of clergymen, but to no avail. Not knowing what else to do, Mrs. Fox packed up Maggie and Kate and sent them to live with their older sister, Mrs. Ann Leah Fish, who ran a music studio in Rochester. For a short time the rappings stopped, but when public interest grew again, Maggie soon found herself once more at the center of attention.
At the prompting of several believers who wished to exhibit the rappings, a public display was organized on November 14, 1848. Prominent citizens from Rochester, including clergy, doctors and scientists, were asked to come and observe. Unable to find any source of trickery the first night, they called for a second performance as well as several private demonstrations in the presence of doctors. Still the source of the rappings eluded them and so a third public forum was scheduled. As citizens of the religiously volatile burned-over district, Rochester's public was both intrigued and terrified by the "spirit rappings." At the end of the third public display, the crowd, angry and indignant, completely stripped Maggie inspecting both her clothing and her body for the source of the rappings. Terrified, Maggie wept bitterly and cried out for help. Finally, Mrs. Amy Post, a Quaker woman from Rochester, came to her aid and put an end to the ordeal.
Many members of the Rochester community demanded a fourth public examination. If they were being duped, they wanted to know how the young girl was fooling them. And if the rapping was supernatural, many were sure that it was coming from evil sources and should thus be banished. Without protest from the local clergy, several members of the Rochester community announced that if Maggie did not reveal the source of the rapping, they were going to lynch her and anyone else connected with the rappings. Before the demonstration began, Quaker George Willets, (in a strikingly un-Quaker-like statement), announced that anyone who attempted to lynch Maggie would have to do so over his dead body. As the demonstration ended, chaos erupted as boys began lighting fireworks and several men marched up on stage to remove Maggie's dress and check it for hidden weights. Fortunately for Maggie the police quickly intervened, dispersing the crowd and escorting her home.
In June of 1849, P. T. Barnum came to observe the Fox sisters and quickly arranged for them to exhibit at the Barnum Museum in New York at an admission charge of two dollars. Fish quickly recognized the earning potential of her younger sisters and thus appointed herself their manager, and in many ways slave-driver, for the next decade. As 16 and 15 year-olds, Maggie and Kate began a life of public display as Leah took them from city to city where they were questioned, examined, believed, and scorned by some of the most prominent citizens of the nation. At one sitting George Bancroft, James Fenimore Cooper, William Cullen Bryant, George Ripley and Nathaniel Parker Willis were all present. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Theodore Parker, and Bayard Taylor also attended sittings during this period.
New-York Daily Tribune editor Horace Greeley took an interest in the Fox sisters and in April of 1850 had them come visit him at his home in Turtle Bay. Like many of the people of the time, Greeley was both amazed and confused by the rappings. He recognized that Maggie was truly clairvoyant. She was capable of noticing and interpreting the smallest details in her listeners' questions and appearances and of using those clues to formulate remarkably perceptive answers to their questions. Greeley was fairly sure that "some persons not so dead are doing the rapping," but he was never willing to state certainly that these messages were not coming from beyond. He became a supporter and mentor to Maggie and Kate and encouraged them to give up the trickery and showmanship that Leah, under Barnum's tutelage, was implementing into their "act," and to instead further develop their remarkable talents of clairvoyance.
Maggie and Kate spent most of 1851 and 1852 on the road. Spiritualism and its professed ability to communicate with the dead became not just a topic of conversation, but a religious movement as explosive as many of the other religions that came out of New York's burned-over district. Other spiritual mediums began to spring up across the country and spiritualist organizations began to flourish in metropolitan areas. Greeley was annoyed by the dancing furniture, floating heads, and other trickery many spiritualists were using, but he still believed that the Fox sisters could truly be a source of some great human discovery. To this end, he offered to educate the sisters at his expense, hoping that school would get them away from the chicanery of the spiritualists and in touch with the broader ideas of the world.
Fish agreed to let Kate go to school, but Maggie, the bigger source of her income, she refused to let go. By this time Fish had established herself as a spiritual medium as well. Her plan was to stay in New York to keep the movement growing there while sending Maggie on a tour of Philadelphia and Washington D.C. Thus, in the autumn of 1852 Kate left for school and Margaret, in the company of her mother, traveled to Philadelphia and set up shop in the bridal suite of Webb's Union Hotel. It was there that the young and handsome Elisha Kent Kane, still grieving from the recent death of his youngest brother, Willie, came one November morning to investigate the "Spiritual Manifestations" that enthralled the nation.
Whether it was love at first sight as Margaret later claimed is an issue of speculation only. What is certain is that from their first meeting the lives of Margaret Fox and Elisha Kent Kane became increasingly entangled and intertwined. As Fox wrote early in their relationship, "Now, Doctor—be candid!—am I not correct when I say you are an enigma past finding out? You know I am." Unraveling the knot of their relationship is a task as fascinating as it is complex.
When Kane and Fox met they were in many ways engaged in the same occupation. Both had spent much of the last year traveling across the nation trying to sell belief in a mysterious and unknown land in which those long since past resided. For Kane it was Sir John Franklin in the Open Polar Sea; for Fox it was lost loved ones in the spirit world. Both were romantic adventurers who were deeply committed to their quests. Kane knew there was an Open Polar Sea and he knew the way to it was through Smith Sound. In his speech before the American Geographical Society of New York on December 14, 1852 he publicly announced his plans to lead the Second Grinnell Expedition. In this speech Corner notes that he confidently "set forth his reasons for supposing—nay, believing—that beyond [the Arctic] barrier lies an open sea teeming with birds and fishes under milder skies and warmer air than are to be found on its icy margins."
Fox too was on a quest but hers was a spiritual journey. She knew and admitted to Kane that the rappings were a fraud. As she revealed publicly years later, the rapping noises came not from the spirits of the dead, but from the skillful manipulation of the joints in her feet. But knowing that the rapping noises were a fraud did not mean that she was certain the spiritual world did not exist. For much of her life people had flocked to her looking for answers to eternal questions and for solace for their grieving hearts. Though she knew she was a fraud, she also knew that in many cases she had provided what they sought.
By 1852, when she and Kane first met, she was the most respected prophet of one of the most rapidly growing religions in the nation. According to modern estimates, one million of the United States 25 million residents believed in the "authenticity of séance communications." Prestigious and learned people sought her advice, for though their minds told them she was false, their hearts needed so badly to believe, to understand why loved ones died and why tragedy struck, that they put their faith in her despite themselves. This was the life Maggie Fox had led since the time she was thirteen years old. It seems it would have been difficult for her not to believe, at least in some way, that she was indeed a prophet with some special gift of insight. In an interview much later in her life, Fox provided a glimpse into what she went through as a young woman thrust to the forefront of a movement she did not fully understand. She reflected:
The fact that she was driven to listen to corpses, to sit alone in graveyards, and to desperately seek signs from the spirits shows that Margaret Fox struggled to obtain her unknown world with as much passion as Kane sought his. Both knew they were leading expeditions that they did not fully understand and for which they were not fully prepared. But both also seem to have felt that they were in some way the chosen ones who must go forward. Kane expressed this in an undated letter saying, "just as you have your wearisome round of daily money-making, I have my own sad vanities to pursue. I am as devoted to my calling as you, poor child, can be to yours."
In a letter from Boston where he was lecturing in February of 1853, Kane again addressed the similarities of their occupations but also pointed out the critical differences.
Kane knew that his lecturing and her rapping were for the same purpose, money. But this letter shows that he justified his actions by telling himself he was speaking "for humanity," not for personal gain. Though Kane originally tolerated Fox's occupation and even participated in seances, when he began to seriously court her, his attitude changed. Kane was a proper, aristocratic man keenly aware of class differences and proper roles for men and women. He thus began to work at transforming Fox into a proper woman worthy of his hand. This process often involved harsh reprimands that sound vicious to modern ears. Despairing at her resistance to change, he wrote, "You are refined and loveable [sic]; and, with a different education, would have been innocent and artless; but you are not worthy of a permanent regard from me. You could never lift yourself up to my thoughts and my objects; I could never bring myself down to yours."
In many ways their relationship mirrored those of the popular literature of the time. Susan Warner's hugely successful novel, The Wide, Wide World (1850) which Jane Tompkins describes as "the Ur-text of the nineteenth-century United States" because it "embodies, uncompromisingly, the values of the Victorian era," is about an innocent but misguided girl, Ellen Montgomery, who was educated by, and eventually wedded to, the much older John Humphreys, who taught her how to be a proper Victorian woman. Though there is no evidence that Kane had Fox read this book, he did have her read many works for her betterment, including Undine by De La Motte, which tells of a wayward water nymph who loved a far-traveling knight and through marriage to him gained an immortal soul.
Kane also wrote his own instructional literature for Fox. In a poem entitled, "The Prophecy" he wrote, "Weary! weary is the life / By cold deceit oppressed" and concluded noting that if she did not change her ways, "Thou shalt live and die forlorn." He also wrote a longer poem on the same theme entitled "A Story: Thoughts which ought to be those of Maggie Fox." This second work was signed "Preacher," Fox's telling nick-name for Kane.
Kane first proposed to Fox in January of 1853, and for the next four months their relationship swung back and forth between statements of everlasting unions and tragic farewells. Fortunately for us, much of this drama was played out via letters as Kane was busy traveling giving lectures and preparing for his voyage while Fox moved from Philadelphia, to Washington, to New York setting up seances in each location. According to Karen Lystra's book Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America (1989), Fox and Kane's on-again off-again relationship was typical of the times. Lystra notes that arranged marriages gave way to marriages of romance during the early nineteenth-century. One of the consequences of a young woman being able to chose her own mate was that she needed to make very sure that her suitor was serious, for if she lost her reputation without gaining a husband, she was destined to a life of poverty. Lystra notes that this reality "resulted in the dominant motif of nineteenth-century American courtship: women setting and men passing tests of love."
For Fox and Kane this process was a lively series of letters in which Kane pleaded for Fox's love while Fox, often under the instruction of her mother, alternated between accepting his advances and pulling away for the sake of her reputation. This made for a strange dance, for though Kane was trying to teach Fox to be a demure and proper woman—scolding her for such offenses as leading him through a room where a bed was present or for placing her hand on the back of his chair—he was also constantly begging her for more affectionate words in her letters and for small tokens of her love such as locks of her hair.
His letters often began with frantic reassertions of his love and desperate requests for her affection. "Dear, Dear Maggie:—Have you ceased to care for me? me whose devotion you now can see, and of whose true, steadfast love every fibre of your heart assures you!" They often ended equally dramatically. "I am very sick, and it was only last night that I made the discovery of not possessing your love. I will never hold up my hand again.... I shall always be your friend, and perhaps you are glad to get rid of me in the other relation! God bless you."
Kane's dual desires for a demure, proper woman but a more expressive lover are an excellent example of what Lystra calls the "public-private division" which she says was a "basic organizing principle of nineteenth-century middle-class culture." Raised in very proper society, Kane understood that gestures and words of affection were perfectly acceptable in private spheres such as love-letters or stolen moments out of the public eye. However, if other people were present, such gestures were strictly taboo. As etiquette books of the times warned, "Make no public exhibition of your endearments," and, "above everything... avoid being personal" in society. Even when they were in the same city at the same time, Kane would often send a messenger to deliver his letters "for fear of talk." When they were apart he insisted that they use the code names "Cousin Peter" and "F. Webster" for telegraph messages.
Fox was not nearly so concerned about such issues. This makes sense considering that it was to her advantage for them to be seen in public as it would make him more accountable to her. When Kane proposed an intricate plan to meet secretly at an art gallery in New York, Fox responded, "The idea seems to me so unbecoming. I do not care half as much for strangers, or the opinion of others, as I do for myself. But if you will call here I will go." Kane's family was dismayed by his attention to Fox as they felt she was a low-class social climber. Kane too feared at times that he was being led on as he saw how she led her clients "by the nose" and wondered if she was "only cheating me in a different way." Kane's biggest fear, however, was the press.
It is important here to note that the difference between public and private spheres extended into the press. Kane worked to keep his public life—his Open Polar Sea theory, his expedition plans, his thoughts on Sir John Franklin's whereabouts—in the press. However, if the press ever began to shift from covering his work to covering his life, he became indignant. When an article about one of his lectures spent more time describing (positively) his appearance and demeanor than his speech, he wrote Fox saying, "How disgusting is this life, to be discussed by the papers!" The fact that he shunned even positive personal press shows the extent to which privacy was essential to him and why he so greatly feared his love-life becoming public.
Kane seems to have felt that if their relationship ever became public knowledge while Fox was still involved in spiritualism, his reputation as both a scientist and a gentleman would be destroyed. He begged her to shun the public-eye. "[N]o more Greeleys, no more wiseacre scientific asses, and pop-eyed committees of investigation!" He wrote later, "You know I am nervous about the `rappings.' I believe the only thing I ever was afraid of was, this confounded thing being found out." Kane knew that if Fox gave up rapping she would be alienated from her family and livelihood but he also knew that if he married a spiritualist he would be in jeopardy of losing the respect and fame he had worked so hard to obtain. A few weeks before his departure he wrote, "Circumstance, that tyrant of human destinies, forbids our marriage, except by a sacrifice of all that makes worldly life desirable; and to the gratification of our love we have the opposition of society, of education, and of conscience."
At the beginning of May, 1853, circumstances changed. According to the narrative in Fox's ghost-written The Love-Life of Dr. Kane, Fox had from the very beginning wished to leave her sinful life as a spiritualist and to become a good Christian woman. It is hard to determine what Fox actually thought, for her life was still controlled by her mother and older sister. Despite this, it does seem that by March of 1853 she had began talking to Kane about leaving spiritualism if he would help her. In a letter dated March 19, 1853 Kane enthusiastically wrote:
Soon after this letter was written, Kane moved to New York to supervise preparations for his second Arctic voyage. A few days after arriving in New York he fell ill and stayed with the Grinnell's while he recovered. Fox was also in New York and they spent much time together going on carriage rides and to shows. It seems that Kane was willing to be seen in public with Fox because she had agreed to end her contact with spiritualism and to spend the years of his absence educating herself to be a proper woman. In mid-May, Mrs. Fox, Fox, and Kane went to New Haven to examine a school for Fox but decided against it. As an alternative they decided that Fox would go to live with Mrs. Sussanah Turner's family in Crooksville, Pennsylvania. The Turners were a simple but well-respected family and their location in the rural countryside just outside of Philadelphia was ideal for a woman seeking to better herself while staying out of the public eye.
As May came to a close, Fox began living up to her "solemn promise" never to rap again. It appears that her last seance was done for the President's wife, Mrs. Jane Appleton Pierce, whose eleven year old son had just died in a horrible train accident. Kane scolded Fox for this last transgression but was so pleased with her promise and upcoming education that he could not help but show her off to his friends. He had her come to the Grinnells' house where he introduced her to his wealthy benefactor. He wrote Fox afterwards: "Mrs. Grinnell was much pleased with you. Every body who really knows you, is; for my Maggie is a lady; and by the time that she has had a course of Mrs. Turner's music and French, nobody will know her as the spirit-rapping original phenomenon."
He hired the popular Italian portrait painter, Joseph Fagnani, to paint a portrait of Fox for him to take to the Arctic. He also wrote a clever drama for Fox that portrayed him as the romantic and doting "Preacher" and her as a practical and un-sentimental woman of good-sense and plain speech. "Preacher. I've longed to make life's stream a fountain clear and bright. Maggie. How can I fix my hair, dear Ly* , if you stand in the light?"
The casual, domestic banter of the final week's letters suggest that their engagement was, though still secret, truly established. In his "farewell" letter, the engagement seems sure.
The day before he left for his second Arctic expedition, Kane made a final trip to Mrs. Turner's house to assure Fox that all would be well. Kane had asked Grinnell's son, Cornelius Grinnell, to be Fox's guardian and to supply her with funds and information about the expedition during his absence. With these last details taken care of, Kane returned to New York and on May 31, 1853 set sail for the Arctic. In a final letter written as he left Newfoundland, Kane imagined Fox under the shade of a drooping chestnut, startling the birds with her "tokens of the spirit-world." He advised her to study German and asked that she "write naughty letters" to him in that "noble language." He promised to be true to his promises and asked her only to "exercise often, laugh when you can, grow as fat as you please; and when I return—God granting me that distant blessing—... let me have at least the rewarding consciousness of having done my duty."
A Heroic Endeavor: The Second Grinnell Expedition
Kane's second expedition to the Arctic was in many ways the ultimate romantic adventure. As Goetzmann noted, the romantic adventurer provided the public with exciting narratives, scientific illustrations, paintings, prints, and photographs of the new lands and new peoples that they discovered. Though funds were tight, Kane had obtained good scientific instruments thanks to sizable donations from the Geographical Society of New York, the Smithsonian Institute, and the American Philosophical Society. Following Matthew Maury's suggestion, Kane also acquired a camera which crew member Amos Bonsall was taught to operate. While in the Arctic, even when he was under extreme duress, Kane kept strict scientific records, paused to sketch interesting phenomena, and took the time to write detailed accounts of daily events. Unfortunately, however, conditions proved too harsh for Bonsall's camera to operate, so no daguerreotypes were taken.
Though all were excited about the cause and had eagerly volunteered, Kane's crew was far from ideal. Arctic scholar L. H. Neatby has even argued that the Second Grinnell Expedition may have been the least well-prepared expedition in Arctic history as its "captain was a physician in poor health, his chief officer a boatswain..., and his principal navigator a landsman astronomer." But what Kane lacked in experience and man-power he made up for in sheer romantic optimism. As Neatby noted, "[Kane] was one of the last of the race of brilliant and versatile amateurs which the early Scientific Revolution had produced and which the growing specialization of the modern age was soon wholly to extinguish."
I will not take the time here to rehash the story of Kane's Arctic journey for I can add nothing new to either Kane's exciting two-volume account, Arctic Explorations, or Corner's scholarly evaluation of the trip, Dr. Kane of the Arctic Seas. For the sake of this work it is only necessary for me to briefly mention a few of Kane's trials and accomplishments.
Kane sailed north through Baffin Bay and Smith Sound, entering what became known as Kane Basin, where the Advance was frozen in on September of 1853 at latitude 78° 38'. From this location, named Rensselaer Harbor after the Kane family mansion, Kane sent sledge crews forward to set up stashes of provisions which would facilitate an eventual dash to the Open Polar Sea. Kane hired a 19-year-old Eskimo, Hans Christian Hendrik, to join the expedition. Hans proved to be an incredibly valuable resource and his services were thus sought by many other Arctic explorers in later years. Through Hans and Greenland native Carl Petersen, Kane was able to communicate with the local Inuit people and from them he managed to secure supplies as well as survival skills.
After their first winter, Kane sent several small sledding groups out to explore the area. Isaac Hayes and William Godfrey were able to map a large stretch of Kane Basin's western shore, and Kane discovered and named the huge Humboldt Glacier as well as an interesting rock formation, Tennyson's Monument. But the most important discovery was made by Hans and William Morton. In late July of 1854 they pushed passed Humboldt Glacier and at 81° 22' north latitude spotted open water. From their report Kane felt he had proof of an Open Polar Sea. Kane attempted to reach this point and see it for himself but the oncoming winter and harsh ice formations stopped his efforts.
The Advance remained locked in ice throughout the summer of 1854 and as winter began to approach again, many of the crew members wanted to make an effort to escape to the Greenland whaling port of Upernavik. Not wanting to be like the dictatorial officers he had so despised during his Navy career, Kane agreed to let anyone who wanted to, to leave with a fair share of provisions and complete immunity from the charge of desertion. To his shock, all but five said they would go. On August 28 these men left, leaving Kane and his loyal men to face the winter by themselves. The escape group failed and by mid-December they all returned to Rensselaer Harbor. They had exhausted or lost all their resources in their effort to escape and were now in desperate need of the limited resources that Kane and his men had conserved. Kane took them back as members of the crew but struggled with insubordination issues for the rest of the journey. Though he publicly forgave these men, his own journals show that he privately despised their abandonment as he fumed "God's blessings go with them, for they carry not the respect of good men."
On the first of May, 1855 Kane began a daring escape. Over the next three months he held his rag-tag crew together as they dragged and sailed their small escape ships over hundreds of miles of ice and choppy water. The expedition finally reached safety in early August when a Danish whaling ship picked them up and took them to Upernavik. After over two years in the Arctic, he and his men were finally safe.
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. 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." 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."
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."
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.
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. 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.
"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. 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."
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.
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.'"
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.
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.
Celebrity and the Collision of Spheres
During all the excitement of Kane's arrival, Margaret Fox anxiously awaited her lover. The autumn before, when Kane did not return as planned, Fox had become incredibly depressed. Isolated from her family and thinking that she had lost her fiancé, Fox spent much of 1854 and early 1855 staying with different friends of the Grinnell family in an attempt to cheer up. When Fox learned of Kane's rescue in early October, she was elated. In this letter, which still exists among the Kane family papers, we can see that Fox fully expected a happy homecoming and was hoping that it would quickly culminate in marriage and acceptance into the Kane family.
But what makes this letter especially interesting is that it ends with a chatty discussion of spiritualism. Fox said, "Spiritual manifestations are spreading all over the world. Some of the greatest men in the world have become believers in the Spirits.... I conversed with the spirits when Mrs. Walter was here. I asked an[y] number of questions about you."
This letter shows that Fox had not given up sprit-rapping and was in fact still watching the spiritualist movement with great interest. It seems she was also questioning the spirits about Kane's safety. Why would Fox discuss such matters in her first letter to Kane when she knew that one of the conditions he insisted upon for marriage was her abandonment of spiritualism? Did she think that since the movement was growing that he would now accept it? Or did she think that, as long as she was not practicing it publicly, private rappings were acceptable?
This last question deserves further examination for Kane himself seems to have believed that he was capable of seeing into the future via a form of mysticism he often practiced in private. In several of his letters, Kane talks about "raising his hand" to see into the future. For example, with apparent seriousness, he wrote Fox in May of 1853, "I was very glad, my own dearest darling, that you contradicted the suspicions of my hand. My hand is sometimes completely wrong, and I had a great deal rather believe you than it." Perhaps Fox felt that rapping privately to herself was a form of future-telling analogous to Kane's uplifted hand and thus acceptable. Whatever the case, this letter shows that in her time of dismay and longing, Fox turned to the sprits for answers. She knew she was a fraud. She does not seem to have been so sure about the spirits.
What effect this letter had on Kane is unknown. What we do know is that Fox waited for two long days before he paid her a visit. When he finally did arrive, the reunion was far from joyful. According to Fox's account, Kane, trying to remain composed, told her that their marriage must be indefinitely delayed due to violent opposition from his family. He then wrote out a letter stating that their relationship was "merely friendly and fraternal" and asked her to copy it into her own hand and sign it, for he had to present such a letter to satisfy his mother. Fox tearfully copied and signed the statement, and, over Mrs. Walter's protests, Kane left with the letter.
Fox claimed that Kane returned a few days later, giving her back the letter and apologizing that he had been "compelled by his persecutors to act a part unworthy of a gentleman." Apparently Kane's aunt, Elizabeth Leiper, found out about this affair and scolded him severely. He wrote Fox, "See, Maggie, here is my favorite aunt turning against me for your sake!"
The Kane family's violent protest to this relationship needs to be examined. Certainly they were never thrilled about Fox, but before Kane left for the Arctic they had tolerated the relationship. Maybe they felt Kane would lose interest after two years in the Arctic and thus saw no reason to protest before he left. Once he returned, matters were more serious. The Spiritualist Movement was now a well established religion with its own prophets, theology, and powerful supporters.
Judge John Worth Edmonds of the Supreme Court of New York had published two volumes of a work entitled Spiritualism in 1853 and 1855. This work gave the spiritualist movement a text to rally around as it offered a direct attack on the Calvinist notion of a fearful God. Edmonds instructed, "Fear of God is a terrible fear.... Your duty will be to lead the mind away from these theological errors; they have warped the soul too long already." In the same month that Kane arrived, New York newspapers were full of reports of free-love societies and other scandalous behavior linked to the spiritualist movement.
The Kane family did not want their now famous son to have his image tarnished by his association with this movement. When Kane returned, the family quickly intervened—a fact that suggests that Kane was still interested in Fox. Though we have only Fox's account of this incident, the defensive tone of the Kane family letters suggests that her story is true. Over the next ten years, the Kane family spent vast amounts of energy and money trying to discredit Fox and her claim to their son: an effort that would hardly have been necessary if Fox's claims were unfounded.*
The Kane family's interference resulted in exactly what they were trying to avoid and what Kane most feared—a media event. On October 19, only a week after Kane's return, the Troy Daily News ran a small but explosive article.
Though this account was full of obvious factual errors, such as the Fox sisters' birth order and the location of Kane and Fox's meeting, it was quickly picked up by many of the nation's gossip-hungry newspapers. The story was rehashed and elaborated to such an extent that Horace Greeley, Fox's long time friend, felt obliged to scold his fellow editors for their indiscretion. "What right has the public to know anything about an `engagement' or non-engagement between these young people?... Whether they have been, are, may be, are not, or will not be, `engaged,' can be nobody's business but their own and that of their near relatives."
The Kane family also refuted the story by planting an article in the Boston Traveller which was then reprinted in Philadelphia's Daily Pennsylvanian. Their article claimed that the "foolish story" had arisen from a misunderstanding. It stated that before Kane left on his Arctic journey, he had contributed "with a sailor's liberality" to a fund to educate one of the Fox girls. "On his return... he called to witness the improvement of his protegée; and from this simple incident has arisen the engagement story."
Both Fox and Kane were traumatized by this media deluge. During it all they wrote passionately tragic letters addressing themselves as "Brother" and "Sister." Fox's family and friends were indignant that Kane did not publicly announce his intentions one way or the other and so pressed Fox to end the relationship. In late October she wrote:
In a letter of response (which Fox apparently did not burn without opening) Kane agreed that they had to separate for both their sakes, but felt they could reunite "when the thing blows over." Though he despised being "rent asunder by these cursed meddlers," he told her that he was nervous about his letters being made public but was too much of a gentleman to ask for them back. However, he concluded, "If of your own free choice you send them to me, I will regard it as the highest proof of trust and love." Fox's narrative states that she immediately sent the letters back but Kane refused them and was "hurt at Margaret's willingness to part with them even to himself."
Judging from both their letters and Fox's account, the next few months were an emotional period for them. Interpreting what the couple was going through is a difficult task, for their concerns seem to have rested on several levels. They worried about public opinion, social status, loyalty to family, loyalty to each other, and personal reputation. In her narrative, Fox defended Kane's erratic letters saying, "Let those who are disposed to condemn his conduct consider the circumstances in which he was placed: his present want of pecuniary independence, his education in erroneous ideas of social elevation, and the incessant torture to which he was subjected from the urgent remonstrances of friends and the sneers of those indifferent to him."
But what the couple feared most was the ability of the press to make all their private concerns public. After the Kane family explained away their engagement in the press, many of Fox's friends, including Greeley apparently, threatened to retaliate by exposing Kane's ungentlemanly behavior. Fox wrote Kane, "I cannot tell you how unhappy it makes me to think of my affairs being in the mouths of so many strange persons, and the subject of newspaper comment. I suffer, too, on your own account... I am a simple girl and people might soon forget any idle gossip about me. But you are more widely known, and a stain on your honor would be hard to efface." Kane wrote later, "All I think of dear Maggie, is your reputation. As for myself, I'm only half a gentleman; for they make me tell so many stories."
In April of 1856, this strained relationship suddenly flourished again. According to Fox, Kane appeared at her house one evening when she was alone, grabbed her in his arms, gave her a ring, and insisted that she marry him. In her narrative she commented, "He cared no longer... for the world's opinion or its sneers: his beloved was all in all to him."
Soon after, Fox, along with her mother and sister Kate, moved into a new house on 22nd street. Fox had the third story to herself and it seems Kane was a frequent visitor, staying there every time he was in New York. He wrote of this room, "There, like wounded deer, we escape from the hunters; and if we, both of us, are conscious of doing no wrong, whose business is it if we seek shelter?" Evidence suggests that from this time on, Kane and Fox were formally engaged and were regarded as such by both their families.
What caused this sudden change in there 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. 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. 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." 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."
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.
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."
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." 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." 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.
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. 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.
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."
The Open Polar Sea: Filling the Needs of a Nation
The adventure and suffering of the expedition struck a chord with the nation. Ellis Oberholtzer wrote that Kane's narrative, expressed with "simplicity, modesty and unselfishness," touched all classes of people. John Sampson in his cultural evaluation of Arctic narratives noted that stories of incredible suffering and endurance in the Arctic reassured the public of "that indomitable American spirit." He said, "in the context of the midcentury turmoil that threatened to destroy America, such statements... reveal the individual American's anxious reassertion of American specialness."
But unlike other Arctic exploration narratives, Kane's offered not only the reassertion of America's ability to survive, but the possibility of a new and better world. Kane's account of the Open Polar Sea as a utopia surrounded by the harsh reality of the Arctic is the embodiment of the nation's romantic idealism as well as of its psychological need of a place of peace and safety in a time of turmoil. An examination of Kane's Open Sea as a psychological need, a public creation, a scientific theory, and as the small hole in the ice that it actually was, helps explain the spirit of the times.
When Kane returned he enthusiastically announced the discovery of the Open Polar Sea. Though William Morton and Hans Hendrik (who remained in the Arctic) were the only two men who saw the open water, newspaper accounts suggest that many of the men of the expedition were able to describe it in full detail. The Times said, "The lashing of the surf against this frozen beach of ice was, we are assured, impressive beyond description. Several gentlemen with whom we have conversed, speak of it with wonder and admiration." In his official report to the Navy, Kane proclaimed the discovery of an "open and iceless area, abounding with life, and presenting every character of an open Polar sea." And in the map he and Sonntag drew, he wrote "Open Sea" in bold letters over the North Pole. In his journal from the Arctic, Kane wrote that the discovery "was well calculated to arouse emotions of the highest order... I do not believe there was a man among us who did not long for the means of entering upon its bright and lonely waters."
The romance of this discovery touched even the most scientific of accounts. Just a few months after Kane's return, Matthew Maury, father of modern oceanography, dedicated an entire chapter of his ground-breaking scientific work The Physical Geography of the Sea to the Open Polar Sea. He wrote:
Maury, a man who collected and compiled staggering amounts of oceanic information so precisely that his charts are still respected today, could not maintain his cool and calculated prose in the face of the Open Polar Sea. In the above passage he not only waxes poetic but places Kane, not Morton, at the shore of the open water and vicariously feels the pull of the mythology and longing of the "old ocean."
The public was also enthralled with the idea of the Open Polar Sea. A good example of this is the editorial columns of the Times, where a few weeks after Kane's arrival, people began writing letters debating the cause of the open water. Someone from Aurora proposed it resulted from "the centrifugal force and the internal heating power of the earth." A few days later a man from Brooklyn disagreed, thinking instead that the true cause was the "spheroidical shape" of the earth which caused the poles to be 13 miles "nearer to the heated centrum" than the land around the equator. This, of course, meant that the poles were also insulated by a much thicker layer of atmosphere than any other part of the world..
What is important to remember is that all of this celebration of the Open Polar Sea was based on the testimony of one man who knew that his friend and captain, who was deathly sick at the time, desperately wanted there to be an open sea in the middle of the Arctic. I am not suggesting that Morton did not see open water—most Arctic scholars now believe that he saw one of the many "Arctic oasis" that occur from time to time attracting huge numbers of wildlife seeking open water. What I am suggesting is that there was little chance that Morton could not have seen an Open Polar Sea. Morton believed there was an Open Polar Sea, he knew Kane wanted there to be and Open Polar Sea, and he had spent several years fighting the extremes of the Arctic to prove there was an Open Polar Sea. Given such conditions, it is easy to understand why any open water Morton saw would be an Open Polar Sea. Any other explanation simply would not have been acceptable.
In his psychological analysis of exploration literature, Peter Knox-Shaw notes that explorers of new lands usually find what they imagine will be there. He calls this process "projection" and explains that it "is to locate a mental image in the external world." He argues that when people experience something completely new, what they perceive is actually more dependent on what they expect to see, than what they actually view. This explains why Columbus saw India, Ponce de Leon saw the Fountain of Youth, and the Conquistadors saw El Dorado. None of them could quite reach their destinations, but all of them were certain that they had caught a glimpse.
Knox-Shaw extends this to political ideas showing that the early European discoverers of America, no matter where they landed, thought they had found Eden. This changed with the Puritans because they viewed themselves not as conquerors, but as exiles; "Exodus rather than Genesis presided over their encounter with the interior." Equally important was their Calvinist hatred of the natural state, which changed the new world from Eden to the dark and evil forest desperately in need of a city on the hill. In his examination of explorers of the American West, Goetzmann also noted explorers' tendency to see what they expect to see. "[E]xplorers, as they go out into the unknown, are `programmed' by the knowledge, values, and objectives of the civilized centers from which they depart. They are alert to discover evidence of the things they have been sent to find."
What is important about Kane's discovery of the Open Polar Sea is not whether or not it existed, but that it did exist for the people of the time. Kane's whole crew could describe it, Maury could feel its pounding green waves, and the public could explain why it existed. What Kane found and what Kane became was not based on actual reality, but on what the nation wanted to believe.
Kane was a survivor, a romantic, a scientist, and most importantly, a hero who led his people through terrible dangers back to safety. What this hero discovered was what the nation most wanted, an ideal open sea where life sailed smoothly though surrounded by hard and dangerous shores. In many ways, the Open Polar Sea was a vision of heaven surrounded by the perils of the world. In this sense, Kane's Arctic adventure could be read as a Christian metaphor not unlike John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Elisha Kent Kane projected what the nation most wanted to see in the turbulent times of the late 1850s. This is why Kane became a hero of the age and why his book sold 135,000 copies in less than three years.
Closing the Book: A Hero for the Romantic Age
With great fanfare, Childs and Peterson released Arctic Exploration at the end of September, 1856. By this time some scholars had began to doubt Kane's report of an open sea. German geographer August Petermann published a professional review of Kane's official report, declaring that even if Kane had seen open water, it could not have been part of the "great polar sea" according to the leading theories of the time. Kane responded to this in Arctic Explorations in a manner both humble and sarcastic. He said of the debate, "[W]hat may be the argument in favor of one or the other hypothesis... may be questions for men skilled in scientific deductions. Mine has been the more humble duty of recording what we saw."
The book was an immediate success. Besides having sold 20,000 copies before publication, Childs reported that one store that ordered only 100 copies originally sent an order back immediately afterward for an additional 5,000 copies to meet the demand. Unfortunately, Kane was so ill that he could hardly enjoy his success. He had began to feel weak in May but kept working diligently at the book until its completion in August. That fall he spent several weeks in a water cure clinic in Brattleboro, Vermont.
September and October, despite his illness, were golden moments for Kane and Fox. Margaret, Kate, and Mrs. Fox traveled to Canada in late August, during which time Kane apparently watched over their house. His loving, joking letters suggest that their relationship was finally peaceful. "I miss you; the third story room seems desolate without you.... Tommy [Margaret's dog] is a spoiled child.... Even now I hear him barking—I suppose at my picture.... If he could speak, he would say,— `You think yourself a great man, but she loves me more than she loves you, and she never beats me or pulls my nose.'"
Kane had decided to go to England for the winter to promote his book and to talk to Lady Franklin about the future of Arctic exploration. Before he left, he lavished time and money on Fox, taking her to the opera and buying her a diamond bracelet from Tiffany's. They were obviously very intimate at this time as he commissioned an ambrotype to be taken of Fox and wrote her saying, "Don't be afraid of your neck and shoulders. I want you to look like a Circe, for you have already changed me into a wild Boar."
Kane left for England on October 11, 1856, never to return again. What happened in the few days before Kane left was the cause of years of turmoil between the Kane family and Margaret Fox. According to Fox, one evening in early October while Kane was at her house, he became depressed thinking of his upcoming trip to England. He suddenly brightened and asked her if she would be willing to marry him on the spot saying, "Such a declaration, in the presence of witnesses, is sufficient to constitute a legal and binding marriage." They called Kate and Mrs. Fox, as well as two other young women in the house, up to her third story apartment. There Kane stood embracing Fox and said, "Maggie is my wife, and I am her husband. Wherever we are, she is mine, and I am hers. Do you understand this, Maggie?" She said yes and then Kane explained that they were now legally married but would keep it a secret until he returned in May at which time he would be financially secure and thus able to marry her publicly.
This ceremony, if it ever occurred, is documented only in Fox's account, published a decade later. However, a more concrete piece of evidence does exist suggesting that Kane was officially committed to Fox in some way before he left. The day he left, Kane signed a will in the presence of the Grinnells naming his brothers Thomas and Robert as his executors and leaving his entire estate, namely his upcoming royalties, to such members of the family as his father might designate. He specified "the family" as his mother and siblings. However, the one other provision was a $5,000 immediate payment to his lawyer brother, Robert. When Kane died, both Fox and the Grinnells claimed that this $5,000 was intended for Fox..
What Fox did for the year and a half after Kane's death is a bit of a mystery for no letters address this period and her memoir only notes that she was ill and too depressed to "bear the light of day." It was not until 1858 that Fox began seeking her supposed inheritance. In August of that same year she was baptized Roman Catholic at St. Peter's in New York. Though Kane reached the height of his celebrity in the months after his death, the only mention of Fox by the media during this time was an ambiguous reference to a large wreath of flowers laid on his grave and signed "Two Ladies."
After Kane's death, the family insisted that Fox give them all the letters he had written her. She refused and instead sued the family for the $5,000 mentioned in Kane's will. Furthermore, she insisted that their secret marriage was legitimate and so began presenting herself in public as Mrs. Kane, the name she went by for the rest of her life.
Because Fox had given up spirit-rapping and been baptized Catholic to honor Kane's wishes, she was alienated from many of her Spiritualist friends and had lost her only means of financial support. For nearly a decade after Kane's death, Fox and the Kane family took turns suing each other. Fox threatened to publish the letters if they did not give her money; the Kane family threatened to leave her destitute if she did not return all of Elisha's letters. In the summer of 1858, Fox gave the letters to Elizabeth Fries Lummis Ellet,* a publisher of sensational literature, and Joseph La Fumée of the Brooklyn Eagle helped Fox write up a narrative to connect the letters. But Fox withdrew from the project in September of 1858, when she seems to have realized that the manuscript was more valuable as a bargaining chip than as a published work. In 1862 she again sent the letters to press and followed this action by filing a suit in the Philadelphia Orphans court for payment of a widow's dower. These two actions brought the Kanes to the bargaining table, where they agreed to pay off her debts, to give her $2,000, and to pay her the interest on the remaining $3,000 left her. In exchange, Fox agreed to drop the suit against them and to have the letters and the book plates placed in the custody of Dr. Edward Bayar of New York, who would act as trustee. Soon after the papers were in Bayar's hands, the Kane family began to rework the contract, knowing that Fox could not afford the legal expenses to take them to court again. Over the next three years the Kane family paid Fox almost nothing but her quarterly annuity, and in May of 1865 they refused to pay even that. This refusal of annuity payment allowed her to show that they were in clear default of their original agreement and she was thus able to reclaim the letters which she promptly published as The Love-Letters of Dr. Kane (1866).
In this book, Fox portrayed Kane and herself as victims of their families and herself as especially wronged as she had given up all she had for a man who in the end left her destitute. The first page of the preface proclaimed that Fox had "borne the sneers of the world, and the neglect of those whose regard for the deceased should have induced them to protect, comfort, and befriend her." It explained that Fox herself was willing to "go down to the grave covered with unjust obloquy, were the choice left entirely to herself," but that her friends had convinced her that the publication of the letters "would vindicate the honor of both parties to the correspondence; for both had severely suffered from the slanders spread abroad." The text that surrounds the letters is very slanted in Fox's favor: a good example being that it notes her age at the time of her and Kane's meeting as thirteen when she was in fact nineteen. But even with the obvious biases in her favor, the letters and dates in the account appear to be accurate as they match the still existent letters as well as the known dates of their meetings.
It seems that no one wanted Fox to complicate the image of "Dr. Kane" the hero, and so she dropped out of sight. Corner cites a letter that suggests that if Kane's relationship with Fox had been fully reported, his heroic character would have been damaged. E. Peshine Smith wrote his friend Henry C. Carey a few months after Kane's death, "I am sorry to be informed that being thoroughly in love with Miss Fox he [Kane] had not the courage to marry her against the opposition of his family. The passion and the cowardice are both strange and the latter painful as diminishing one's regard for what I had thought a heroic character."
This letter provides a glimpse into what at least one American felt was and was not appropriate behavior for a hero. Note that Smith lists not only cowardice, but also passion as "strange" behavior. But though romantic passion was strange, what was painful was the denial of this passion due to outside pressure. America, it seems, expected its heroes to be above sexual passions. More importantly though, a hero was not to back down or succumb to the will of others. Kane's relationship with Fox certainly could have damaged his heroic image. This helps explain why this part of his life disappeared so completely when the press began to immortalize him after his death.
As for Margaret Fox, after years of struggling with alcoholism, depression, and financial want, she attempted to make a comeback in 1888. With great publicity, including the publication of a book, The Death-Blow to Spiritualism, Fox staged a final grand performance on October 22, 1888 in New York's Academy of Music. Standing before the large crowd, Fox sent forth a barrage of rapping noises that sounded from all corner of the hall. Laughing, she proclaimed that this "spiritual manifestation" was nothing other than the clever manipulation of the joints in her toes. Though this performance gained her money and fame for a short time, soon she was again destitute. Within a year of her performance of the "death-blow" to spiritualism, she pitifully recanted her denial of spiritualism and returned to the seance table. Sick and bitter, she struggled on for another five years.
One of the last public notices of Margaret Fox appeared at the bottom of the back page of the March 5, 1893 edition of the New York Times. There ran the following:
Three days later, on March 8, 1893, Margaret Fox died—destitute, homeless, and forgotten.
The Icon of an Age
Elisha Kent Kane died on February 16, 1857, two weeks after his 37th birthday. Having arrived in Liverpool in late October, 1856, Kane traveled to London, where he became desperately ill. Sir Henry Holland, the Court's favorite physician, attended Kane, but he continued to decline. He was unable to attend the Royal Geographic Society's banquet in his honor on November 10, and after writing a letter to S. W. Mitchell, Philadelphia's leading physician, Kane left for Havana, Cuba hoping that its climate would aid in his recovery.
In route to Havana, Kane had an apoplectic stroke, losing both his speech and the movement of his right side. Kane was greeted by his brother Thomas when he arrived in Havana; his mother and brother John Jr. arrived a few days later. Kane's loyal assistant, William Morton, accompanied Kane on his trip to Havana and remained with him until the end. Kane struggled through January, had another stroke in early February, and died less than a week later.
The Tribune reported on February 18 that there was little room to hope that Dr. Kane was still alive. Four days later they confirmed his death. The Tribune assured its readers that "Kane was a man of whom the country became more proud with every new revelation of his character.... Gallant, brave, heroic, smitten equally with a love of science and a passion for adventure, he possessed the mental force to convert the dreams of imagination into reality." It went on to list his accomplishments in the Orient, Africa, and India as well as his heroism in Mexico and the Arctic. It explained that his "modest simplicity, his refined tastes, his tenderness of feeling, and his almost feminine sympathies" were coupled with as "dauntless courage and constancy as ever nerved heroic heart to lofty prowess." It concluded by praising his new book and holding him up as a hero whom the youth of the nation should strive to emulate, as his life presented an example of "noble, persistent, disinterested and undismayed manhood."
For the next two months, newspapers and magazines were filled with emotional eulogies, heroic biographies, and lists of his accomplishments. Kane's funeral procession, which became the model used for Lincoln's a few years later, stretched from Havana to Philadelphia via steamboat and rail. Lasting nearly a month and covering over 2,000 miles, Kane's procession traveled slowly through the country as each burg and village crowded to see their fallen hero. Large services were held in Havana, New Orleans, Louisville, Columbus, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. The entire spring of 1857 was one long media event for Kane. Harper's, Blackwood's, The Atlantic, Putnam's, Eclectic, and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Magazine all ran extensive stories about him. Literary journals such as De Bow's Review, The North British Review, The Masonic Review, and The Westminster Review also ran accounts of Kane's life to accompany their assessments of Arctic Explorations.
Kane's death affected all of America. Several state governments and scientific societies called for memorials to be built and requested that subscription rates to the funds be "fixed so low that even those of limited means might have the pleasure of contributing." And while men reveled in Kane's heroic examples of manhood, women wrote sentimental accounts of "the last hours of one whose death is a national loss, and whose memory is dear to the heart of strangers as well as friends." Poets too could not resist the tragic death of a hero as many spun verses eulogizing the "Archangel voyager." A hero dying before reaping the benefits of his heroism made for wonderful copy. "The dead wear no medals," Putnam's noted with bitter irony when reporting Congress's decision to honor Kane a month after his death.
The sensational press also embraced Kane as both a hero and a money making opportunity. Within nine months after Kane's death, publisher James T. Lloyd of Philadelphia had released both August Sonntag's and William Godfrey's accounts of their Arctic travels and experiences with Kane. Ella Lloyd, Lloyd's wife and the apparent ghost writer of both accounts, explained in the preface to Sonntag's account that, in a time when the public so eagerly desired accounts of the Arctic and Kane's life, "it would be almost criminal for any man who possesses such information to withhold it from the world." Both books were illustrated with sensational etchings of battles with polar bears, swarms of attacking Eskimos, and gigantic whirl pools over the North Pole that threatened to suck down any ships that dared the waters of the Open Polar Sea.
George Childs, however, provided the most complete and heroic account of Kane's life as he again commissioned Dr. William Elder to write an account of Kane. Elder was a friend of the Kane family and so when he set to work on the book-length biography they supplied him with family papers as well as personal stories. Because of this, Elder's biography is the only work that includes the oral history of the Kane family as they themselves told it. It is the only record we have of Kane's childhood, and because the family worked with Elder, it is in many instances told in their words.
As noted above, at the time of Kane's death, the Kane family was trying to cover up his engagement to Margaret Fox. For this reason, Elder's work is in many ways a misleading piece of propaganda as it never even mentions Fox. The family seems to have felt that if Kane's actions regarding Fox were revealed, his image as a hero would be tarnished. If this story was told, the public could view him as immoral in his dealings with Fox and as spineless in his bowing to parental pressure. In an attempt to hide this omission, Elder wrote a few pages entitled "To The Reader," assuring them that he had left nothing of importance out. He exclaimed "It will be observed how largely, and how freely too, I have quoted from Dr. Kane's private letters and memoranda. Bless the memory of the man for the happiness I have this day in declaring that I have not been obliged to suppress a letter or a line for the sake of his fame!"
Elder also had an agenda in writing the biography: He wanted to make it a moral teaching tool for the nation's youth. "There is a lesson in his life for them," but in order for the nation's youth's "hero-worship" to be correctly guided, Elder felt they needed a "directory of the facts and influences which grew [their] model into greatness." In this way Elder's work serves as an example of what America wanted its children to emulate. It is a valuable example of the era's moral values and its hypocrisies.
Childs wanted Elder to finish the biography as quickly as possible and, judging from Elder's preface, Childs was more than a little demanding. "I have worked hard, under pressure of a clamorous impatience for the publication.... I have not been unpunctual. Moreover, I have had so very, very little help that my only temptation to affect thankfulness would be a division of the responsibility, which, in the strictest justice to all parties, rests exclusively upon myself," Elder fumed.
Though bitter about the project, Elder lived up Childs' demands and produced his 400-page Biography of Elisha Kent Kane in just eight months. During this time Childs launched a hugely successful publicity campaign. He announced the forthcoming biography in May and by the end of the summer had secured orders for 30,000 copies.
Elder's biography is the culmination of Kane's heroic fame. Just as Mason L. Weems had done for Washington a generation earlier, Elder made Kane a hero of mythic proportions. Like Weems, Elder told of his hero's childhood and young adult life, holding them up as examples for the next generation to live by. He begins this by showing Kane to be a truly democratic hero, his blood derived "from the common source." He traces his lineage to the American melting-pot both racially: Irish, English, German, Dutch, and Scotch; and religiously: Puritan, Quaker, Catholic, Episcopalian, and Presbyterian.
Elder next focuses on Kane's heroic childhood. When five neighborhood boys perched themselves on a roof and shot putty-wads at the girls below, young Elisha ordered them to stop, and when they refused, he quickly scaled the building, bested all five of them, and then dragged them to the edge of the roof to apologize. In another instance, via a dramatic rope-swinging kick to the face, he knocked out a ruffian who was harassing a group of adult women. And when a harsh school master unjustly threatened to whip his younger brother Tommy, Elisha came to his defense saying, "Don't whip him, he's such a little fellow—whip me."
In these tales Elder gave his readers a view of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer twenty-five years before Twain would create them. He said of his little hero, "It was not the monkey mirthfulness... of childhood that he was chargeable with, but something more of purpose and tenacity... [that] he did not overlay with good-boy policy. He was absolutely fearless... and he had a pair of little fists that worked with the steam-power of passion in the administration of distributive justice." Elder ends these early tales by discussing Kane's childhood reading list—Chemistry texts, Robinson Crusoe, and Pilgrim's Progress—and by noting that he was almost entirely self-educated, a "monk of intellectual industry."
Elder next dedicated over fifty pages to Kane's voyage to the Orient, India, and Egypt. In one of the most exciting adventures of this account, Kane, to the surprise and horror of his company, had himself lowered into the fuming mouth of the Taal Volcano to collect a specimen from its boiling, sulfuric center. Falling multiple times and having his shoes burned off in the process, Kane made it back to the rim of the volcano where he passed out. Upon regaining consciousness he found his group surrounded by a mob of natives angered by his profanation of the sacred volcano. The group's guides abandoned them and joined the native assailants, forcing the group to hold back the mob with revolver fire until the local priests rescued them. Though this story is one of the most fantastic of Elder's accounts, it seems to be true. Corner cites a pencil written letter from Kane absolving the other members of his party from any responsibility for his actions should he not return.
In this adventure, Elder showed Kane's triumph of science over superstition. This story fit well into the spirit of the times as Humboldt and Agassiz were placing the world into their well ordered "Great Chain of Being" which charted and scientifically explained all of creation. Elder made Kane a hero of this process by portraying him as a modern-day Prometheus literally stealing the fire of the gods to give it to human understanding. Elder also recounted Kane's exploits in Mexico, dedicating twenty-five pages to proving the truthfulness of the account and correcting it only by noting that the surgery Kane performed on Major Gaona involved a chest wound, not a wound to the groin as the papers had reported.
From beginning to end, Elder's work is an instructional manual for how young men should live. It was his intent to write a work that would guide the nation's youth in their hero-worship of a man whose life could be a lesson to them. Judging from reviews of the time, Elder succeeded in this effort. The Atlantic reported that Elder's portrayal of Kane's life was "one of the moral possessions of the country, worth more to it than any new invention which increases its industrial productiveness or any new province which it adds to its territorial dominion." It concluded, "To the young men of the country we especially commend this biography, in the full belief that it will stimulate and stir to effort many a sensitive youth who feels within himself the capacity to emulate the spirit which prompted Dr. Kane's actions...."
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. 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. Even Danish-speaking Carl Petersen and Eskimo Hans Hendrik eventually published accounts of their experiences with Kane. 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.
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.
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."
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.
Conclusion: Raising Kane
Just as George Washington reappeared in the "Spirit of `76" that surrounded the Mexican-American War, so too has Kane reappeared at various times when Romantic sentiment has run high. At the turn of the century when America was again experiencing a time of optimism, Kane suddenly came back into public view. Century Magazine ran a cover story about the romance of his Arctic adventure and extolled him as a hero. It explained that though his discoveries and theories had been "obscured by further explorations," his fame and heroism lived on as a "rare illustration of the sentiment of philanthropy which is the chief glory of our nature."
In this same period Jules Verne began publishing his "Doctor Hatteras" stories, which were modeled directly after Kane. His book, The Field of Ice, is essentially a fictional recreation of Arctic Explorations complete with an Open Polar Sea. And a few years later, Amos Bonsall, the last surviving member of Kane's expedition, wrote a retrospective piece comparing the child-like optimism and romantic quest for discovery that had driven Kane to the scientific certainties and technological advantages that marked turn of the century Arctic efforts.
During the 1950s and 1960s Kane again reappeared as Jeannette Mirsky published a biography, George Corner began researching and writing articles about Kane, and Jay and Audrey Walz published The Undiscovered Country, a novel based on Kane's life. Oscar M. Villarejo also contributed to this resurgence by publishing a translation of Carl Petersen's 1857 account written in Danish. And after nearly a hundred years of silence, Margaret Fox again appeared in conjunction with Kane in Earl Fornell's account of their relationship, The Unhappy Medium: Spiritualism and the Life of Margaret Fox (1964)..
Now, in the late 1990s, Kane is rising again. His story lives on, as author Andrea Barrett (whose collection of short stories, Ship Fever, won her the National Book Award in 1996) is currently working on a fictional account of a nineteenth-century Arctic exploration in which Kane is a constant offstage presence. Kane is also returning as an academic issue, as a trunk full of letters between him and his brother Thomas has recently surfaced. It seems promising that these "new" letters will provide an illuminating account of mid-nineteenth century American life.
Most strikingly though, The Elisha Kent Kane Historical Society, founded in 1991, has once again revived Kane not because of his discoveries or cultural importance, but because of his heroic inspiration. As an extension of Kane Lodge #454, established by the Free and Accepted Masons and dedicated by Judge John Kane in 1858 to "memorialize and perpetuate the values and spirit" of Elisha Kent Kane, the Society is dedicated to probing both the history and future of the Arctic in a spirit of optimism and challenge. But the most significant aspect of this group is its continuation of the spirit of heroism that Kane has perpetuated since his death. The greeting page of their world wide web site begins, "When critics of academic historians say that we fail to give youth examples of heroism, they are, alas, right." Their solution? Elisha Kent Kane.
Kane became a hero in the years immediately preceding the Civil War and he returned to the public eye in the "gilded age" of the 1890s, in the turbulent era of the 1960s, and again now at the close of the millennium. Kane remains a hero because he embodies the romantic spirit, the love of adventure, the deep desire for public recognition, and the whited-sepulcher duality that continues to be a part of America's cultural identity.
Mark Horst Sawin was born in Newton, Kansas on October 19, 1970, the son of Thomas and Ruby Sawin of Hesston, Kansas. After graduating from Hesston High School in 1989, he went to Goshen College (Goshen, Indiana) where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in English with a minor in political science in April of 1993. In December of 1993, Mark married Erika Metzler Sawin. They moved to Austin, Texas in October of 1994, and after managing Third Coast Coffee for a year, Mark entered the University of Texas at Austin's American Civilization department in August, 1995.
Permanent Address: 100 West Lincoln
Hesston, KS 67062
This report was typed by the author.