Why, after half a century, Peter Freuchen’s Arctic Adventure has to be rescued from virtual oblivion is one of the true puzzles of literary anniversaries. Not quite a best-seller in its day, it nonetheless went into five printings and then fell, almost precipitously, into its curious obscurity. Retrospective itself as it looked back to Freuchen’s Greenland and Baffin Bay experiences of a generation before, its quaintness may have told on it. The truth is that Arctic Adventure is an unpretentious 20th-century Gulliver’s Travels, a rich and evocative work, energetic though never hectic or harried. In brief, last year marked the semicentennial of a work at once exciting and reflective, a book that must not be permanently lost from view.
It is not possible to know how closely Freuchen modeled himself on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver. There are no explicit literary references anywhere in Arctic Adventure. But at the outset there seems to be an insistent levy on Swift’s flamboyant urinary episode in Lilliput, though the effect is inverted in Arctic Adventure. It is the native folk, not the narrator, who are the perpetrators: washing their hair and clothing in, well, what is one of nature’s best cleansers.
There are other domestic reversals, less elemental but just as piquant and just as Swiftian, such as the coffee custom.
The hostess in this part of Greenland always serves a saucer as well as a cup, and etiquette demands that the cup be so well filled that it spills over into the saucer. As a matter of fact, coffee must be sipped from the saucer rather than the cup if one would conform to Eskimo standards. One merely holds the cup and pours coffee from.it into the saucer which is held daintily with three fingers outstretched. The sugar is hard, lump crystal and is not put into the coffee but held in the mouth like candy. At parties one is much admired for his dexterity at sipping coffee, sucking sugar, and gossiping over the latest scandals at one and the same time.
All we need next is controversy about which end of the breakfast egg to crack before opening it—remember Big Endians and Little Endians?—to be forcefully reminded of something.
If the literary parallels are there, however, they are not obtrusive. Freuchen is simply, though cannily, reporting to us. He is at his best in this vein when he records moments of super-civilized or rational mores among these allegedly primitive peoples (or are they suprarational Houyhnhnms?). After a communal walrus kill, Freuchen mistakenly thanks someone for an allotment of meat he is given; later he is taken aside and confidentially rebuked by the harpooner.
“Up in our country we are human! And since we are human we help each other. We don’t like to hear anybody say thanks for that. If I get something today, you may get it tomorrow. Some men never kill anything because they are seldom lucky or they may not be able to run or row as fast as others. Therefore they would feel unhappy to have to be thankful to their fellows all the time. And it would not be fun for the big hunter to feel that other men were constantly humbled by him. Then his pleasure would die. Up here we say that by gifts one makes slaves, and by whips one makes dogs.”
The rebuke is good-natured, as is almost all native behavior, filled with as much benignity and generosity as it is with paradox. There is even a quantum of good nature, or certainly casualness, accruing to occasional and permissible murder. When a thief and local tyrant is finally shot by someone, that person is tacitly approved of rather than condemned. The mother of a socially incorrigible son eventually garrotes him to end his criminal pranksterism—and her act is not merely condoned but honored. The harpoon homicide of a wife-beater and boaster by a widower who was incessantly tantalized by the victim is similarly accepted and endorsed, as Freuchen finds for himself.
“Quanguaq,” I said in a stern voice, “I hear that you are a murderer.”
“Let others tell of it,” he answered. “One never likes to brag.”
Freuchen upbraids the killer, who has acquired the victim’s wife; in fact, Freuchen makes considerable headway in implanting guilt and shame until the wife in question comes forward to exonerate and welcome her new husband as a decided improvement over her first. Freuchen’s strict imperatives dissolve rapidly in the general atmosphere of practicality.
It is this theme of practicality that Freuchen emphasizes in his book, centering it for us as the core of the radically simple and emotive systems of the natives. He himself ceases to struggle against the pristine functionalism of their ways, which he accepts at last as natural and healthy.
He goes so far as to eventually marry a native woman, Navarana. There seems to be real love between them, and in both of them emotion and reserve are often wonderfully combined. After one of his long and perilous trips—with Knud Rasmussen, crossing the north Greenland ice caps, a historic “first”—Freuchen returns home, staggering in more dead than alive.
When I went into my house I saw everyone but Navarana.
“Where is Navarana?” I asked.
“She is upstairs working,” Arnanguaq answered.
I yelled: “Navarana! Navarana! I am home!”
“What of it?” I heard her voice saying from above.
“Somebody is cleaning a few skins!”
After a few minutes she came down, hurried across the room and out of the door. Not until everybody had gone would she consent to come back and greet me. Then she explained that she had been afraid she might embarrass me, and also she had no way of showing how happy she really was.
There is high charge here, though contained—and all the higher because it is contained. For all such moments the reader learns to reckon with the ideal of public restraint and the principle of privacy—perhaps the most exotic or alien concept, especially for Americans, in the whole book.
Along with everything else, there is comedy—inherent comedy and satirically pointed humor. In general, and predictably enough, Freuchen provides the humor of incongruity, but the effects are piquant. Navarana is sometimes the subject of cross-cultural humor, usually when out of her element, as when she accompanies her husband on distant trips.
The night before arriving in Tassiussak we stopped with Abel, the great hunter. As usual, his house was spotless, his daughters in white underwear, and Navarana was much impressed. She told me that she thought the household so pretentious that she ought to mention it to the women in criticism. When I asked her to explain, she said anyone ought to know that men bought fine white linen only to make sails for seal hunting. Perhaps the white men would be disgusted and cease manufacturing the linen if they learned that ignorant women used the fabric to make themselves beautiful beneath their outside garments. I assured her that the white men would be only too delighted to weave more, and that she herself would be dressed in similar luxury as soon as we reached Tassiussak. She smiled, as people do when they doubt and hope simultaneously.
That last effect is pure Freuchen, the shrewd and generous punctuations he shows at frequent intervals.
Cultural contrast continues to be a rich vein of humor for Freuchen to mine. In one instance, it may be the misinterpretation of handshaking in Greenland:
More men and women and children rushed out to meet us and we stopped to greet them. Mitseq and Itukusunguaq were embarrassed by the practice of taking off the mitten and extending the right hand to be shaken. They had already mentioned it to me, and the much-traveled Mitseq had explained that it was to indicate that if the right hand was tired the strangers would help to support it.
In another, when the Freuchens visit Denmark, it concerns the king himself, who cuts a formal and, to Navarana, foolish figure in a moment barely redeemed by her husband:
Navarana turned to me: “Is that man really the King we have heard so much about? How can he think for everybody in Denmark if he is stupid enough to suppose I have any opinions about this magnificent land after only one day’s stay?” “What does she say?” asked the mighty man. I translated freely: “Your Majesty, she thinks it is wonderful and grand!” “I thought so!” said the King, and was content.
Again it is a passing phrase, “translated freely,” that certifies Freuchen’s quick sophistication (even if the scene is redacted, as I suspect).
Freuchen also has a penchant for comic understatement. In a particularly grueling episode toward the end of his Arctic sojourn, he finds himself trapped during a gale in a sort of groove he has fashioned for protection directly under his sled. The groove threatens to become a grave when he discovers that he is frozen solid inside, and Freuchen decides “to sacrifice one of my hands, let it freeze and use it as a spade to dig my way out.” He says then, “I pitied myself, as I had plenty of uses for both hands.” He does not succeed with using his hand as a shovel or with using frozen excrement as a chisel, but manages to punch through a hole with an icicled pick of bearskin. His head gets stuck in the passageway, however, with only half of his face out.
Unfortunately my whiskers were directly beneath the broad frozen mud runner and, as there is always moisture about the mouth, they froze fast to the runner and I could not move either forward or backward. I was so doubled up in my grave that I had no strength to do a thing . . . How long I lay in that cramped position I do not know. Perhaps I fainted. The snow had covered the upper part of my face, filled my eyes and nose so that I could scarcely breathe. The air was a vicious mixture of flying snow and, as I inhaled it, I knew that I could not last for long.
There follows another brief seriocomic divagation—
My thoughts turned to my home in Denmark, to my mother, and to my good friend Magdalene who had not written to me. I decided that I would have to write her.
—after which, by a last violent effort, he pulls himself back all the way in. Eventually, by renewed strategy and effort, he escapes, but not without the consequence of a frozen and then gangrenous foot. Inside his kamik boot the throbbing becomes unendurable.
Inuyak pulled my kamik off—it was full of blood. The stitches had cut through the flesh, and the wound lay open. This was disconcerting to look at, so I made Inuyak take needles and sew the ends together.
It is that gritty understated disconcertion, which almost makes us laugh, that certifies to Freuchen’s comic defenses throughout his experiences.
We are so absorbed by the curiosities and ardors of his life in the north that we scarcely heed certain historical and official dimensions of it. Freuchen’s ice cap crossings by dogsled became part of our international Arctic folklore, but he hardly alludes to them. When he graduates from trader and adventurer to governor of Thule province, a reward for having secured North Greenland for Denmark, he is so quick in his notation that many readers may fail to register the fact.
Since 1912 the Danish explorer, Lauge Koch, has been up there and has changed some of the names. I have been interviewed about it, but it makes no difference to me what names are applied. My enjoyment was in being there, not in having been there, and if they place more worthy names on points of interest I shall not turn a pin to prevent it.
“My enjoyment was in being there, not in having been there” represents not only a winning attitude in general but the essential point of view for a writer aiming to give us the immediacy of the retrospective experience, wanting above all for us to be submerged and lost in the alien wild. That submergence or lost-ness applies to Freuchen himself, of course, even more than to his readers. Because, although we do not know so very much about him personally as we may wish to know, the 467-page book itself indicates enough of his withheld motives, if only between its many lines.
What we do notice, ineluctably, is a latent misanthropy—or anti-Caucasianism—that propels Freuchen away from civilization and that connects again with Swift. The feeling does not quite convert him into a Gulliver who experiences revulsion back home away from the Houyhnhnms, although he certainly does feel telltale depression on trips back to Denmark and wishes compulsively to return to the North. His misanthropy, which he at last overcomes in himself, is more delicate than it is in Swift, and a little more diffuse. He struggles with it, turning to symbolic generalization to take the curse off his antisocial instincts.
After two or three days their dogs would go no farther, and they were compelled to butcher the poorest ones and throw them to their fellows. Yet among dogs are found characters almost as various as among men. Some dogs do not give a damn what they eat; some will eat their own mothers, as I have often witnessed, and others will starve to death before touching the bodies of their teammates.
He knows what he is about and he knows himself, finally—including the true nature of his escapism. His flight from Denmark has been in great part a flight from sexual love generally and, even after his marriage to Navarana, flight specifically from a certain “Magdalene” (no made up name, for Nabokovians or amateur Freudians), a mature woman of Copenhagen, herself suffering nervous disorders. Freuchen acknowledges the deepest romantic upsurge he has ever felt in Magdalene’s company, and he subsequently remarks:
I felt immediately inferior to a woman whose weakness was unimpressed with my strength or any of the things I was able to do. My place, I felt anew, was not here with people who could see through me, but up there in the North. I would go back, I thought, and never come again to Denmark.
Hogwash, or sealfoam: he not only comes back to Denmark and to Magdalene, after Navarana dies, but he corresponds with her in the interim and, as we have seen, is inspired to life by thoughts of her in his direst extremity. He returns to her, in fact, as to his anima; she becomes his second wife and the surrogate mother of his daughter. The exhilarative triumph at the very end is of a special kind.
I ran up on deck and glanced about me. And there she was down on the dock—Magdalene. She stood quietly looking up at me, and I jumped onto the gangplank and rushed down to her.
I had better finish my speeches to everyone else, she said. She would go back to her hotel, and I could join her later.
I did as she bade me. Then I went back to her, and have remained with her ever since.
Finally, he learns, one can transcend even escapism. The triumphant reconciliation is just the right note with which to end the complex and memorable romance that Arctic Adventure actually is under its epical cast.