In 1899, railroad magnate Edward H. Harriman took 24 of the nation's leading natural scientists on a two-month expedition,...


LOOKING FAR NORTH: The Harriman Expedition to Alaska 1899

In 1899, railroad magnate Edward H. Harriman took 24 of the nation's leading natural scientists on a two-month expedition, by chartered steamer, to Alaska--an undertaking so audacious, so symptomatic, so comical, and so well-documented that the facts, it would seem, could speak for themselves. Not to Goetzmann and Sloan (American Studies Program, U. of Texas, Austin). First they alert us to the existence, even then, of ""two Alaskas,"" the pristine and the ravaged--instead of showing the expeditioners' awe at the scenic grandeur and their unease (or complacence) at the inroads of mining and canneries, the slaughter of seals, the impoverization of the Eskimos and Indians. Harriman had thoughts of a round-the-world railroad, to link up across the Bering Sea with the Trans-Siberian; he wanted to hunt the giant Kodiak bear; he was a munificent host, an indefatigible organizer. Certainly he wanted to set an example--like Carnegie--of the enlightened use of riches. Here, he and his breed are assaulted heavy-handedly on page after page. (""Having conquered the Union Pacific Railroad, Harriman set his sights on bagging a different sort of game""--the Kodiak bear; Roland Harriman, age two, finds a large gold coin in a piece of birthday cake--""He was learning early that pleasure could be combined with profit."") The book survives--because of the spectacle of the distinguished C. Hart Merriam, the testy John Muir, the gentle John Burroughs, et al. chanting ""Who are we? Who are we? We are, we are, the H.A.E.""; because of Muir's gibes at Burroughs, and the authorial vanity of both; because of the affinity between Indian expert George Bird Grinnell and photographer Edward S. Curtis. And because, at each stop, geologists Gilbert and Emerson, ornithologists Fisher and Ridgway, botanists Trelease and Kearney (yes, ""two of a kind"") went off reconnoitering--and had small adventures, did or didn't return with specimens (to the disgust or delight of conservationists Burroughs and Muir). In summation, Goetzmann and Sloan call the expedition ""a serious scientific venture"" and well describe the subsequent volumes of findings, the lasting contribution of ""glaciologist"" Grove Karl Gilbert. On the H.A.E.'s other principal legacy, Curtis' Indian photography, they pontificate; his Alaskan scenes, in ""their romantic, transcendental, even surreal quality,"" foreshadowed ""the way in which, as 'The Shadow-Catcher,' Curtis would portray the American Indian."" It still makes a dandy scientific Grand Hotel (to be complemented by 63 photos, 27 by Curtis)--if you tune out the over-amplified Messages.

Pub Date: June 30, 1982


Page Count: -

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 1982