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DEAD RECKONING by Helen Whybrow


Great Adventure Writing from the Golden Age of Exploration, 1800-1900

edited by Helen Whybrow

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-393-01054-6
Publisher: Norton

Dense, comprehensive collection of 32 pieces on travel through the 19th century’s formidable wilds.

“We chose the stories that most stirred our blood,” admits editor Whybrow, who defines the golden age of exploration as running from the Napoleonic Wars’ end in 1815 to the beginning of WWI. She organizes this anthology into three thematic sections: “Voyages of Discovery” (straightforward exploration), “Personal Odysseys” (travel for livelihood or an individual mission), and “Lifelong Quests” (adventuring as a way of life). A sense of naive expansionism prevails in “Voyages of Discovery.” Meriwether Lewis recalls viewing Montana’s great waterfalls (“second to but one in the known world”) and harvesting their plentiful fish and game; William Wills provides grist for post-colonialist argument as he expresses bemusement toward “the blacks” (aborigines) who repeatedly aided his party during the harsh journey across Australia on which he ultimately starved to death. In contrast, “Personal Odysseys” provides intriguing interior viewpoints, often related to now-vanished avocations. Frank Bullen’s bracing seafaring tale depicts the terror of two years on the whaling ship Cachalot; eccentric John Voss is contentedly alone as he circumnavigates the globe in his modified canoe Tilikum. In “Lifelong Quests” we find foreshadowings of today’s “extreme travel” devotees in stories like that of Mary Kingsley, arguably the first Victorian woman to traverse West Africa (where she ultimately died from fever at age 38). Other thinker-adventurers whose writings add depth and texture here include George Kennan on Siberia, Mark Twain’s account of accidental pyromania from Roughing It, Robert Louis Stevenson’s humorous “Travels With a Donkey in the Cévennes,” Henry David Thoreau’s “In the Maine Woods,” and legendary mountaineer Edward Whymper on his ascent of the Matterhorn.

Readers willing to contend with often elliptical 19th-century prose will be rewarded by multiple evocations of a challenging and untamed world.