December 7, 2005: Headlines: Figures: COS - Malawi: Writing - Malawi: Exploration: National Character: Antarctica: Leadership: Random House: Paul Theroux writes new introduction to "The Last Place on Earth"

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Paul Theroux writes new introduction to "The Last Place on Earth"

Paul Theroux writes new introduction to The Last Place on Earth

"in almost every instance, Amundsen makes the right, most astute judgment and Scott the wrong, most ill-informed one, which is why this book seems to me so valuable, for it is a book about myth-making and heroism and self-deception, the ingredients of nationalism." Author Paul Theroux served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi in the 1960's.

Paul Theroux writes new introduction to "The Last Place on Earth"

The Last Place on Earth

Written by Roland Huntford
Introduction by Paul Theroux
History; Biography & Autobiography | Modern Library | Trade Paperback | September 1999 | $15.95 | 0-375-75474-1

9780375754746 EXCERPT

Paul Theroux

Caption: The first men at the South Pole

What most people know of the conquest of the South Pole is that Captain Scott got there and then died heroically on the return journey; that when the Polar party lay tent-bound and apparently doomed, Captain Oates unselfishly said, "I am just going outside and may be some time," and took himself out to die, so that his comrades might live; that Scott represented self-sacrifice and endurance, and glorious failure, the personification of the British ideal of plucky defeat. Scott's expedition was essentially scientific; he was beset by bad weather. Roald Amundsen is a sort of afterthought: Oh, yes, the dour Norwegian actually got to the Pole and planted his flag first, but that's a detail; he was very lucky and a little devious. So much for the Pole.
Mr. Huntford proves all of this wrong, and much more, to boot. Thus, the kerfuffle.

It is a measure of the power of this book that when it first appeared in Britain, it caused an uproar; and a few years later, a television series that was adapted from it created a flurry of angry letters to newspapers and a great deal of public discussion in which the book was rubbished and its author condemned--even vilified in some quarters for suggesting that Fridtjof Nansen was engaged in a sexual affair with Kathleen Scott while her husband lay freezing in his tent. But what had Mr. Huntford actually done? He had written a riveting account of two expeditions intending simultaneously to achieve the South Pole. His book is well documented, soberly and sometimes wryly written, much of it is thrilling, some of it as dramatic as exploration can possibly be, and to my mind few things are more dramatic.


Far from being a belittler or having an ax to grind about the phlegmatic British (for he has written elsewhere with justified admiration of Shackleton), Mr. Huntford merely points out that Britain took Scott as a necessary hero; it is not the British character that is being assailed in this book. Mr. Huntford demonstrates that, all along, Scott was the problem. Though he knew little of actual command (and was unsuited to it), Scott was ambitious, seeking advancement, even glory, in the Royal Navy. He was a manipulator, and he knew how to find patrons, which he did in Sir Clements Markham, a wonderful sly subsidiary character in the narrative--vindictive, pompous, queenly, attracted to Scott more for Scott's being strangely epicene. This femininity in Scott's personality was remarked upon by one of Scott's own men, Apsley Cherry-Garrard--the youngest in the expedition--in his masterpiece of Polar exploration, The Worst Journey in the World. Cherry-Garrard also mentioned how Amundsen had been underrated as "a blunt Norwegian sailor" rather than "an explorer of the markedly intellectual type," sagacious and weather-wise. And Scott, Cherry-Garrard wrote, was easily reduced to tears.


This book was a sensation when it first appeared, and now rereading it twenty years later I still find it an engrossing and instructive narrative, with vivid characterization and a mass of useful detail. When you finish it you know much more about human nature, for it is more than a book about the South Pole. It is about two explorers, two cultures, and about the nature of exploration itself, which is to me a counterpart to the creative impulse, requiring mental toughness, imagination, courage, and a leap of faith. Most of all, this book about a race, which was the last great expedition that ended the Age of Discovery, is a study in leadership.

Paul Theroux's most recent book is Sir Vidia's Shadow. His new book of travel writings, Fresh-Air Fiend, will be published in the spring of 2000.

When this story was posted in December 2005, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: Random House

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Figures; COS - Malawi; Writing - Malawi; Exploration; National Character; Antarctica; Leadership


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