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Homemaking, Snowbabies, and the Search for the North Pole: Josephine Diebitsch Peary and the Making of National History

North by Degree

North by Degree

After crossing Casco Bay by ferry, packages are delivered to islanders by the taxi driver. This week, I found a package on my doorstep and hurried it inside, just as a rainstorm hit the island. I was thrilled to find that it  contained a copy of the newly-published book “North by Degree: New Perspectives on Arctic Exploration” (Lightning Rod Press, American Philosophical Society) that includes my article “Homemaking, Snowbabies, and the Search for the North Pole: Josephine Diebitsch Peary and the Making of National History.”

Josephine Diebitsch Peary

Josephine Diebitsch Peary

Since 2007, Peaks Island Press has offered its readers a glimpse of the daily lives, inspirations, and publications of the many authors who call Peaks Island home. Once in a great while, I turn the spotlight on myself and share something about my own writing process or publications. “Homemaking, Snowbabies, and the Search for the North Pole” started with a conference presentation that I gave at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia in 2008 where an amazing assemblage of speakers gathered to bring new perspective to the history of Arctic exploration. The timing was very meaningful as 2008 was the centennial of Robert E. Peary’s 1908-09 North Pole Expedition and it was also the fourth International Polar Year. I was honored to be invited to share my research: an account of Robert Peary’s quest for the North Pole through the eyes of his wife, Josephine. Here’s an excerpt from the article to give you a sense for the story:

Patricia Erikson in Greenland, researching Josephine Peary

Patricia Erikson in Greenland, researching Josephine Peary

“The notoriously deadly and tragic outcomes of many prior Arctic expeditions had made the idea of taking a woman, more specifically a white woman, to the Arctic seem ridiculous to the American public in the 1890s. In 1891, three years after their marriage, Josephine embarked on her first of several Arctic expeditions with Robert Peary. She did this despite public criticism that the expedition was too dangerous for her and in spite of the male expedition members who resented her presence and what they called her “scandalously short” traveling costume. (Erikson, p. 266).

I don’t believe my research travels ever involved a scandalously short traveling costume, but I did a fair amount of retracing Josephine’s footsteps before I wrote about her. That journey included interviewing Peary family members, visiting the Peary cottage at Eagle Island, diving into the archives at the Maine Women Writers Collection (UNE), at Bowdoin College, and at Dartmouth College, and traveling to Qaanaaq, Greenland to gather oral history from Inuit peoples whose ancestors played crucial roles in the Peary expeditions. I’ll share more about these adventures for those of you who love research, non-fiction, and travel.

In the meantime, if you’d like to read some of my writing about the Peary family, you can check out the following that are available online:

Meet the Other Pearys

January 2011 Portland Magazine Issue

Extramarital trysts of national heroes no longer surprise Americans. From Monticello to the White House, our Founding Fathers, presidents, and (more recently) sports celebrities have made their legacies more, uh, complicated by having children out of wedlock. Despite these controversies, the life histories and memoirs of these so-called illegitimate descendants present fascinating new opportunities to reconsider the faded photos in our national scrapbook. Well, fascinating to me anyway.

What does this have to do with authors on Peaks Island? Although the Peaks Island Press blog usually features the “doings” of other island authors, I’m letting readers know that this month’s Portland Magazine has published some of my own writing. “Meet the Other Pearys” recounts how American Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary took an Inuit mistress in Greenland and how his American and Inuit descendants have reunited after many decades of separation and silence.

Robert E. Peary in furs. Library of Congress

This article draws from some of my long-term work on Josephine Diebitsch Peary (May 22, 1863 – December 19, 1955), wife of Robert E. Peary. Peary’s grandson, Edward Stafford, and great grandson, Hivshu, both generously shared family history with me.  North Pole Legacy: Black, White, and Eskimo by Allen Counter offered another essential source on this chapter of the history of American Arctic exploration.

Previously, I published “Snow Queen: A Woman in Full,” another Portland Magazine article that highlighted Josephine Peary’s contributions to her husband’s Arctic expeditions. This isn’t available online, but you can access a different article on Josephine that I published in the journal Arctic.

So get into the winter spirit by reading about the Arctic!

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