Summary: Understated Greatness
Comment: Matthew Henson was a great and courageous American who never got the proper respect or credit for his contribution toward the exploration of the North Pole from 1891 to 1909. Racism was undoubtedly the reason, and perhaps this is why his book is so frustratingly short on detail.
As a quick romp through the Arctic, Henson wrote a good book: missing is any significant reference to racism, and the relationships between the various explorers, including Peary, are always positive. We know that Henson endured more than just the frigid arctic temperatures during the polar expeditions, but throughout his book he is the consummate gentleman; his narrative is understated and toned down to the gentlemanly pitch of the period. In this regard, Henson again shows his greatness because while it is obvious that he was subjected to abuse and humiliation, and while it is further evident that he was proud to have stood at the North Pole not only as an American, but also as a black man, Henson did not let his book become anything other than an account of an arctic expedition.
In his later years, Henson did finally speak out about many of the inequities under which he had struggled during the polar expeditions. These later revelations render "A Negro Explorer at the North Pole" virtually unusable as a primary reference beyond dates and times. Still, the book is written in Matthew Henson's voice, and is worth reading if only to know him better.
Summary: cheers to Henson
Comment: I've always had a soft spot for Henson ever since Peary was quoted as saying he took Henson, a black man, with him because he didn't want to share the honor of reaching the North Pole with another man. I too tend to doubt that Henson wrote this, but he deserves a great deal of credit. Especially for putting up with Peary.
Summary: Interesting but incomplete
Comment: Matthew Henson's life was different from those of many other blacks of his day. He was privileged to be in on one of the greatest adventures of the early 20th century: reaching the North Pole. Taken from and based on a diary he kept at the time, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole provides a good timeline and basic account of the trek. Accompanying Commander Peary and Henson in the final stretch were Eskimos and dogs.
The account as written by Henson, speaks well of Peary and their relationship. However, the cover blurb tells a bit of a different story. Of tension between the two men. Of Peary's intentions not to have Henson reach the Pole with him. And of vengeful actions by Peary afterwards, such as stealing Henson's photographs.
If Henson had given more descriptions of the day-to-day efforts, the reader might have a fuller understanding of the relationship between the two men, as well as the amount of effort and the toll on the men that actually occurred. Included in this edition are articles written by Henson to counter Peary's not giving him credit for his contribution to the expedition. These were included by the editor and add to our understanding of events.
There are many published biographies of Peary and his expeditions to the North Pole for those who are interested in adventure literature. For those who might like more on the contribution of blacks in history, try Fire on the Beach by David Wright & David Zoby, the story of the Pea Island Lifesavers.
Summary: Editions can differ considerably
Comment: If you are looking for a reprint of this book, first published in 1912, the two paperback editions currently available are very different. The Cooper Square Press edition has the edge for several reasons.
The edition published by Invisible Cities Press substitutes a neat modern typeface for the 1912 original's old fashioned one, and it has a very nice selection of pictures, but few, if any, that appeared in Henson's original book. It also adds as an appendix what it calls an "extremely rare article" written by Henson, detailing "the real story of Peary's trip to the Pole," in which Henson claims Peary planned to leave him short of the Pole and go on alone. The article also details "Peary's uncharitable actions toward Henson once they had returned to civilization," the book cover claims.
Many of the details of this article are in direct conflict with the book's text. If the article is truly the "real story of Peary's trip to the Pole," then what is the markedly different account contained in Henson's book? The article also raises questions about the introduction written by S. Allen Counter, who claims that rather than Peary being "uncharitable" to Henson after the expedition, "they remained friends and collaborators until Peary's death in 1920."
Oddly enough, the other edition, published by Cooper Square Press, solves these contradictions in a lengthy introduction written by Robert Bryce, who claims to have seen most of the original documents associated with Henson. He explains the differences in the Henson book's text and this same article in some detail. In doing so, he makes much of Henson's lack of credibility, even making a case that A Negro Explorer at the North Pole was not really authored by Henson himself. He also addresses some remarks to Counter's former writings about Henson that help explain the apparent contradictions in Counter's new introduction. The Cooper Square edition preserves the original typeface of the 1912 book, but is not really a facsimile, as its introduction claims. It lacks some of the original pictures and uses others that were not in the original. In rating this title, I have split the difference. Certainly you will learn a lot more about Henson from the Cooper Square edition. Four stars for the Cooper Square Press edition, one star for the less enlightening Invisible Cities effort.
Summary: Inspiring Work, Incredible Journey, Incredible Photos
Comment: Hats off to Dr. Counter and Invisible Cities Press for presenting Matt's amazing account of how he reached the North Pole with Peary. This inspiring work is presented with the dignity it deserves. (Unlike earlier reprints this one is complete with every word Matt put into the 1912 original.)
The publisher went all the way with photos! This has to be the ultimate Henson photo book with restored prints from such hidden jewels as Peary's rare "Secrets of Polar Travel". Here you see the Eskimos skinning a polar bear with paws that look to be 2 feet across! The pictures comprise a significant resource allowing the reader to see every detail of the dog sledges, ice trails, and even artists illustrations from the very rare 1910 Hampton's magazine series. Bravo!
The introduction is by Dr. Allen Counter of the Harvard Foundation. He is the world expert on Henson, a man whose deeds and accomplishment on behalf of Matt's memory have made history. He presents a perfect compliment to the original (1912) introductions by Commander Peary and Booker T. Washington. Much more than that, he gives us a cohesive narrative explaining many details about Peary and Henson that had been "murky". His scholarship (extensive research, reading Matt's diaries, etc.) lets us appreciate the historical context in which the North Pole was attained and why Henson was the key man that made it physically possible. Dr. Counter's 15-page intro will be much read in years to come. It is an outline of, hopefully, a full-length book on Matt that he should author someday to preserve his wealth of Henson knowledge. There is no one else in the world, writing about this subject, that is in Counter's league.
At long last Matt's 1912 work has been made available to everyone who wants to experience first hand Henson's excellent (and charming) account of reaching the Pole. In this respect he wrote a better, more intriguing, narrative than Peary did. Matt is an inspirational hero for all of us; a man of courage, humility, endurance, and great skill. He is still, to this day, a legend in the Arctic where the Inuit people adore him. His grandchildren live on in Greenland and speak with heart felt pride of Mari-Pahluk, "Matthew the kind one", the first man to stand on top of the world.