Review of Polar Literature

Book Review:

National Geographic and the World it Made

by Robert M. Poole

New York: Penguin Books, 2004 358 p., illus., maps

ISBN 1-59420-032-7

The world as seen by the National Geographic

Any American born in the 20th century who liked to read was bound to have been influenced by the National Geographic, a wonderful publication that brought good paper, fine color and exceptional photography to a mass audience. The contents gave us a new lens on the world, taking us to places that only a very few would ever see.  

Like so many venerable institutions, the Geographic and its parent, the National Geographic Society, had another side, and this portrait is by an “insider” who had retired as the magazine’s executive editor and was more than informed about the issues leading to the demise of the “old” magazine in the1990s. Writes author Robert M. Poole: “they (magazine and Society) were transformed from an organization known for its paternalism, insularity and endearing idiosyncrasies . . . to a leaner, colder more market oriented” publication that still retained wide influence.  

That influence even today is a legitimate ten million member-circulation which its editors maintain is read by at least three others, for every subscriber and why that might be doubtful there is no question that its distinctive yellow-bordered cover has made it one of the classic “you-don’t-throw-it-out journals” (which may be why estate auctioneers report it on more inventories than any other common collectors item).  

So who started this modern communications survivor and top competitor in the entertainment, news and cultural media wars of the 21st century? Go back to Alexander Graham Bell, who didn’t just invent the telephone, but with another blue-blood of the time launched the National Geographic Society in 1888.  That was Gardiner Hubbard and the person he brought on as a young editor, Gilbert H. Grosvenor, who would direct the course of both institutions for much of a century.  

The politics of the Geographic offer a fascinating kaleidoscope of the past century and Poole does not skimp on showing us the warts as well as the achievements of the Society, the Grosvenor family and their magazine. The photographic powerhouse became a mixed media corporate presence, with expansion to maps, globes, documentaries, television and video.  Throughout, the distinctive yellow border logo remains, and with it the image of family loyalty and confidence that the NGS has developed.  

Poole does not back away from the downside of the institutional racism that it accepted in its coverage, and the internal racism that it practiced as did most large non-profits— until the 70s. Perhaps most embarrassing is the 1930s articles published about Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany (some of them by Douglas Chandler, a Berlin-based correspondent who was later convicted for treason as an American radio propagandist).  

Those familiar with the North Pole controversy may feel justified that the author accepts the “Robert Peary myth” created by the Grosvenors, and the detail to which he discusses the conflict with Frederick Cook.  The author devotes an entire chapter to the NGS investment in Peary and acknowledges that the article by Wally Herbert in a centennial-year issue of the magazine casts doubt on his discovery. 

The staunch support of Grosvenor was summarized by Poole:  “Having declared Peary a hero before any proof was in, Bert (Gilbert H. Grosvenor) stubbornly ignored the gaps in the commander’s records, his incredible travelling times, his shoddy navigation, his lack of witnesses and his seemingly odd behavior on his return from the ice cap.”

Citing NGS board member and Peary antagonist General A. W. Greely as well as Herbert, the author essentially categorizes Peary among the black eyes of the Society. It might also be said that the Society and its magazine expressed extreme pettiness for over seven decades, not printing Cook’s name from the time of his return until it appeared on a Society map in 1984 as a possible Polar contender. Poole also reminds us that the controversy caused the firing of the first president of the Society, Willis L. Moore, who initially supported Cook “but as a meteorologist failed to predict the consequences of the Cook-Peary storm.”

It could be said that the Geographic took off as a mass-circulation publication after the marketing by Grosvenor for his friend Robert E. Peary, who is still enshrined in the Explorers Hall of the Society, where his tattered American flag and sled are there for visitors to see. “There Peary was elevated as an iconic figure” Poole writes, “above reproach or criticism, if not above doubt, he was the first hero.” 


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Copyright 2005 - The Frederick A. Cook Society