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There and Back Again: the Dr. John Goodsell Archive: Volume I

Written on November 17, 2019

Goodsell Archive

This is the second of three posts covering There and Back Again; The Dr. John Goodsell Archives issued by the Mercer County Historical Society. For preliminary remarks, see the last published post.

Each of the volumes will be taken up in turn, this post being devoted to Volume I. But first some general remarks. As we have seen, it was the opinion of Donald Whisenhunt that the high probability of low interest by “today’s reader” in Goodsell’s “On Polar Trails” as written made it “impossible” to publish. This opinion was implicitly endorsed by Mercer County Historical Society by their publication of his “emasculation” of it. Now, the same organization publishes, verbatim, not only Goodsell’s original diary of his polar experiences, but two epic poems written in just the “stilted, flowery, Victorian” manner that Whisenhunt ruled out for publication as “unfamiliar and of little interest.” Not only that, but a number of other documents, letters and ephemera kept by Goodsell have been reproduced either in facsimile or transcribed from the originals.

The result is a hodge-podge that “today’s reader” will not only find uninteresting, but one that has been done in such a way as to be of little use to those scholars interested in Goodsell and his activities in connection to Peary’s polar expedition. Even for them, it is unlikely many will spend much time with these books, because there is little of any importance unavailable elsewhere in a more reliable form. What is unique to them has been rendered largely unusable by the books’ lack of competent editorial guidance or standards, and any meaningful documentation. That being the case, only a very few scholars will be well enough versed in the primary document resources that will enable them to understand and recognize those few parts that add to those resources in any significant way.

Much of the fault for this goes directly to the editor of the project, William C. Philson, Executive Director of the Mercer County Historical Society, who in his opening comments accepts full responsibility for its content, including any errors. According to his remarks, the contents were put together by various volunteers and interns working from the original Goodsell materials. Philson regrets that he did not have time to read the manuscript “through one more time” before it went to press, but even that would not have been enough to put it in what could be considered professional shape, as it scarcely appears to have been read even once. In its published form is comes off as a distinctly amateur effort, lacking any real scholarly rigor at all. It is, in short, a document dump, the wheat still mixed with the chaff, a ton of coal with a few small diamonds to be found by those few diligent enough and knowledgeable enough to recognize them.

These shortcomings go beyond the ordinary errors that creep into or fail to be eliminated from any printed work, even ones far less massive than this. This one has its share of those just in the few pages of original writing not part of the archival material. For instance, the book is dedicated to “The Explorer’s Club” when the proper name of the organization is “The Explorers Club.” And throughout the date of Peary’s purported arrival at the North Pole is given as April 7, 1909, rather than the correct April 6. The transcriptions the books contain have numerous typos and obvious mistranscriptions of words as well.

Volume I consists of three sections, with a short preliminary section which contains a record of Goodsell’s impressions of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. These are given some historical context by the transcribing intern, practically the only competent editorial note in the entire production, but Goodsell’s notes are probably little different than hundreds of such journals of visitors to Chicago to see the fair’s wonders and curiosities.

Next comes a few facsimiles of autographs of no relation to Peary’s expeditions including a post card signed by Jack London. Another is an “unknown and unreadable autograph” reproduced in facsimile, but it is noted as “important enough for Goodsell to keep it the rest of his life.” While the note gives the first two names of the autograph as“Newell Dwight,” the last, it says, can’t be made out. In the age of Google, this autograph is easily known and identified. “Newell Dwight” is a fairly uncommon pair of names, and if one merely “googles” the combination one finds that the autograph is that of Newell Dwight Hillis. Hillis has a Wikipedia article devoted to him. According to that, he was a Presbyterian minister who lectured widely against immorality. He was also a prominent eugenicist who helped organize two National Race Betterment Conferences in 1914-15. Ironically, his campaigns against “immorality” did not prevent him from calling for such measures as the sterilization of Germans because of atrocities committed by the German Army during World War I. Anyone with a computer could probably have found all this out. This does not give much confidence in the research abilities of anyone who was involved in assembling these volumes.

Next comes Section I, consisting of letters dealing with Goodsell’s selection as the physician on Peary’s 1908 Peary Arctic Club’s North Pole Expedition. These are of some interest, but probably most of them are duplicated in the voluminous papers of Robert E. Peary [RG 101] held at the National Archives II in College Park, Md.

Section II, which forms the bulk of the volume, is devoted to a transcription of Goodsell’s diary kept during that expedition. A typed copy of the diary is also among Peary’s papers in College Park. Philson remarks at length on the “versions” of this diary held in the Mercer County collection. He says, “there are at least three versions of this typewritten journal to the Pole, as well as the handwritten journal. . . each version slightly different from the others. I made an executive decision, and had the transcription compared to the original handwritten journals—twice. To the best of my ability, this archive is a copy of Goodsell’s handwritten journal.” This statement raises a red flag to the concerned scholar as to just what the printed text in Volume I truly represents. “Executive Decisions” are implicitly made by one individual, and are almost always inappropriate in scholarly matters, especially when the “executive” making them is clearly not an expert in the subject he is dealing with. Expert advice should have been sought as to the standards of handling primary documentation. No scholar would have advised relying on any transcript in the presence of the original. As an example, a recent examination of Donald B. MacMillan’s diaries from the Crocker Land Expedition revealed very significant “revisions” from his original entries. So, Philson’s procedures have clouded the reliability of Goodsell’s diary entries as printed, just as Whisenhunt’s editing made the quotation of the published On Polar Trails cautionary.

The diary as printed calls attention to the importance of exact reproduction of primary documents. For instance, in the published On Polar Trails Goodsell (or Whisenhunt) incorrectly quotes from his diary. And on one critical point Goodsell discusses how he was not allowed to interview the two Inuit who had accompanied Frederick Cook on his journey toward the North Pole in 1908, saying “Were the reader permitted to examine my original journal, he would see two blank pages between the records of August 17 and 18, 1909, which I left hoping that Peary would reconsider and permit me to question the two Eskimos. The two pages still remain blank—a mute white protest.” However there is no note from the editor of the “original journal” that there are indeed two blank pages at this point. With Goodsell on record as making a point of this, no editor should have failed to confirm or deny it who was in possession of Goodsell’s original. To scholars, even blank pages can be of critical interest, as they are in Peary’s 1909 diary of his attempt to reach the North Pole. So, the scholar is left to wonder just how accurate the transcription (or the transcription of one of the three typed transcriptions) is. It would have been far better to just have scanned the original journal and reproduced it as such.

Not many of “today’s readers” are going to read it as printed, and even if they do, nothing in the transcription is footnoted for explanation of the unfamiliar names, places or other obscure points it mentions, nor given the slightest annotation to guide them in understanding what is being reported beyond the obvious. While it is good to have a handy version of Goodsell’s diary to refer to, this transcription is compromised by all of these shortcomings and cannot be considered definitive.

Interspersed among the diary entries, which are sometimes mis-dated, are a number of photographs and illustrations. These are often reproduced with (presumably) Goodsell’s original typed captions. Between various “chapters” of the diary are several pages devoted to just photographs and illustrations. These pages have no captions or editorial comments to identify their diverse subjects. Not all of these are photographs, either, Goodsell’s or otherwise, but are illustrations previously published in various periodicals or books. To a student of the subject, many of these will be familiar, even as to the source. Others can be identified because they are identical to some of the photos scattered throughout the diary that bear Goodsell’s typed captions. In fact, there are many, many duplications of illustrations throughout this publication. Some are reproduced multiple times, and a number of them are reproduced more than once in reversed image. In many cases there is no way to distinguish which registration is correct and which is reversed. This situation makes these photographs’ value minimal, as they are given no identification or context. Many are photographs of just of things like random icebergs, and have no research value at all. Others peak the scholar’s curiosity as to just who is portrayed in the picture, where the photo was taken, and when. All of these questions go unanswered. Many of the illustrations clearly have nothing to do with the specific Peary expedition in which Goodsell participated, but for others this is not clear in the least, and for “today’s reader,” they would have no clue to any of this.

I could probably identify half the illustrations as to who, when and where, either through personal familiarity with the subject or from captions within this work itself. For instance, most of the illustrations that appeared in Peary’s serialized narrative that appeared in Hampton’s Magazine in 1910 are reproduced without any indication as to their source. The editor should have made an effort to do this by his own means of comparing the captioned pictures with the uncaptioned ones, or by asking for expert help, and he should have taken care to at least eliminate all of the useless duplication and determine the correct image registration. Even with glass slides, this is easy to do. In fact, this is just the kind of thing the numerous interns and volunteers listed as contributing to this publication should have been able to do, given proper instructions. However, looking at the acknowledgments, it is clear that this publication was put together “by committee,” and it looks like it.

The rest of the volume consists of mainly correspondence to and from Dr. Goodsell divided by years. The bulk of this is prior to 1917, when Goodsell volunteered for duty in WW I. Many of the letters up to that time deal with the aftermath of his service on Peary’s expedition, and include many letters detailing his unsatisfactory attempts to get Peary’s permission it lecture and publish, or his efforts to get Peary to return materials loaned to him to aid Peary in writing his own narrative. Undoubtedly, many of these letters were already available to scholars in RG 101, however. In fact, one of my previous blog posts is about one of the letters included here. [see January 24, 2016 below]

The letter section suffers from many of the same lapses of scholarly rigor that the rest of the volume does. None of the correspondents are identified beyond their name; none of the content of the letters are put into context for the reader to understand many things being mentioned or discussed. Reading them is equivalent to listening to one side of a telephone conversation between two people you know nothing about. That is not to say there is nothing here that is of no interest to scholars who are very familiar with the people involved and the incidents being discussed. For instance, there is an exchange of letters between Goodsell and Rudolph Franke, who was Cook’s sole civilized companion over the winter of 1907-1908. It reveals Peary’s underhanded dealings with Goodsell, including the non-return of his book manuscript and illustrations a year after he had promised to write an introduction to Goodsell’s prospective book so that he could get hold of them, and Goodsell’s resulting animosity toward him. Fortunately, Goodsell kept a copy of his manuscript, but never received all of his pictures back. He also tells about his desire to verify Cook’s sighting of Bradley Land, a mythical land Cook said he saw on the way to the Pole, and to interview the two Inuit who were with Cook, whom Peary forbid him to speak to when Peary’s expedition visited the Inuit settlement of Etah in August 1909. But Franke’s letters are compromised by the transcriber’s apparent difficulty with Franke’s lack of mastery of English (he was German), or with his handwriting, and there are many empty brackets, which one must assume represent illegible words or passages (the editor does not say what they mean) from the transcriptions—a nother case of something better reproduced in facsimile.

There is a short glossary of Inuit language-Engish terms. These are not in alphabetical order, nor are there cross-language references for each term. For instance, the “B” section runs: “Brother; Brown Bread; Bring; Because; Back to several days; Bun-Nali; Bowel Movement; Breathe; Back,” etc. etc. And there is the term “Ah-tingah: Name,” a term I’m familiar with from a passage in Dr. Cook’s writings, but no “Name: Ah-tingah.” Now that may be the way this section is entered by Goodsell, but it should have been alphabetized and crossed indexed by the editor.

The volume concludes with an index, which at first glance looks like the best thing in the book, but turns out to also be fatally compromised. Apparently the pagination was changed after the index was completed, shifting all the page references in it up to a point (or maybe at numerous points!). For instance, an attempt to look up the index’s listings for “Cook, Dr., Frederick A.” found that the first entry that correctly cited an item about Cook was page 675. All the other references had nothing about Dr. Cook on the pages cited, making it a chore to try to find how far and in which direction the pagination was shifted. A similar check of the entries for “Franke/Francke, Rudolph” showed the same situation. The index is also not in strict alphabetical order, nor is it complete, by any means. I found a number of references to Cook or Franke that are not cited at all, even as page shifts.

The next post will review the second volume and sum up the work’s overall value.

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