In cool mornings, before the sun was fairly up, it was worth a lifetime of city toiling and moiling, to perch in the foretop with the driver and see the six mustangs scamper under the sharp snapping of a whip that never touched them; to scan the blue distances of a world that knew no lords but us. . . .
Twain’s sister in exaltation in the “Great Journeys” series is the formidable Isabella Bird, whose 1879 Adventures in the Rocky Mountains is a prolonged gasp of pleasure at the American landscape. (Incidentally, one suspects that Bird also supplied the prototype for the character of Mattie Ross, heroine of Charles Portis’s 1968 masterpiece True Grit: Isabella and Mattie share a dislike of “pistol affrays” and a pronounced impatience with men of less than average intelligence.)
As an antidote to both the profane buoyancy of Twain and the purpleness of Bird, a swift dose of Ernest Shackleton’s Escape from the Antarctic is indicated. This great Brit, stranded with his crew on barren Elephant Island after their ship the Endurance is crushed by ice, decides to make a run for it and get help: with circling ice herds menacing their exit, Shackleton and a scratch crew of five board a tiny boat and push off into freezing seas. Eight hundred miles later, ragged, frostbitten, and starved, they stagger down a mountain into the whaling station at Stromness, in the Falkland Islands. The Endurance set sail from Plymouth, England, in 1914. It is now 1916. “Tell me,” Shackleton enquires of the whaling station manager, “when was the war over?” “The war is not over,” the manager tells him. “Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad.” The irony here is mythic, below-zero, like something out of Nietzsche or Kafka: at the bottom of this extraordinary effort to rejoin the world lies a revelation of the world’s barbarity.
Shackleton’s virtues as a leader of men are evident in his prose, which is a small miracle of understatement. As storms batter Elephant Island, one of the crew members expresses “a desire to lie down and die.” Shackleton gives him the tricky job of keeping the galley fire alight, observing rather drolly that the task seems to distract him “from the chances of immediate dissolution.” (Later the man is found “gravely concerned over the drying of a naturally not over-clean pair of socks.”) The few moments of dilation Shackleton permits himself are devout in nature: “We had pierced the veneer of outside things,” he writes, summing up his great escape. “We had seen God in his splendours, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of men.” Do men like Shackleton still exist? When he at last gets back to Elephant Island in the Chilean steamer Yelcho and spies the “tiny black figures” of his marooned shipmates, he anxiously calls out “Are you all well?” “We are all well, boss,” comes the reply, and then three spindly cheers. Not a life lost in the whole epic affair.
After such copper-bottomed adventuring, it seems a little less than just to turn to The Condé Nast Book of Unforgettable Journeys: Great Writers on Great Places, in which well-subsidized literary men and women respond complicatedly to Provence, Jordan, Capri, Barcelona, etc. The writing is of a very high standard — I particularly enjoyed John Julius Norwich’s 1956 audience with Pope Pius XII, “his scarlet slippers almost incandescent beneath his white soutane,” whose reputation for speaking perfect English proves to be unfounded.