Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Captain Bob Bartlett in The Independent

Excerpted from a Review of The Log of Bob Bartlett
published by Flanker Press, 2006

The Independent
Friday, May 25, 2007
by Mark Callanan

Robert Abram Bartlett is often hailed as one of Newfoundland’s finest sons. Even in his own lifetime, the sea captain, adventurer, author and lecturer attained something of a mythic stature. His survival of multiple shipwrecks (twelve in all), his role in Robert E. Peary’s multiple attempts to reach the North Pole, and the rescue of his crew after the sinking of Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s flagship Karluk (which involved a seven-hundred mile trek across both frozen sea and Siberian coastline for help) made him a darling of the New York social circuit; he often sat as guest of honour at the tables of the rich.

Despite Michael Winter’s iconoclastic portrayal of Captain Bob in his 2004 novel The Big Why (Winter has Bartlett drunkenly confess to the narrator, American artist Rockwell Kent, that he “fisted” a man during a sexual encounter that took place after a visit to a gay fetishist’s club in New York City), it is the image of the rock solid, crag-faced sea captain that prevails. Reading The Log of Bob Bartlett, the captain’s own account of his life on the sea, it is easy to see why he has captured the collective imagination for so long.

Robert Abram Bartlett was born in Brigus, Conception Bay, on August 15, 1875 to William and Mary (Leamon) Bartlett, both Wesleyan Methodists. It was his mother’s intention that her eldest son become a Methodist minister, but the “deep religious atmosphere” of Bartlett’s childhood home was not enough to keep the young man from the nautical life. “Against all visible,” he writes, “there was the dual influence ever at work beneath my boyish exterior: the blood in my healthy young veins and the unending stories of my seafaring relations […] that fell upon my eager ears.”

Though Bartlett dedicates two chapters of this current volume to the Karluk disaster, it is more fully dealt with in The Last Voyage of the Karluk (1916; also reprinted by Flanker Press as a sister volume to The Log). Bartlett’s take on the Peary expeditions to the North Pole is of greater interest here. Of the Cook-Peary polar controversy, he writes: “I […] knew how utterly impossible it was for Cook to have crossed 1,000 miles of Polar Sea ice without supporting parties; especially since he had taken the Ellesmere Land route, which meant hundreds of miles of stiff travel before he even set foot on the Polar Sea.” Yet he stops short of denouncing Cook as a liar [...]


Captain Bob Bartlett's The Last Voyage of the Karluk is also available in an unabridged audio edition from Rattling Books; an unabridged audio edition of Michael Winter's The Big Why is forthcoming from Rattling Books in the fall of 2007.