Vital Signs

The Danish Swift

Why, after half a century, Peter Freuchen's Arctic Adventure has to be rescued from virtual oblivion is one of the true puzzles of literary anniversaries. Not quite a best-seller in its day, it nonetheless went into five printings and then fell, almost precipitously, into its curious obscurity. Retrospective itself as it looked back to Freuchen's Greenland and Baffin Bay experiences of a generation before, its quaintness may have told on it. The truth is that Arctic Adventure is an unpretentious 20th-century Gulliver's Travels, a rich and evocative work, energetic though never hectic or harried. In brief, last year marked the semicentennial of a work at once exciting and reflective, a book that must not be permanently lost from view.

It is not possible to know how closely Freuchen modeled himself on Jonathan Swift's Gulliver. There are no explicit literary references anywhere in Arctic Adventure. But at the outset there seems to be an insistent levy on Swift's flamboyant urinary episode in Lilliput, though the effect is inverted in Arctic Adventure. It is the native folk, not the narrator, who are the perpetrators: washing their hair and clothing in, well, what is one of nature's best cleansers.

There are other domestic reversals, less elemental but just as piquant and just as Swiftian, such as the coffee custom.

The hostess in this...

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