Readers Respond to the September Issue
I agree with Paul Theroux's statement ["The Long Way Home"] about visiting Gettysburg: "No history book can equal the experience of walking those battlefields." This was true for me when I saw my great-great-great-uncle's name, Abner Doubleday, on a marker where the Union Army held off Pickett's Charge.
Paul Theroux brought to mind a quotation by Mark Twain: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness," he wrote. "Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime." Perhaps the two authors are kindred spirits. The peripatetic Theroux penned a valuable glimpse of our country's infinitely diverse offerings—cultural, culinary, geographic and historic. Reading about his experiences left me feeling enriched, educated and empowered.
Leon J. Hoffman
I thoroughly enjoyed Theroux's "The Long Way Home" but not his dismissal of Santa Fe as "monochromatic." lt is amazing that he failed to see the vivid colors of the high desert of the Southwest, colors that attracted Georgia O'Keeffe, perhaps the most "colorful" of American artists.
My colleagues and I were pleased to read "Where Donkeys Deliver," by Susan Orlean. Donkeys have been an important means of transportation since biblical times. In developing countries, they play a crucial role in providing transportation to low-income people, especially subsistence farmers. Women, who are often responsible for agricultural activities as well as household chores, benefit from owning a donkey. Despite their importance in the livelihood of so many people, donkeys are the most undervalued and least appreciated of all livestock species. Governments and agencies that want to promote self-sufficiency and reduce poverty need to focus more resources on traction animals. If you want to help people in developing countries, you have to help their animals.
Professor of Animal Science
Michigan State University
Many thanks to author Susan Orlean for reviving fond memories of our family's visit to Morocco in 1992. Dragging our 2-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter up and down the crowded, narrow walkways of Fez's medina seemed insurmountable until our guide, Mohammed, suggested hiring a donkey. The sturdy, gentle creature would cost us the equivalent of $15 for the day, he said. Not bad,I thought as we folded up our wheeled stroller and began strapping it onto Gray's saddlebags. "One problem," Mohammed whispered as he took us aside. "You must hire the driver for the day, too." Here's the pinch, we thought, as visions of souvenir shopping dimmed. "How much for the driver?" Obviously of less importance than the donkey, the driver cost us only $10 for the day.
Spencer S. Harris
Thanks for the wonderful article "Under the Polish Sun," by Frances Mayes. Like the finest of artists, the author painted the most beautiful and authentic pictures of Poland, its people, traditions and history. It was filled with valuable, little-known information, such as the location of one of only four Leonardo da Vinci paintings of women. Kudos to the author for also highlighting Polish cuisine, which we personally find to be one of the finest in the world. Even the title speaks of a bright, sunny, happy country, which those of us who know her know to be true.
Malgorzata Marjanska-Fish and Paul Fish
Like Frances Mayes, my wife and I had the pleasure of visiting the delightful cities of Gdansk and Krakow. But unlike the author's husband, who was able to experience his Polish ancestors' living culture, we found only faint echoes of my German ancestors in Gdansk. A travel feature does not need to address the complexities and moral ambiguities of German expulsion from Poland in 1945, but a complete and honest look at Gdansk (Danzig) should have at least acknowledged this fascinating city's rich bicultural heritage.
John H. Meyer
Wilmington, North Carolina
The following letter addresses issues raised in our April 2009 article, "Cook vs. Peary," which described the still unresolved debate about whether Frederick Cook or Robert Peary was the first to reach the North Pole.
While some of Robert Peary's detractors—particularly those who support his adversary, Frederick Cook—have conjectured that Peary and his team never reached the North Pole, I, along with the retired U.S. Navy admirals of the Navigation Foundation, am convinced that Peary's data clearly demonstrate that he, Matthew Henson and their Inuit assistants did in fact attain the pole in 1909. Unfortunately, Peary alone was credited with this momentous achievement, and Henson, who by some accounts had reached the North Pole first, and of whom Commander Peary had said, "I cannot make it without him," was largely ignored by the press and virtually left out of the history books because of prevailing attitudes in the United States toward African-Americans.
Also left out of the history books was the fact that Peary and Henson both fathered sons with Inuit women, in 1906 in Northwest Greenland. On a number of occasions in the 1980s, I explored Arctic-Northwest Greenland, where I met and befriended Peary's and Henson's Inuit offspring. In 1987, with the help of polar Inuit families in Northwest Greenland and the U.S. secretary of defense, I was able to bring the then-80-year-old Inuit sons of Henson (Anaukaq) and Peary (Kali) to the United States on U.S. Air Force planes to meet with their American relatives for the first time and to place wreaths at their fathers' graves.
A year later, I requested and received an official order from the president of the United States to remove Matthew Henson's remains from a common grave in New York City's Woodlawn Cemetery and to reinter his body in Arlington National Cemetery, adjacent to Rear Adm. Robert E. Peary's grave, with a fitting new monument and full military honors. This story was widely covered at the time.
During their visit to the United States, I promised Anaukaq and Kali that I would travel with members of their Greenlandic families to the North Pole on April 6, 2009, to commemorate the discovery by their fathers on that date in 1909. I knew that this would mean a great deal to both Anaukaq and Kali, proud Inuit hunters who never knew their fathers, and who have since died. I also believed that this project would be appreciated by Americans of all races and backgrounds who are proud of our country's historical accomplishments in exploration.
My plan was to travel with four members of the Afro-Eskimo Henson family (one granddaughter and three grandsons); three members of the Inuit Peary family (one granddaughter and two grandsons); and a great-grandson of Peary's Inuit guide Ootah to take a commemorative case to the North Pole on April 6, 2009, in celebration of the centennial of the North Pole discovery. This case contained an American flag, a Bible from Harvard's Memorial Church signed by the Rev. Peter J. Gomes (in memory of Henson, who said that he took his Bible to the pole as his "vade mecum"), Peary's book The North Pole (1910), Henson's A Negro Explorer at the North Pole (1912), my North Pole Legacy: Black, White and Eskimo (1991), and Inuit cultural artifacts including polar bear claws and sealskin gloves worn by Anaukaq. The case also contained photographs of the launching of the USNS Henson and Henson's monument in Arlington National Cemetery, as well as numerous documents on the North Pole discovery and the visit of the Inuit descendants of Henson and Peary to the United States in 1987.
Near the time of our departure, however, I was informed that a landing at the North Pole in an Air Force C-130 on skis would not be possible because of ice conditions. I then took a Canadian aircraft and flew to Iqaluit (formerly Frobisher Bay), Canada, where I chartered a small plane to Qaanaaq, Greenland.
I am proud to say that on April 6, 2009, I stood with about 50 descendants of Matthew Henson, Robert Peary and Ootah in Qaanaaq, one of the northernmost inhabited settlements on earth, carrying a congratulatory letter from President Barack Obama. At the same time, by order of Vice Adm. Melvin G. Williams Jr., the USS Annapolis, a Los Angeles-class submarine, was delivering our commemorative case (which now resides at Harvard) to the precise North Pole.
While at the pole, Annapolis commander Michael Brunner read a statement regarding the importance of cooperation, understanding and harmony among people of all cultures, races, backgrounds and religions. The chief weapons officer of the Annapolis read a poem found in Henson's diary. And thus that anniversary was given its due.
I'm also pleased to report that in June 2009, in response to a petition I submitted to the U.S. Navy requesting an appropriate title and rank for Matthew Henson, who served on a naval field project for over 18 years, I was notified that Henson had been granted the title of command master chief in the U.S. Navy.
S. Allen Counter
Director, The Harvard Foundation