Thursday, December 13, 2012

Vertical Margins, by Reuben Ellis

Reuben Ellis explores the often troublesome connections between climbers and empire in Vertical Margins: Mountaineering and the Landscapes of Neoimperialism. Ellis uses the accounts of three modern-era expeditions by Halford Mackinder, Annie Smith Peck, and John Baptist Noel to probe the cultural baggage requisite for a mountain climb in a distant land. The author provides a focused analysis on the history of mountain writing in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, how it got tied into the genre of the exploration narrative, and how climbing a mountain gained nearly as much imperial significance as the more innately political exploration journey. Also important is the role representations of adventure, such as mountaineering books, played in shaping the culture they supposedly try to escape. This is intelligent writing, with plenty of room for grey areas and possibilities within Ellis' arguments, even while he presses the reader to follow him deeper into his line of thinking (a welcome contrast to Bayers' dogmatic Imperial Ascent). In the chapter on Mackinder, Ellis analyses Mackinder's only-recently published account of his ascent of Mount Kenya, the journey's connections to his academic career in geography as well as the overall history of the Royal Geographical Society. (He often references Cameron's To the Farthest Ends of the Earth.) For Peck, he hashes out her The Search for the Apex of America, about her attempts on Illampu and her ascent of Huascaran, discusses her writing about the economic development of South America (including in Apex), and the importance of her politics (including women's suffrage and support for Roosevelt) to her mission.

Regarding Everest, Ellis discusses the British imperial connections to the early Everest expeditions through John Noel's Through Tibet to Everest, as well as the research into the backroom politics of the expedition organizers done by Unsworth and Salkeld in Everest: The Mountaineering History. Ellis focuses on the filming of the 1922 and 1924 expeditions by Noel, and how the films played a pivotal role in both the promotion of the climbs and the ruining of the prospect of future climbs. He places the films in the context of the history of mountaineering photography, British filmmaking, and the sub-genre of adventure documentaries, noting the poor timing of the later film at the tail-end of the crash of British film in 1924. In addition, he shows the filming of the climbs as another form of geographical control---just as surveying and mapmaking define a location in terms of a particular culture. I found his analysis compelling, especially when placed against pretty good contextual research. I think you're going to like this one!

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