Jeannette Mirsky: In the Words of an Archivist

“In drawing on the letters and unpublished personal narratives, I have taken the liberty of letting the story run along without denoting ellipses; the pages filled with dots looked unseemly… I have utilized whatever books and articles would carry the story ahead fully and honestly and so obviated the repetitiousness of an archivist’s bibliography.”

-Jeannette Mirsky, from the Preface of Sir Aurel Stein: Archaeological Explorer

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Last month I referred to Barnard alumna, author, and world traveler, Jeannette Mirsky, as “the coolest person I never heard of until last week.” Considering that her personal papers, recently acquired by the Barnard College Archives, remained unprocessed until this week, it is not surprising I had not encountered Mirsky previously. Last week I completed processing Jeannette Mirsky’s personal papers and reading her book, To the Arctic! Having spent so much time with her collection, and because there is so little information online about her, I found it fitting to pay her a brief tribute by sharing a few words about Mirsky and her work.

Jeannette Mirsky was born in New Jersey in 1903, and raised in New York City where she went on to earn her A.B. from Barnard College in 1924. From 1935-1938 Mirsky did graduate work at Columbia University, where she studied under Franz Boas and Margaret Mead. Mirsky’s academic records from this time and a notebook from a 1935 Anthropology course entitled “Social Organization,” are included among her papers.

As Mirsky embarked on her graduate studies, her inaugural book, To the North! was published. This time period is documented by extensive correspondence with publishers, manuscript drafts, and a collection of maps, illustrations, and photographs to be considered for inclusion in the publication. To the North! recounts the history of Arctic exploration, utilizing primary source materials to detail Arctic journeys in the words of the explorers themselves. To the North! begins: “Not so long ago there was a custom among sailors that accorded to all those who had sailed round Cape Horn the right to put one foot on the table after dinner, while those who had crossed the Arctic Circle could put both feet on the table. Here will be found the stories of those men who have both feet on the table, told whenever possible in their own words.”

Despite Mirksy’s extensive research and utilization of primary source documents, To the North! was controversial for largely discrediting Frederick Cook’s claims of discovering the North Pole. Mirsky wrote, “Cook was an extraordinary figure. It is impossible to dismiss him simply by calling him a liar. Rather it may be said that he was a great teller of stories, a fiction-writer who on a certain amount of fact built a vivid and absorbing yarn. For a man of his ability and experience he harbored too puissant an imagination…The story told in Cook’s My Attainment of the Pole is exciting and well written, but it nevertheless appears to be mainly fiction.”

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Jeannette Mirsky outside a bar

To the North! subsequently went out of print for a number of years due to a lawsuit by Cook, but was re-released in 1946 under the title, To the Arctic: The Story of Northern Exploration from the Earliest Times to the Present. In addition to English, the book has been published in German, Spanish, and French. Although the book is largely remembered for the controversy ignited by Mirsky’s assertion that it was Robert Peary, and not Frederick Cook who first reached the North Pole; the vast majority of To the North! is interested in what happened prior to the so-called attainment of the Pole. Near the end of the book, after devoting a chapter to the North Pole claims, Mirksy concedes: “It has been many years now since the Pole was reached, and viewing Peary’s exploit from such a vantage-point, it would seem fair to say that if any man were to reach the Pole, that man would be Peary…But like all deeds whose import is self-contained, it seems a strange goal on which to have lavished so much energy and planning and money. Like so many grand gestures, when seen in retrospect, it does not seem to matter greatly.”

 Mirsky expressed a lifelong interest in travel and exploration. Her personal papers are full of her research on explorers, letters and correspondence from around the world, and boxes of postcards and photographs documenting these pursuits. Her years of research culminated in a number of publications, which includes The Westward Crossings, The World of Eli Whitney, Elisha Kent Kane and the Seafaring Frontier, The Great Chinese Travelers: An Anthology, Houses of God, and Sir Aurel Stein: Archaeological Explorer.

Prior to Barnard’s acquisition of Mirsky’s personal papers, the extent of our knowledge ended with her non-fiction and anthropological writings. It is my hope that with the availability of the Jeannette Mirsky collection that interest is sparked and a biographer of Jeannette Mirsky will emerge to tell her story, in her own words, just as she spent her life doing for others.

Written by: Heather Lember, Barnard College Archives Graduate Assistant