Wilkins on Wilkins: The Personal Writings of Wilkins
Wilkins was a compulsive writer and note taker. He made a number of attempts at starting autobiographical pieces. However, probably because he was such a doer, he never completed and published a purely autobiographical book.
Wilkins wrote four books about expeditions, two of which – Undiscovered Australia and Flying the Arctic (both published in 1928) were about completed expeditions. There are significant autobiographical references in both these books. His other two published works also included chapters by others. Under the North Pole was written in 1931, before the expedition started, to explain its reasoning, and act as a fundraiser. Thoughts Through Space was published in 1942, and republished in 1951 with a new introduction. This book was about a telepathy experiment with co-author Harold Sherman during an Arctic search for the Russian aviator Sigmund Levanevsky. Once again it included autobiographical information on Wilkins.
Harder to find, and somewhat missing in most of the biographies, are the more personal and private reflections – particularly on his childhood and teenage years before he became famous, and then again, later in his life after his time as a ‘celebrity explorer’, when he worked as an advisor to the armed forces of the USA.
The transcribed writings of his notes about himself and his philosophy of life, offered below, help us understand the inner Wilkins as a human being – as well as a prodigious ‘human doing’ — especially as he was developing into the remarkable man he became.
Wandering Wilkes: A Tale of Smuggish Satisfaction
by Dr Stephen Carthew
This tale was probably written in 1921 or 1922, either during or soon after his time with Shackleton on the Quest and before he went to Russia to film the famine relief work of and for the Quakers.
The title: ‘Sekliw Gnirednaw’ – ‘Wandering Wilkes’ – spelled backwards written in reverse order – has a subtitle: ‘A Tale of Smuggish Satisfaction.’ The piece is about 9,000 words.
This tale is couched in the second person. At thirty-three years of age, Wilkins reflects on himself as a child and a teenager, tracking his own personal development and recounting stories about his parents, his girlfriends, his wanderings in the circus he joined and more. Writing as if a friend of ‘Wilks’ (the spelling he used most often) – and ‘many years his senior’, Wilkins the author finds his subject – his younger self – a ‘constant revelation’.
The stand-apart positioning of the second person reveals a detached assessment of himself as he moved through difficult phases of childhood. The text recounts a number of dramatic moments during his teenage years – including two attempts at suicide. The tale is most helpful in understanding that the young Wilkins took some time to discover his sense of purpose, and an awakening to his destiny – which was evolving at the time he wrote this ‘tale of smuggish satisfaction.’ Wilkins was no superman who landed near Mount Bryan and this document reveals major challenges. It is useful to note that the word ‘smug’ in those days was much more positive than in its present day meaning: ‘self-contented’, ‘self-aware’, and ‘not lacking is self-esteem’ might be fairer and more positive interpretations of the word than ‘self-satisfied’, ‘superior’ or ‘conceited’. Describing this story as ‘a tale of smuggish satisfaction’, a term used on a few occasions, also suggests a somewhat tongue-in-cheek tone to some of the stories, and to his philosophy as it developed in his childhood and teenage years. Although my particular focus in the commentary is Wilkins’s philosophic development, this unusual, quirky, enigmatic piece of autobiographical and autoethnographic writing includes some wonderful stories worth reading as personal yarns in their own right.
While a somewhat shy introvert, Wilkins never displayed false modesty when writing or speaking about himself; however, he disliked other people flattering him publicly. It is interesting to note that he was quite prepared to detail his better qualities as well as his own foibles.
This tale is probably the first substantial piece of autobiographical writing Wilkins undertook. That he never returned to this draft is indicated by the blank gaps in some of the sentences, which were clearly designed to be filled in later.
Last April I contacted the Foundation offering to assist in the transcription of Wilkins’ diaries. I was an underemployed travel agent suddenly with a lot of extra time on my hands and as a bit of a polar nut had read several books featuring our man. Dr Stephen Carthew sent me some pages from Wilkins’ 1911 diary which quickly showed this was not going to be an easy task!