“But the Eskimos Knew Better”: Representations of Arctic Whaling in Charles Brower’s "Fifty Years Below Zero”


  • Jennifer Schell University of Alaska Fairbanks


In this article, I examine Charles Brower’s Fifty Years Below Zero (1942) with respect to its depictions of Iñupiaq subsistence whaling practices. Elaborating a theoretical framework that draws on scholarship produced by those working in the field of masculinity studies, I locate Brower’s memoir within the tradition of the American whaling narrative and compare it to two of its contemporaries, John A. Cook’s Pursuing the Whale (1926), and Hartson H. Bodfish’s Chasing the Bowhead (1936). I argue that, as a man familiar with Iñupiaq culture, Brower possessed an attitude toward the Indigenous inhabitants of northern Alaska and Canada which was very different from that of Cook and Bodfish. I demonstrate that Cook and Bodfish go to great lengths to represent themselves and their employees as being isolated from the Yupik, the Iñupiat, and the Inuvialuit. I also show that, throughout their narratives, they celebrate the achievements of white, American whalemen and dismiss the accomplishments of their Indigenous counterparts. Brower’s descriptions of Arctic whaling, meanwhile, praise these individuals for their courage, their boat-building technologies, and their knowledge of the behaviour patterns of bowhead whales. As I conclude, Fifty Years Below Zero ultimately reveals the remarkable impact that the Yupik, the Iñupiat, and the Inuvialuit had on the American steam whaling trade and the significant amount of cultural exchange that occurred when individuals from these disparate communities interacted with one another. 

Author Biography

Jennifer Schell, University of Alaska Fairbanks

Associate Professor, Department of English




General Articles