The Tom Wolfe Weekend Seminar: In the Kingdom of Ice, featuring the author Hampton Sides April 20-21, 2018

This year marks the 15th annual Tom Wolfe Weekend Seminar, W&L's ultimate book club. Sponsored by the W&L Class of 1951 in honor of classmate Tom Wolfe, the program honors a distinguished writer and observer of the American scene. This year's seminar will feature Hampton Sides, author of the best-selling, critically acclaimed In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, a narrative history of the USS Jeannette's ill-fated attempt to reach the North Pole. Other works by Sides include Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II's Greatest Rescue Mission (2001), Americana: Dispatches from the New Frontier (2004), Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West (2006), and Hellhound on His Trail: The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt in American History (2010).

Among its many recognitions, In the Kingdom of Ice was selected as a Best Book of the Year (2014) by USA Today, Time, The Washington Post, The Miami Herald, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Richmond Times Dispatch. Even with such enthusiasm and scores of rave reviews, its ever-expanding readership seems to be a product of word-of-mouth. It is no wonder, for this is a book that begs sharing with anyone interested in American history, global exploration, and our evolving understanding of the powerful forces shaping our most forbidding environments.

With the untested assumption that the Arctic Ocean was open sea, Captain George Washington De Long pointed the USS Jeannette north from San Francisco on July 8, 1879. If successful, the voyage would place the United States at the forefront of global navigation as the first nation to discover a route to the North Pole. De Long had spent years planning, financing, and outfitting the voyage. Mathew Maury, the celebrated "Pathfinder of the Seas" and VMI professor, had given the voyage his blessing. Aboard the Jeannette was W&L alum James Ambler, hired by De Long to serve as ship's physician. With extraordinary descriptions of what De Long's crew of 32 brave men encountered and endured, Sides recounts a remarkable voyage of staggering aspirations and a bone-numbing tale of survival. The writing is impressive throughout; as The New York Times Book Review asserts, it's a "first-rate polar history and adventure narrative . . . a harrowing story well told."

Joining Hampton Sides in the program are Jim Warren, Mason Professor of English, and Nicolaas Rupke, Johnson Professor of History. Each will discuss In the Kingdom of Ice from a variety of perspectives. What does the account tell us about human courage, commitment, and endurance? What does it reveal about the history of science, navigation, and the understanding of our planet? How was one of the most daring expeditions of its day conceived and financed? What effect did the failure of the expedition have on the lives of those who joined it and those who stayed behind? The discussion of these questions and more should make for a most illuminating seminar.