A man you’ve probably never heard of was once the most famous living American other than statesmen and generals: Dr. Elisha Kent Kane M1842, who flourished in the years between the death of the last remaining Founding Fathers and the onset of the Civil War. Kane deserved the attention he got, for his exploits changed the national orientation. Before him, America had been an object of exploration; with his travels, the new nation became an exploring agent, making its first significant contribution to knowledge of the outer world. He wrote his adventures down so appealingly that the typical 19th-century parlor was said to display at least two books: a Bible and Kane’s Arctic Explorations. (The Bible promised eternal salvation; the Explorations delivered national pride.) Two geographical features bear his name. One of them he explored: Kane Basin, between Greenland and Ellesmere Island. The other he didn’t and couldn’t have: Kane Crater, on the moon, about which all one needs to know is that it’s huge.

Kane himself might have stepped out of a boy’s adventure tale. He swung down into a volcano at the end of a rope, won a battle in the Mexican-American War, stayed poised when faced with mutiny under his command, and pointed the way to the North Pole.

His private life was equally flashy. Foreshadowing the tendency of well-known people to mate with each other and become well-known-squared, Kane courted and married the most famous woman of the day, the spiritualist Margaretta (Maggie) Fox. Their love affair was repeatedly tampered with by distant forces: the punishing Arctic and the nebulous region where souls hover after death. At times the principals themselves were hard-put to sort out their genuine mutual affection from the expectations raised by their public personae. In common with so many famous folk to come, they carried on a kind of ménage a trois: a man, a woman, and the limelight.

While all this was going on, a crucial fact about Kane was little known. From his late teens on, he was under a medical sentence of death. His response was to live at breakneck speed, piling up feats in a short span of years. Sometimes he went too fast—his expeditions were marred by impulsive decisions, unrest, and near-disasters—but he felt he had little choice. When he was 37, the dire warning came true, and a nation on the verge of sectional division pulled itself together for an unprecedented bout of mourning. In dying, Kane gave rise to one more American pattern—the young star who winks out, to great consternation, before he can grow old.

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Explorer in a Hurry By Dennis Drabelle

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Kane’s gripping account of his Arctic expedition in search of the English Explorer Sir John Franklin was enlivened by numerous steel engravings based on the author’s on-the-spot-sketches.

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