The Green Lantern Press thaws out an antique, arctic newspaper.
Anonymous critics may have found their ultimate playground in the comments sections of countless websites, but cowardly griping is no 21st-century invention. In fact, in 1819, a sailor saw an opportunity to namelessly sound off in a letter to the editor of The North Georgia Gazette and Winter Chronicle, complaining that the theater scene had grown too concerned with putting up new work and had forgotten the old favorites.
Of course, we’re willing to cut “A Looker-On” (as he called himself) a little slack, given the risk of retribution. He was in a more closed community, being one of 92 men stranded just off the Baffin Bay in the winter, waiting out the season on two ships moored to the ice.
Royal Navy vessels Hecla and Gripere made the voyage from England in 1819, attempting to find the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. The ships had been prepped to wait out the winter months: Heavy cloths covered their decks, and they were stocked with fuel, food and provisions to last them through. But Lt. William Edward Parry knew the men would need to keep themselves busy, so he commissioned The Chronicle, designed to report the good news of the camp, and plays to provide entertainment (which stuck in A Looker-On’s craw). The North Georgia Gazette and Winter Chronicle was produced in numerous editions, a historical document that doubles as historical oddity, and brought back to print by Chicago’s Green Lantern Press.
“I was reading Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez a few years ago, and he mentioned [the paper],” says Green Lantern publisher Caroline Picard. “It seemed like an instance where people make things in a very difficult situation, and the meaning they make becomes very useful in a very cool way.”
So Picard hunted it down, just to read through it. But knowing that it was now in the public domain, she began to think of ways Green Lantern could put a new spin on it. She asked writer Lily Robert-Foley, who was volunteering for the press, to transcribe it. Throughout the transcription, Robert-Foley began producing end notes, lyrical, fictional responses to the original text. Artists were aligned to create illustrations, and Arctic explorer John Huston—who conducted the first unassisted expedition across the Northwest Passage—discusses his own trials in the Arctic.
“I find The Gazette itself to be pretty interesting in bits, but it can be difficult to read,” says Picard. “It’s written in this old-fashioned style. I wanted to create ways that it would really tie into the contemporary mind-set.”
Reading The Gazette almost feels invasive. Though the writing is very formal—phrases like “intrude myself upon your columns” and “having been desirous,” pop up with almost self-parodic frequency—it also has an intimacy that we’re guessing can only be achieved by being stranded in the polar north for longer than, say, an hour. Because the newspaper was only permitted to print the good news, much of the discontent comes through in the letters and the captain’s log. One of our favorite moments is a long letter complaining of “the non-cookery of our pies in proper time for dinner,” aboard the Hecla, in which the anonymous letter writer lampoons the sailors for complaining so heartily for waiting an hour before dinner is served. It’s clever and catty and, to these 21st-century eyes, exactly the kind of minor incident blown way out of proportion by the circumstances’ claustrophobia.
Picard, though, sees the project having a larger scope. Whereas the crews of the Hecla and the Griper became stuck in the north because the ice was so thick, closing off the passage, modern sailors wouldn’t face such danger.
“With all of the global-warming issues, the passage does now exist,” says Picard. “I find it incredibly ironic that with all that’s being said about the huge oil resources in the Arctic, if we continue to mine those resources, we’ll melt away that part of the world.”
So in some sense, the Green Lantern’s project is both a resurrection and a preservation effort. It’s certainly one of the most creative and original projects to come across our desk this year, the kind of thing we find ourselves often being desirous of.
The North Georgia Gazette ($30) is now available.