We were now at the end of the last long march of the upward journey. Yet with the Pole actually in sight I was too weary to take the last few steps. The accumulated weariness of all those days and nights of forced marches and insufficient sleep, constant peril and anxiety, seemed to roll across me all at once. I was actually too exhausted to realize at the moment that my life’s purpose had been achieved. . . . But, weary though I was, I could not sleep long. It was, therefore, only a few hours later when I woke. The first thing I did after awaking was to write these words in my diary: “The Pole at last. The prize of three centuries. My dream and goal for 20 years. Mine at last! I cannot bring myself to realize it. It seems all so simple and commonplace.”

—Robert E. Peary, The North Pole, 1910

The emperor was greeted with welcoming cheers, which were echoed from the hills and riverbanks, but in spite of the din he exhibited no emotion, but kept the same impassive air as he commonly wore before his subjects in the provinces. Though he was very short he stooped when he passed under a high gate; otherwise he was like a dummy, gazing straight before him as if his head were in a vise and turning neither right nor left. When a wheel jolted he did not nod, and at no point was he seen to spit or to wipe or rub his face or nose or to move his hand.

—Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman History, XVI.10

I watched 715 go over the fence while sitting back in the left-field corner. I had taken a quick look to either side—at the rows of faces in perfect profile, poised in expectation, jaws slightly dropped, a gallery leaning slightly forward off their seats in the ashen light of the arcs. Then, almost as one, everybody stood up. I’d never heard a sound like that. My notes show that a seismographic scribble was the best I could do to describe that sustained pitch— absolutely constant, so that after a while it seemed caught inside the head, like a violent hum in the ears.

—George Plimpton, One for the Record, 1974

My wife waked betimes to call up her people to washing, and so to bed again; whom I then hugged, it being cold now in the mornings, and then did la otra cosa con her, which I had not done con ella for these tres meses past, which I do believe is a great matter toward the making her of late so indifferent towards me, and with good reason; but now she had much pleasure, and so to sleep again.

—Samuel Pepys, Diary, August 12, 1667

William (Fishbait) Miller, the House doorkeeper, stomp[ed] down the aisle, calling out in best Southern Baptist voice, “Mister Speaker, the President of the United States.” When the doors swung open and everybody in the chamber saw that it was not Richard Nixon walking in, the cheers that went up around me on the floor were merely perfunctory when matched with the feeling of relief, a feeling so intense that it could be felt, almost heard, as it rose from their chests and shoulders to leave them free of Nixon and all the name meant to their careers and their country. Oh, they liked Jerry Ford very much.

—Jimmy Breslin, How the Good Guys Finally Won: Notes from an Impeachment Summer, 1975

Every one has heard the story which has gone the rounds of New England, of a strong and beautiful bug which came out of the dry leaf of an old table of apple-tree wood, which had stood in a farmer’s kitchen for sixty years, first in Connecticut and afterward in Massachusetts,—from an egg deposited in the living tree many years earlier still, as appeared by counting the annual layers beyond it; which was heard gnawing out for several weeks, hatched perchance by the heat of an urn. Who does not feel his faith in a resurrection and immortality strengthened by hearing of this?

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden or, Life in the Woods, 1854

Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven, who had brought them . . . from all the perils and miseries thereof, againe to set their feete on the firme and stable earth, their proper elemente.

—William Bradford, History of Plymouth Plantation, 1630

Perfect, entire happiness—so new and strange to me that I dread day to day and almost hour to hour that it must end. Happiness that teaches one gratitude to God and faith in him, and so enables me to shake off my nervous fear that it cannot last. Happiness that I can dwell upon and luxuriate in freely and unrestrained, because it includes the anticipation of a life no longer cold and selfish and objectless and indolent, but henceforth to be built on joyful self-denial and hearty labor for a worthy end. Happiness that it bewilders me to look upon—that I know I do not even yet fully realize and appreciate—the happiness of loving and being generously loved by a beautiful, high-principled, noble-hearted, frank, affectionate, good girl possessed of everything that refinement and cultivation and taste and intelligence can adorn womanhood withal.

—George Templeton Strong, Diary, April 9, 1848

One of them having objected to the “observance of days, and months, and years,” Johnson answered, “The Church does not superstitiously observe days, merely as days, but as memorials of important facts. Christmas might be kept as well upon one day of the year as another; but there should be a stated day for commemorating the birth of our Savior, because there is danger that what may be done on any day, will be neglected.”

—James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791

Paris, when we finally got there, seemed to our depressed spirits like the veritable capital city of Beginning. Her heart was warm and gay, all right, but there was hysteria in its beat, and the kind of compulsive elation psychiatrists strive to cure. Girls snatched overseas caps and tunic buttons from American soldiers, paying for them in hugs and kisses, and even warmer coin. . . . The Folies Bergères and the Casino de Paris, we found a few nights later, were headquarters of the New Elation, filled with generous ladies of joy, some offering their charms free to drinking, laughing and brawling Americans in what was left of their uniforms. . . . The Americans have never been so loved in France, or anywhere else abroad, as they were in those weeks of merriment and wild abandon.

—James Thurber, “The First Time I Saw Paris,” in Alarms and Diversions, 1957

At three in the afternoon a simultaneous “Halt!” rang out from the drivers. They had carefully examined their sledge-meters, and they all showed the full distance—our Pole by reckoning. The goal was reached, the journey ended. I cannot say—though I know it would sound much more effective—that the object of my life was attained. That would be romancing rather too bare-facedly. I had better be honest and admit straight out that I have never known any man to be placed in such a diametrically opposite position to the goal of his desires as I was at that moment. The regions around the North Pole—well, yes, the North Pole itself—had attracted me from childhood, and here I was at the South Pole. Can anything more topsy-turvy be imagined?

—Roald Amundsen, The South Pole, 1913

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

André Bernard was the longtime vice president and publisher at Harcourt Trade Publishers. He is now vice president and secretary of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.


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