“Somehow I find it difficult to keep in mind the possibility that the record may sometime be worked over by someone other than myself and that entries sufficient for my purposes may not be of much significance to another!”
Vilhjálmur Stefansson was born on November 3rd 1879 in the Icelandic settlement of Manitoba. His parents, Ingibjörg Jóhannesdóttir and Jóhann Stefánsson, had three years before emigrated from the Eyjafjörđur area in Iceland to Canada. When Vilhjálmur was in his second year, the family moved to the United States where Vilhjálmur was brought up on a farm on the plains of North Dakota and educated in a community dominated by Icelandic immigrants. It was only later when he attended primary school that he learned to speak English.
Vilhjálmur was an excellent student, but also somewhat unruly which caused him to be expelled from University of North Dakota where he later became an honorary doctor. He studied at the University of Iowa and subsequently completed his postgraduate studies in anthropology at Harvard University in 1906. In the same year he made his way to the Arctic regions where he stayed more or less without interruption until 1918. He then moved to the United States to give lectures, write and teach.
Stefansson's sojourn in Arctic regions left a lasting impression on him, both as a person and a scholar. The extensive experience he gained laid the foundation of a philosophy of life which later gave rise to both admiration and disputes among his contemporaries. Vilhjálmur was a world famous and charismatic man and a prolific writer. He wrote over 20 books as well as nearly 400 articles and essays on most subjects in the sphere of Arctic studies. Because of his global perspective, varied connections and versatile scholarly abilities, Vilhjálmur was to many people the very epitome of Arctic research; indeed, he was sometimes honoured with the title of “Mr. Arctic.” His friends, however, called him Stef. He lived most of his life in Greenwich Village in New York, where he met his surviving wife Evelyn. She worked with him in their research library, which was in its time among the world’s most extensive libraries in the field of Arctic studies. In 1952 they moved, with their library, to Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Vilhjálmur remained mentally alert and kept on working to the end of his life. He died on August 26th 1962, almost 83 years old.
Stefansson lived for a time with Fannie Pannigabluk, an Inuit woman who was his seamstress, travel companion and ethnographic informant. According to local accounts, they were married the Inuit way. Due to different aspirations the relationship, however, did not last. Their son Alex Stefansson, born in 1910, had six children who live in the Northwest Territories of Canada, in Inuvik and Sacks Harbour.
During the period of Vilhjálmur’s stay in the northern regions of Canada and Alaska he recorded in his diaries detailed descriptions of native communities, travel, weather patterns, fauna and local features. This material provided him with an inexhaustible supply of sources for his books, articles and lectures. But within the pages of these diaries there are also to be found other little known descriptions of the author’s travels across the landscape of his inmost thoughts, which may occasionally be seen in the midst of all the factual information. It is here that we meet a complex individual endowed with expansive cultural heritage and social experience, a radical political philosopher, and a man who struggles with loneliness and despair, while also feeling affection, friendship and joy.