Some authors we have read have expressed feelings of obligation in relating their stories, an obligation and moral calling that Dunn addresses specifically. When the explorer leaves behind the “masks of civilization,” Dunn argues, he is in a position of revelation, a position he ought to share with those who do not share that same desire for exploration but that who would benefit from the revelations of the journey. The truth, therefore, is paramount in discussing one’s expedition and team, for “in telling the truth about others, a man might reveal it about himself, which would be the best of all” (5). The “creative instinct” that is the explorer’s master motive, then, can be stretched to include the construction of an honest narrative, and a more honest vision of self. The “masks of civilization” that are cleaved in an exploration separate an explorer from his society to access some truth about himself or the greater world. This is, of course, solidly anchored in Dunn’s identity as a member of Western civilization, which has constructed a division between the world of man and the world of nature. When Dunn goes into the wilds of the North, he is engaging with the natural world from across a gulf. In contrast, peoples of other cultures might view the natural world as a part of the society, and the “masks of civilization” would not be at odds with it.
The phrases “creative instinct” and “masks of civilization” recall Shakespeare’s green worlds, a tool used in the comedies to loosen societal constraints and open discourses impossible to engage with in polite society. A green world breaks down barriers of gender and class to allow audience and characters a reprieve from more serious topics like war, though those more serious conflicts can be addressed within the green world. As Dunn explores, he enters a real life green world, a green world that he then writes about and tries to bring back to society. The truth he wishes to incorporate is that of the individual and the value of self-knowledge, without the heroics or falseness of formal writing or social interaction.
In Dunn’s discussion of where the value in exploration for its own sake lies, he treats this kind of exploration as a kind of spirit quest, in which one leaves society behind and confronts the true self in the wild. But the biases and constraints of society never really leave the explorer, for even as Dunn and his companions are cut off from the places they identify as civilized, the masks are in place. “I can feel the death-like silence. No one is asleep, yet no one dares move, lest he tell his neighbor he’s awake” (160). Even here on Mt. McKinley, they have brought civilization and certain rules of bravery and masculinity with them, masks. In his “honest” depiction of himself and his companions, then, is Dunn really just showing his audience the extent to which the mask is the identity?