Dean: Biography as a License to Explore

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

Patrick Dean’s “A Window to Heaven” tells the story of the first successful summit of Mount Denali by Episcopal priest Hudson Stuck and three other men. The brutal Alaskan cold proved to be the ultimate nemesis to the many who had failed to summit Denali, often dying in the attempt. On the one hand, “A Window to Heaven” is a biography of Stuck. But in his research for the book, Dean found a window to much more.

As a teen, Dean read William Percy’s romanticized account of an unnamed Episcopal priest climbing a formidable mountain. In his 20s, working in a Jackson, Miss., bookstore, Dean stumbled on the book “Ten Thousand Miles with a Dog Sled” by Hudson Stuck. The subject intrigued Dean, an avid outdoorsman fond of hiking and mountain biking. Dean and his wife moved to the Plateau in 1999. In All Saint’s Chapel, seeing the statue of Stuck with a dog and a plaque commemorating him, Dean made the connection between the mountain climber he’d been fascinated with since a teen and the dog sledder. “I put it together that was the guy, the same guy as the book…Stuck has been travelling with me for a while.”

Dean pursued a master’s degree at the School of Theology and titled his thesis, “The Muscular Christianity of Hudson Stuck.” After graduating, Dean joined a Sewanee writers’ group. He had an idea for a book, and at a Texas writing workshop, he learned how to craft a book proposal. Book contract in hand, Dean dug into researching Hudson Stuck and the first successful ascent of Denali, the highest peak in North America.

The pandemic frustrated Dean’s hopes of traveling to Alaska and visiting the Episcopal archives in Texas. But Dean found a treasure trove in the journals of the four men on the Denali expedition, handwritten day-by-day accounts, available online in PDF format.

“I built the chapters around the journal entries,” Dean said. “A Window to Heaven” offers four different first-hand perspectives on the ascent of Denali, bringing to life the dynamic of four men stuck in a tent in 30° below zero conditions. Walter Harper and Robert Tatum poke fun at Archdeacon Stuck, co-leader of the expedition along with Harry Karstens. Stuck, a well-read Englishman, and Karstens, a hardened Alaskan backwoodsman, clash.

In addition to probing the interpersonal dynamic at play between the four men, Dean finds in his story telling a platform for talking about Native American culture and child labor in the 1900s. “The book is about a lot of other things in addition to Stuck and the Denali climb,” Dean said. “Nonfiction today isn’t penalized if it’s not straight biography.”

Dean’s work in progress, a biography of 18th-century naturalist Mark Catesby, affords him a like opportunity to engage diverse topics. Catesby, an Englishman and member of the Royal Society, explored the wild interior of the Carolinas, Jamaica, and the Bahamas, drawing and painting the flora and fauna along the way. Long preceding Audubon, he produced the first illustrated natural history of North America. His experiences with the slave-driven rice economy, with the Native Americans he worked with on his frontier expeditions, and the outdoor allure of the natural world make Catesby an ideal subject for Dean and his knack for taking biography to a higher, richer level.

Kirkus Reviews said of “A Window to Heaven,” “Mountaineering and biography in expert hands.”

Dean is a Sewanee area writer to watch. He’s scheduled to deliver the Catesby manuscript to his publisher next June. Stay tuned.

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