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Part X of a Series
by Dale L. Walker
“FOR LAND travel or seafaring, the world over, a companion is usually considered desirable.” ("To Build a Fire", Youth's Companion, May 29, 1902).
"Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray. . ." ("To Build a Fire," The Century Magazine, August 1908).
Over six years separated the two versions of (some say) Jack London's greatest story, and the six years — as depicted in those opening lines — marked the metamorphosis of the writer.
“. . .Never travel alone, a precept of the northlands – is the same in both versions.”
To mix a metaphormosis, there is a quantum leap between that stiffly lackluster opener to the 1902 story and the literally chilling 1908 line, but the classic version, with the magic ten-word opening sentence, will be taken up later in this series. Meantime the Youth's Companion version has its moments and the "lesson" — "Never travel alone," a precept of the northlands — is the same in both versions.
Tom Vincent, "a strapping young fellow, big-boned and big-muscled, with faith in himself and in the strength of his head and hands," leaves Calumet Camp on the Yukon with a light pack to walk to Paul Creek, thence to Cherry Creek where his party is prospecting and hunting moose.
Tom, who has come from Dawson with mail for his partners, has 30 miles to cover. At Paul Creek the young fellow has a lunch of biscuits and bacon. The frost bites and he spits on the snow to test the temperature. It is colder than 60 below and he runs up the trail to warm. Tom also has excessive hubris to burn — ". . .with his clenched fist he defied the frost. He was its master."
Paul creek is frozen over but there is water beneath the crust of ice and mantle of snow and Vincent breaks through, scrambles to the bank, his feet wet. He remains cool, gathers dry twigs and branches, takes out his matches and builds his fire under a tree and. . .well, we sourdoughs know the consequences of that foolish cheechako act.
But Tom gets his fire built and survives and Youth's Companion paid Jack $50 for this upbeat tale of why you should not build a fire under a snow-burdened tree when you have got your feet wet at 60 below zero.
In another survival story and another Youth's Companion contribution, "Up the Slide," written in 1901 but not published until October 25, 1906, Clay Dilham, age 17, volunteers to cut a sled-load of firewood which is fetching $40 a cord in Dawson.
Just below the booming Yukon town, Clay climbs the scarred and gullied "slide" of Moosehide Mountain and, with his body chilling, his fingers frost-bitten, he slips and slides down in a small avalanche, then regains his balance and attains the summit. On the way up he sees a grove of pines that others have missed and figures they would produce 50 cords.
He makes his way down, back to the Siwash village, and at camp finds his friend Swanson having a hearty laugh at his expense but, ". . .nevertheless, a week or so later, in Dawson, there were fifty cords of wood sold at forty dollars a cord, and it was he and Swanson who sold them."
The last of London's stories written in 1901 was "Amateur Night" (Pilgrim, December 1903), a long (5,100 wds.) tale that would eventually be incorporated in Moon Face & Other Stories (1906). Among its distinctions is that it demonstrates London as a quick study: his knowledge of newspaper demands for its feature writers — advice as viable today as it was 105 years ago.
Edna Wyman wants a job as a newspaper reporter but has no experience. The editor of the Intelligencer tells her, "You are undrilled, undisciplined, unhammered into shape. You have received a high-school education, and possibly topped it off with normal school or college. You have stood well in English. Your friends have all told you how cleverly you write. . . .You think you can do newspaper work and you want me to put you on." He says there are no openings but he has no time to serve as an instructor in journalism. (This scenario is so ageless it remains a common editor-to-prospective-reporter even today and raises a question: To what Bay area newspaper did London apply, and when?)
“Dig right in with both hands, and get the essence of it, the spirit, the significance.”
Edna and her sister Letty, who have studied typing and shorthand, find their funds running low and Letty suggests that Edna visit the famous journalist Max Irwin to ask for advice. Irwin suggests she go to Amateur Night at the "Loops," a sort of amusement park and vaudeville-like theater featuring amateur jugglers, acrobats, "rubber-jointed wonders", fire-dancers and the like. Edna, Irwin says, should become an amateur, do two "turns" on stage, then write up the experience for the Sunday Intelligencer. He volunteers to read her story and offers solid (as it still is) advice: "Get the atmosphere, the color, strong color, lots of it. Dig right in with both hands, and get the essence of it, the spirit, the significance. What does it mean? Find out what it means. . . . Be terse in style, vigorous of phrase, apt, concretely apt, in similitude. Avoid platitudes and commonplaces. Exercise selection. Seize upon things salient, eliminate the rest, and you have pictures. Paint those pictures in words and the Intelligencer will have you. . . . Tell it all in the opening paragraph as advertisement of contents, and in the contents tell it all over again. Then put a snapper at the end, so if they're crowded for space they can cut off your contents anywhere, re-attach the snapper, and the story will still retain form."
She gets signed up for Amateur Night as a sentimental soprano soloist, is propelled on stage, moves her lips as the crowd makes noise, sways her body as if actually singing, then exits. She's a hit, is even offered her own dressing room but declines — "Vaudeville's too wearing on my nerves," she says.
Edna only gets 50 cents for carfare. She takes her story to Irving whose verdict is, "You are a journalist — a natural journalist" — and manages to get her more money from Amateur Night and promises "to give you a line myself to the Intelligencer people."
The narrator in "Moon-Face" (Argonaut, July 21, 1902) was a rarity in turn-of-the-century fiction — a psychopath, before abnormal psychology invented the word.
The nameless narrator tells of his hatred for John Claverhouse, a moon-faced man who Nameless sees as evil in a subtle, intangible way. Nameless is infuriated that Claverhouse, whose very name is hateful and ridiculous, is always happy, optimistic, cheerful, always laughing his annoying, Gargantuan, laugh ("his plaguey cachinnations").
The psycho turns Claverhouse's cattle into the fields, poisons his dog Mars with strychnine, sets fire to his haystacks and barn, arranges to have his property foreclosed, insults him to his face — yet Claverhouse remains cheerful, laughing, going "fishing" for trout with a stick of dynamite, a dip-net and gunnysack.
Nameless devises a plan to kill Claverhouse. He buys a five-month-old water spaniel and trains her to fetch sticks thrown in the water, teaches her to chase him after the retrieval, names her Bellona (wife of Mars), and presents her to his hated obsession. Then, when Claverhouse goes on a trout expedition Nameless follows and watches as Moon-Face throws a stick of "giant" in the water, sees the dog paddle out to retrieve it and when Claverhouse makes a run for it the dog blows them both up.
"Death from accident while engaged in illegal fishing" is the coroner's verdict.
(NOTE: I have lost the reference but believe that Frank Norris [1870-1902], who died the year "Moon-Face" was published, employed the same dog-retrieving-a-stick-of-dynamite idea in a short story that preceded London's by only a few years. Norris, born in Chicago, at age 14 moved to San Francisco with his family. He was an early naturalist writer whose finest work appeared in the decade preceding London's rise to fame. Norris is best remembered for such novels as McTeague , The Octopus: A California Story , and The Pit .)
London's 80th story, "Diable, a Dog" (Cosmopolitan, June 1902), best known by the title "Bâtard" (used when it appeared in the 1904 collection, The Faith of Men and Other Stories), is often cited as a precursor to The Call of the Wild and White Fang, with all three sharing "the naturalistic theme of heredity and environmental determinism," the latter term defined (by Wikipedia) as "the view that the physical environment, rather than social conditions, determines culture. Those who believe this view say that humans are strictly defined by stimulus-response (environment-behavior) and cannot deviate."
One thing is certain: it is a terrific, brutal, tale in which London shows his early belief that dogs could reason and act accordingly, were not creatures of pure instinct but could learn, think, hate, remember, and deduct.
"Bâtard was a devil. This was recognized throughout the Northland. 'Hell's Spawn' he was called by many men, but his master, Black Leclere, chose for him the shameful name 'Bâtard.' Now Leclere was also a devil, and the twain were well matched." Their history together was "of five cruel, relentless years" in which Leclere beat, starved, and tortured the dog while the dog learned to bide his time "with an inscrutable patience that began to puzzle and weigh upon Leclere."
The time came when Leclere was accused of killing a man and sentenced to hang. The Frenchman made one final request: that Bâtard be hanged at the same time — to which the court agreed, and hangman nooses for both man and dog were slung over a big spruce tree limb and around Leclere's neck as he stood upon a cracker box. Then, before the dog could be corralled, the hangman and the other miners ran off to punish some Siwash Indians lurking near their camp.
This left Leclere standing on the box, alone, with Bâtard watching.
"Sacredam," said Leclere under his breath while Bâtard "sat down, curled his upper lip almost into a smile, looked up at Leclere, and licked his chops," then, "with mincing, playful steps. . . . hurled his body through the air, in full charge, straight for the box."
Fifteen minutes later, the miners return and "caught a glimpse of a ghostly pendulum swinging back and forth in the dim light. As they hurriedly drew in closer, they made out the man's inert body, and a live thing that clung to it, and shook and worried, and gave to it the swaying motion." One of the men draws a bead and shoots the dog and "Bâtard's body twitched with the shock, threshed the ground spasmodically for a moment, and went suddenly limp. But his teeth still held fast locked."
In "The Shadow and the Flash" (Bookman, June 1903), London returned to a fantasy idea, toying with the idea of invisibility and the worthwhile theme that scientific discovery can be a dangerously two-edged matter.
The story involves two brilliant and wealthy men, Lloyd Inwood and Paul Tichlorne, who are lifelong rivals in every endeavor, competing since childhood, as when one memorized a canto of "Marmion" (Sir Walter Scott's 1808 poem), and the other would memorize two cantos until both had memorized the entire poem. Once they tried to outdo the other in staying underwater until the narrator and others had to drag them ashore where they were resuscitated. They even fell in love with the same woman and when she abandoned both of them, their bitterness toward each other was sealed.
After graduating from college, the two turned their attention to the "theory" of invisibility (as H.G. Wells did in his 1897 novel The Invisible Man, which probably inspired this story). Inwood's idea was that a perfectly black object would "elude and defy the acutest vision," that pure black objects are impossible to see because "If no light strikes upon them, then no light is flung back from them to the eye, and so we have no vision-evidence of their being." He said if he could paint himself with a true black paint then the world would be at his feet.
Tichlorne challenges this idea — "Ah, you forget the shadow," he says — and decides transparency is the answer.
Ultimately, the two men, Tichlorne flashing and Inwood casting a shadow, clash and fight, snarling like wild beasts, until both are dead, the secrets of their discoveries dying when their relatives burn their laboratories to the ground.
Charles C. Walcutt, in his monograph Jack London (University of Minnesota Press, 1966), states that London "increasingly moved too far from the representative concerns of men into the realms of fantasy," but it takes no scholarly reading of London's work to see that he had a career-long proclivity toward fantasy. This tendency dates from such early fiction as "Who Believes in Ghosts!," "A Thousand Deaths," "The Rejuvenation of Major Rathbone," even the other-worldly description of the land of the Yeehats in The Call of the Wild, and was sustained through such novels as The Iron Heel, Before Adam, The Scarlet Plague, The Star Rover, and stories (like the fantasy classic, "The Red One") which he wrote at the end of his life.
London retired the story "The Death of Ligoun" after submitting it to five periodicals with no takers. It gathered dust only a short while, however, since he included it in The Children of the Frost (New York: Macmillan, September 1902).
It is difficult to understand the five rejections of this 3,700–word "frame story" (a term devised in academe to describe a story told by a narrator — a story-within-a-story) for there is a valuable message amid its brutality and bloodshed.
Between jolts of Three-Star whisky, Palitlum the Drinker tells of the 500-canoe, 8,000–blanket potlatch staged by Niblack of the Skoot tribe and how he, Palitlum, escorted Ligoun to this mighty gathering of the chiefs of the Chilcats, Sitkas, Stickeens, Wrangels, Hoonahs, Sundowns, Tahkos, Awks, Naas River people, Tongas, Kakes, Siwashes, Cassiars, Teslin, Sticks, and Skoots.
Once among the most violent of his tribesmen, Ligoun is now a spokesman for peace but after the potlatch devolves into a drunken massacre, which London describes in detail, Ligoun is killed and his peaceful efforts with him.
Another excellent frame story, "The Sickness of Lone Chief" (Out West, October 1902), is a tale told to the narrator by two old men, Lone Chief and Mutsak, erstwhile comrades in arms, in a "mosquito-smudge" camp on the Yukon. The old men had fallen on evil days in a time when honor, tradition, and place gave way to the steamboat and black bottles of spirits traded by white men for a few hours' labor or a mangy fur.
Lone Chief tells of his long sickness ever since his head was broken by a great bear. His flesh healed but he was left with shaky legs, watering eyes, a swimming brain, and slow speech. He was ready to die and so his father arranged for him to die in battle, a great honor.
In a fight with two Mukumuk tribesmen below their village, he killed both but was hit in the head with a canoe paddle. "I felt something give, with a snap. . . .And the weight that pressed above my eyes so long was lifted, and the band that bound my brows so tight was broken. And a great gladness came upon me, and my heart sang with joy."
Lone Chief, his health restored, led a massacre against the Mukumuk village, personally killing their chief and shaman, sparing only five-score men-slaves and double that number of women and children as he and his men burned the village and returned to their own. There he killed the shaman, a rival for the leadership of the village, then arose in the crowd of well-wishers and announced, "I shall be both chief and shaman . . ."
He ends his story saying, "And great honor was mine, and all men yielded me obedience."
"Until the steamboat came," the other old warrior, Mutsak, prompted.
"Ay," said Lone Chief. "Until the steamboat came."
London's somewhat simplistic and overwrought, Rousseau-esque attitude toward the Northland's noble savages comes to the fore again in "The Story of Jees Uck" (The Smart Set, September 1902). Here he tells (in 9,500 words) of Jees Uck, a beautiful mixed breed Indian girl who at Twenty Mile post meets Neil Bonner, scion of a wealthy family, and bears his child. Upon learning of the death of his father, Bonner returns "Outside" with "the ancient lie of quick return young and blithe on his lips." Being a city man at heart, of course he does not return; instead, he marries a woman named Kitty Sharon.
Jees Uck waits patiently until Bonner's partner finds a news clipping of the Bonner-Sharon wedding and reads it to her.
A year passes; Jees Uck has her baby (and some time later, in San Francisco, Kitty Sharon Bonner also gives birth to child) and returns to her people, living alone , sewing moccasins, parkas, and mittens, and laying money aside. At last, she takes passage on the Yukon Belle to St. Michael's, washing dishes; takes passage south on a sealing schooner to Unalaska, then to Sitka on a whiskey sloop, to Metlakahtla where she finds work in a salmon cannery, to Puget Sound with Siwash fishermen, to San Francisco by "iron stallion," and finally to Neil Bonner's great house.
She is greeted by Kitty Bonner to whom Jees Uck lies, saying she washed clothes for Neil in Alaska and has come to San Francisco to see the White Man's Land. Neil sees the boy, his son, a "stranger in a strange land, unabashed and unafraid" whose name is Neil – which Jees Uck says is 'Injun talk" for "cracker." Kitty, apparently a naif extraordinaire, believes all this.
Jees Uck returns to Alaska and the new agent at Twenty Mile has instructions that she is to have whatever goods and grub she desires at no charge. Moreover, the company pays her a pension, the boy is sent to a Jesuit College in Maryland, travels to Italy and France, and returns as Father Neil. Jees Uck becomes versed in practical medicine and surgery and opens a school for girls.
Meantime, Kitty Bonner "is pleased at the interest her husband takes in Alaskan education and the large sums he devotes to that purpose; and, though she often smiles and chaffs, deep down and secretly she is but the prouder of him."
"In Yeddo Bay" (St. Nicholas, February 1903), is an amplification of "A Night's Swim in Yeddo Bay" The (Oakland) High School Aegis, May 27, 1895, with Alf Davis, a 16-year-old merchant sailor, replacing Long Charley, the grizzled seaman of the Aegis version, and with the story taking on an submerged theme of Anglo-Saxon supremacy.
Here, Alf loses his purse somewhere along Theater Street in Yokohama, probably stolen by a pickpocket. The wallet contains 50-odd sen and Alf needs the money to get back to his ship, the sealing schooner Annie Mine. The sampan man urges Alf to trade his shoes or shirt for the transport but, "The Anglo-Saxon has a born dislike of being imposed upon," and Alf "resolved that he would die rather than submit to the indignity of being robbed of a single stitch of clothing" and so jumps off the pier for the mile-long swim to his ship.
He climbs aboard via the rope-ladder, puts on a shirt and dungarees and dozes off on deck. Soon after the police-boat comes out and delivers his clothes. Next day when Alf is going ashore again he finds that his exploit has earned him free sampan passage: "You all right. You no pay. You bully boy and all right," and for the rest of the ship's stay in port the boatmen refuse money from Alf: "Out of admiration for his pluck and independence they had given him the freedom of the harbor."
The first of the semi-autobiographical stories that would comprise the collection, Tales of The Fish Patrol (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1905) was "White and Yellow" (The Youth's Companion, February 16, 1905), which London originally titled "With the Fish Patrol." To some extent marred by what — a century after the fact — would be called "racism," London told the magazine's editor that the 4,000-word story described "The way we captured the big Chinese fleet of shrimp-fishers" and said it was "again almost literal narrative of what actually happened, even to the refusal of the Chinese to bail the Reindeer until she was just about ready to sink." (See Letters From Jack London, edited by King Hendricks and Irving Shepard, New York: Odyssey Press, 1965, p. 147).
The narrator, age 16 like Alf in the previous story, is "a good sloop sailor and all-round bay waterman," a deputy patrolman on his sloop the Reindeer, chartered by the Fish Commission. At Point Pedro as it and another patrol boat find a fleet of Chinese junks spread out in a half-moon, three miles from tip to tip, each moored to the buoy of a shrimp-net.
Charley Le Grant, a senior patrolman, orders the capture of the six shrimp-poaching junks and amid the yelling, pistol shots, and blowing of conch-shells, the Narrator (patterned on young Jack London) boards one of the Chinese vessels after the Reindeer's bowsprit "like a monstrous hand, reached over and ripped out the junk's chunky mast and towering sail."
A big, pock-marked, evil-looking Chinese, head swathed in a yellow handkerchief, tries to shove Narrator's boat off with a pole but ultimately the patrolmen take prisoners and head toward the marshes off San Rafael. The Reindeer continues to ship water and the Chinese prisoners refuse to help bail but as the sloop begins to founder, the Chinese start bailing, and the spirit of the Chinese was broken."
“...his story epitomizes the whole vast tragedy of the contact of Indian andwhite man.”
Race martyrdom, some London scholars offer, is the theme of "The League of the Old Men" (Brandur Magazine, October 4, 1902). The author would later state (In Grand Magazine, August 1906), "I incline to the opinion that 'The League of the Old Men' is the best short story I have written. . .The voices of millions are in the voice of old Imber, and the tears and sorrows of millions are in his throat as he tells his story; his story epitomizes the whole vast tragedy of the contact of Indian and white man."
Franklin Walker (in his Jack London and the Klondike, San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1966, 223) says the story "is too talky to hold its own with London's best stories"; nevertheless, it is among the most powerful tales London ever wrote.
The memorable central figure, a Siwash Indian named Imber, of the Whitefish River area below Lake LeBarge, surrenders to Mounted Police in Dawson. He is guilty of killing many whites — singly, in pairs, and parties, and through a translator tells of the days when white men first came to his country with their iron traps, and lust for furs and gold. He remembers the presents these men brought to trade with Imber's people: clocks and watches with broken guts, pistols without bullets, whiskey, tobacco, smallpox, measles, famine.
Imber and his people begin killing the whites in '91 — "On the Chilcoot and in the Delta we slew, from the passes to the sea, wherever the white man camped or broke their trails" — and now, with none of his people surviving, Imber, the last of the old men of his tribe, has come to Dawson to seek the Law. He dreams in court and the judge also dreams a racial, if not racist, dream in which "all his race rose up before him in a mighty phantasmagoria — his steel-shod, mail-clad race, the lawgiver and world-maker among the families of men." In this dream the judge saw "it dawn red-flickering across the dark forests and sullen seas; he saw it blaze, bloody and red, to full and triumphant noon; and down the shaded slope he saw the blood-red sands dropping into night. And through it all he observed the Law, pitiless and potent, ever "unswerving and ever ordaining, greater than the motes of men who fulfilled it or were crushed by it, even as it was greater than he, his heart speaking for softness."
Imber's fate at the hands of the white interlopers is inevitable, just as is the case with another aboriginal, Koolau, in London's 1909 story, "Koolau the Leper," examined in a future installment of this series.
Returning to the Tales of the Fish Patrol, written about the same time as the stories in Children of the Frost and Moon-Face, "The King of the Greeks" (The Youth's Companion, March 2, 1905) concerns Big Alec, King of the Greeks among the San Francisco Bay area fishermen and nemesis of the Fish Patrol who boasted no man could take him alive.
Charley Le Grant, the Narrator (patterned after London and his own experiences with the Fish Patrol), and a Patrolman named Carmintel bring Big Alec down, "bound hard and fast in the cockpit" of the Reindeer, under arrest for the first time for sturgeon fishing using illegal "Chinese lines," nets and hooks on the bay bottom.
In "A Raid on the Oyster Pirates" (The Youth's Companion, March 16, 1905), Charley Le Grant comes across oyster poachers at the Oakland wharf — the Ghost (was this the origin of Wolf Larsen's ship?) and its two-man crew, "the Porpoise," so called for his swimming prowess, and "the Centipede," named for his long gorilla-like arms. These men are confronted by a Mr. Taft who accuses them or pirating his oysters and offers a $50 a head reward for the arrest and conviction of any thieves stealing from his beds.
The fish patrolmen, who are freelancers, receiving a percentage of fines and any rewards that come their way, hold a council and decide to take a decrepit sloop, Coal Tar Maggie, from Tiburon to Asparagus Island. There they deceive the pirates by pretending to want to learn their nefarious trade, but in the end they arrest the poachers at Mr. Taft's oyster beds.
"Possibly our most exasperating experience on the fish patrol was when Charley Le Grant and I laid a two weeks' siege to a big four-masted English ship," says the Narrator of "The Siege of the 'Lancashire Queen'" (The Youth's Companion, March 3, 1905).
The adventure begins with the Fish Patrolmen running up Carquinez Straits toward Turner's Ship Yard where they spy several English steel-hulled sailing ships and two Italians in a skiff running an illegal Chinese sturgeon line. Le Grant and his men give chase around the hull of the Lancashire Queen and try to grapple the skiff but the rope is cut and Le Grant is hit over the head with an oar.
The culprits are taken aboard the English vessel and the siege begins, "memorable in the annals of both fishermen and fish patrol," with the two keeping four-hour watches on each other. They keep up the "siege" for two weeks until finally the Patrolmen enlist the help of a strange new launch called the Streak, owned by a young mining millionaire Silas Tate. The yacht is capable of 45 miles an hour with its 4,000 horsepower engine and when the Italians try to make a getaway in their skiff, the Streak streaks for them, "pulsing and vibrating and roaring like a thing alive" until the thieves haul in their oars and surrender.
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