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Jack London: The Stories
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“I, in the course of making my living by
turning journalism into literature. . .”

Part XI of a Series
by Dale L. Walker

SECOND of the eleven stories London wrote in 1903 (the year The Kempton-Wace Letters, The People of the Abyss, and The Call of the Wild were published) was "The Marriage of Lit-Lit" (Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, September, 1903), yet another tale, a playful and good-humored one, of the collision between the native and white man and its inevitable outcome.

The white man is John Fox, an American who "came into a country where whiskey freezes solid and may be used as a paper-weight for a large part of the year," and who "came without the ideals and illusions that usually hamper the progress of the more delicately nurtured adventurers." He rose from humble work as a canoe-man for the Hudson's Bay Company to Factor (chief trader) of the post at Fort Angelus. He had a native wife but as he was compiling a brilliant record with the Company she died, leaving him to raise their two sons. Then, when the Company promoted him and he journeyed deep into the wilderness of the Northwest Territory to a place called Sin Rock, his eyes fell upon Lit-Lit, age 17, the daughter of Snettishane, a prominent chief of her tribe. She was a pretty, willowy girl who got her name for her youthful flitting like a butterfly from place to place.

Fox opens negotiations for her hand by a long sitting with the chief before his lodge: ". . .they talked of everything under the sun, or, at least, everything that in the Northland that is under the sun, with the sole exception of marriage." At last, after much circumlocution, Fox says he needs a squaw to wash and mend for him; they negotiate and after tedious bargaining Snettishane agrees on 100 blankets, five pounds of tobacco, three guns, a bottle of rum, and some good-will — which Fox averred was ten blankets and a gun more than she was worth.

Fox holds a potlatch to signalize his marriage to Lit-Lit and she, "tearfully shy and frightened, is bedecked by her husband with a new calico dress, splendidly beaded mocassins, a gorgeous silk handkerchief over her raven hair, a purple scarf about her throat, brass earrings and finger-rings, and a whole pint of pinchbeck jewelry, including a Waterbury watch."

Snettishane says in nights to come he will call like a raven at the river bank and Lit-Lit must come to him. He has plans to get her back and extort a greater payment from John Fox but she enjoys her life of ease and good food, takes care of Fox's sons, and does not answer her father's call. Snettishane, however, persists and pays a sudden visit to Fox to demand more blankets, more tobacco, especially more guns, saying he has been cheated and has come for justice. Moreover, he has talked to the missionary at Three Forks, learned that such marriages as that of Fox and Lit-Lit are not made in heaven and that it is his duty to ask for his daughter back.

"The Factor's reply was short and to the point; for he directed his father-in-law to go to the heavenly antipodes, and by the scruff of the neck and the slack of the blanket propelled him on that trail as far as the door."

Snettishane sneaks to the kitchen and corners his daughter and berates her for not answering his call. "And thereat, out of her great happiness and out of the fear that it might be taken from her, she launched into an original and glowing address upon the status and rights of women — the first new-woman lecture delivered north of Fifty-three."

Eventually, Snettishane surrenders and never again was the raven heard. Lit-Lit grew matronly and was very happy, "and even John Fox has withdrawn the assertion that the price for Lit-Lit was too much by ten blankets and a gun."

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The last three of the Tales of the Fish Patrol (published in book form by Macmillan in September 1905) appeared in The Youth's Companion between April and May 1905). The author received $75 for each story — good money for a freelancer a century ago.

In "Charley's Coup" (The Youth's Companion, April, 13, 1905), Charley Le Grant learns from a friend that salmon poachers, using illegal gill-nets, are out in strength on a Sunday so he and the Narrator (we will call him Jack) jump in their boat, pass through Carquinez Straits, and come upon the Greek fleet. When they try to intercept a Greek boat and its net they are fired upon from the shore but and after a time the law-breakers give up and beat back to Benicia.

At Turner's Shipyard the patrolmen find the Mary Rebecca, a scow-schooner with a spread of canvas greater than any ship of the bay, with Ole Ericsen preparing to take her up the San Joaquin River toward Stockton. Charley makes a proposition and Ericsen agrees: they rig a hook on her and take the Mary Rebecca, Charley at the wheel, directly to the Greek salmon nets, snagging ten of them. And so, with bullets whanging against an iron sheet Ericsen rigged to protect the helm wheel, they drag the boats, nets and men up the San Joaquin toward Merryweather where a crowd of admiring townspeople come aboard and a couple of newspaper men take pictures.

"Demetrios Contos" (The Youth's Companion, April, 27, 1905) is the name of an influential Greek fishermen of Vallejo who has invested in a new salmon boat, faster than any boat on the bay. He sends up a challenge that on Sunday, when it is illegal, he intends to catch salmon before the very eyes of the Fish Patrol. He keeps his word, displays his poached salmon and runs toward the Contra Costa hills, outdistancing Charley Le Grant and his men, then repeats his performance the next Sunday.

Le Grant and Jack come up with a plan to nab Contos: Charley will take Dan Maloney's mare and ride to Vallejo while Jack chases Contos, then when the Greek reaches Vallejo, Le Grant will be there to arrest him.

While Jack takes pride in his boat-handling , he hits a bad stretch of water at the mouth of Carquinez Straits, strikes a sunken pile and sinks, having to swim for his life. At first Contos looks back from his boat without offering help but later returns and plucks the patrolman from the water.

At Vallejo, despite Jack's plea that Contos saved his life, Le Grant arrests the Greek and two days later, at the trial, Contos is found guilty and given the choice of a $100 fine or 50 days in jail. Charley pays the fine and, Jack relates, "Demetrios Contos not only never broke the law again, but he became a very good friend of ours, and on more than one occasion he ran up to Benicia to have a gossip with us."

In "Yellow Handkerchief" (The Youth's Companion, May, 11, 1905; originally titled "The Last Raid") Jack is leaving the Fish Patrol to go back to school and Neil Partington and Charley Le Grant offer to take him to Oakland aboard the Reindeer. But this plan goes awry when, in a heavy fog in San Pablo Bay, the boat's bowsprit becomes entangled in the rigging of a Chinese junk lying at anchor.

The junk belongs to Yellow Handkerchief, arrested the year before for illegal shrimping, and after the Patrolmen find illegal nets on the boat they decide to arrest the crew and tow the junk into San Rafael. With the tide ebbing and the junk lumbering behind as dead weight, the Chinese make sail causing the junk to come alongside the Reindeer. In the commotion, Jack is taken aboard the junk, Partington and Le Grant left aboard the Reindeer.

The junk heads into a slough emptying into San Rafael Creek, then to the mouth of the creek where Jack, tied and gagged, is taken ashore on one of the Marin Islands and there cuts his bonds with broken clam shells. Yellow Handkerchief returns to check on his captive, but departs in a hurry as the Reindeer returns to rescue Jack and deliver him to Oakland as originally planned, no worse for the experience.

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In his study of London's short fiction, Strong Truths (East Lansing, Mich.: Michigan State University Press, 1997), James I. McClintock makes a valuable assessment of "The Leopard Man's Story" (Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, August, 1903), connecting it to the earlier story, "Moon-Face" (1902). McClintock states that the two stories are "almost identical in form, theme, and technique," each adopting a light tone to tell of a perverse action.

The use of the "light tone" — understated humor — in his fiction worked best when a London character demonstrated that quality (as with the Malemute Kid, Shorty in the Smoke Bellew tales, and Captain David Grief in some of the Son of the Sun stories), or when a situation is intrinsically comic: see "The One Thousand Dozen" (1903) and "The Tears of Ah Kim" (1918) for examples.

"Leopard Man" is a plotboiler: an old story written for a quick $25: the Leopard Man, a circus performer, tells a reporter of "King" Wallace, a lion-tamer who is hated by another man, a juggler and sword-swallower named De Ville, toward whose wife Wallace had the temerity to look upon, apparently lustfully. Wallace's act ended when he put his head inside the maw of a fat, old and lazy lion he called Augustus. The devilish De Ville, angry over Wallace's flirtation with Madame De Ville, contrives to sprinkle some snuff on Wallace's head, then at the climax of the lion-tamer act, Augustus sneezes and ". . . the jaws came together, crunch just like that."

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In reading "The Faith of Men" (Sunset, June, 1903), the reader will feel sorry for only one character, a crippled Indian woman named Lashka who has to abide an American fool named Pentfield.

Lawrence Pentfield and Corry Hutchinson are Bonanza Kings who roll dice to see which one will go "outside. " Hutchinson wins the roll and agrees to bring back to the Klondike Pentfield's girlfriend, Mabel Holmes, who has been waiting two years for him. Pentfield plans to marry Mabel in Dawson.

While Hutchinson is gone, Pentfield has a grand new cabin built, pins a calendar on the wall, marks off the days and waits. Months pass, then a gambler friend tells Pentfield that he has seen an item in a San Francisco paper that Corry Hutchinson has gotten married — to, guess who, Mabel Holmes.

Pentfield goes about his business with no apparent change in his manner, and has a friend take care of the mine while he travels to an Indian hunting camp on the White River. When he returns he has a lame young Indian woman named Lashka with him, marries her in Dawson and installs her in the new cabin at the Bonanza claim.

In the spring Pentfield takes Lashka down the creek to Siwash Pete's cabin where she wants to help Pete's wife, a Steward River woman, through child-birth. On the way they come across a sled with Corry Hutchinson at the gee-pole and with two women walking behind — Mabel Holmes and her sister Dora. Dora explains that the papers made a mistake that was corrected the next day: she, Dora, has married Corry Hutchinson, not Mabel.

Pentfield "stared straight out before him into a dreary future, through the gray vistas of which he saw himself riding on a sled behind running dogs with lame Lashka by his side."

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"The Banks of the Sacramento" (Youth's Companion, March, 17, 1904) is an excellent tale for its special niche market. It was written just before London crafted one of the finest stories of his spectacular career.

In "Sacramento," fourteen-year-old Jerry's father, a former sailor, works as a watchman for the Yellow Dream mine on the Sacramento River and is away in San Francisco, leaving Young Jerry to keep an eye on the property. During a fierce rainstorm, Mr. and Mrs. Spillane, ranchers who lived in a lonely valley a dozen miles distant, come to his door looking for Jerry's father to take them across the river: Mrs. Spillane's father has been hurt in a powder explosion and the two need to cross the river on the Yellow Dream cable, a conveyance never used for passengers and not used at all for a long time.

Spillane says he'll stand the risk if Jerry will run the cable for them. They climb into the ore car, Jerry releases the brake and the car slips over the 200-foot chasm in the driving rain, then stops some 400 feet across. In the blinding rain squalls, Jerry frees a wheel that has slipped off the cable, permitting the car with the Spillanes aboard to move on to the bank. The youngster goes home in the pelting rain and staggers into the cabin contented that he had done well in the emergency and regretting only that his father had not been there to see it.

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Since its publication a century ago, "Love of Life" (McClure's Magazine, December, 1905) has elicited enough analysis and criticism to fill a book, a small book. Whether the author intended it or not, this magnificent story swarms with themes, ideas, and messages, among them the simple thread of the triumph of man's will to live, and the more complex theme of atavism, subjects that enthralled London all his writing life. In addition to the complexity of its ideas, the story also attracted an accusation of plagiarism, and drew the attention of Lenin, as he lay on his deathbed.

Nadezhda K. Krupskaya recorded in her book, Memories of Lenin (1930), that on January 19, 1924, she read "Love of Life" to her husband, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, as he lay dying. "The tale greatly pleased Ilyich," she wrote, but the next day when she read some other London stories Ilyich found them wanting. One story she read was "saturated with bourgeois morals," she said. "It had to do with the captain of a ship who promises its owner that he will sell the ship's cargo of corn at a good price, then sacrifices his life to keep his promise." Krupskaya said Lenin smiled and dismissed the tale with a wave of his hand.

". . .London's strong pieces are mixed with extraordinarily weak ones," she recorded, an indisputable fact which applies to every writer since time began. Lenin died on January 21, 1924.

(I have never seen a reference to which specific London book Krupskaya was reading but the 1907 Love of Life collection does not contain the captain and the corn cargo tale she mentions, nor do I recognize that story. A good account of the Lenin-London episode and of London's reputation in Russia is to be found in Soviet Attitudes Toward American Writing by Deming Brown [Princeton University Press, 1962]).

The story: Two men are afoot in the Canadian Barrens, one sprains his ankle and is left behind by "Bill," who goes on. The nameless man is left alone with his meager belongings and a 15-pound moosehide sack of gold dust and nuggets. It is July and he is above the Arctic Circle, north of Great Bear Lake, on a stream that feeds into the Coppermine River.

Except for pale muskeg berries, "a bit of seed enclosed in a bit of water," he has not eaten in two days. He has a tin pot and boils water to drink, 67 matches which he counts over and over, a watch, a rifle but no cartridges, moccasins in threads, shredded blanket socks over raw and bleeding feet. He bails small pools of water in the muskeg for minnows, eats ptarmigan chicks raw, is increasingly hunger-mad.

“...the man was aware of a warm trickle in his throat.”

He abandons his gold, follows a stream to the Arctic Ocean, spies an anchored whaler, and crawls toward it, followed by a sick gray wolf who licks the blood trail of the man. The man comes across Bill's bones and crawls a mile a day toward the ship. Wolf draws closer, the narrator smells its sick breath, its tongue like sandpaper against his cheek. He hugs the wolf: "The hands had not sufficient strength to choke the wolf and the mouth of the man was full of hair. At the end of half an hour the man was aware of a warm trickle in his throat. It was not pleasant. It was like molten lead being forced into his stomach, and it was forced by his will alone."

He is picked up by the whaler Bedford, a scientific expedition which spots him crawling on the ground like a monstrous blind worm. In three weeks the man recovers, babbling of his mother in California and a home among orange groves and flowers. He gloats over the spectacle of so much food and as he grows fatter it is found that he has lined his mattress with hardtack, ". . . taking precautions against another possible famine. He would recover from it, the scientific men said; and he did, ere the Bedford's anchor rumbled down in San Francisco Bay."

A year after its publication, a plagiarism issue grew out of publication of "Love of Life." In 1906, The New York World printed in parallel columns a comparison of London's story to an article, "Lost in the Land of the Midnight Sun," which appeared in McClure's in 1901. The authors of the article, journalists Augustus Bridle and J. K. MacDonald, told of the ordeal of a small Canadian exploring party looking for mineral deposits in the Canadian Barrens during the summer of 1900. One of the party, a man named Charles Bunn, was abandoned by his companions and wandered for eight days until making his way into an Indian camp.

The journalists accused London of plagiarism, citing 18 instances of it, and he replied to the charges in letter dated April 10, 1906, published in The Bookman. He stated that "It is a common practice of authors to draw material for their stories from the newspapers" and also asserted that his story was rooted in other sources than the "Midnight Sun" article. He said in conclusion, "I, in the course of making my living by turning journalism into literature, used materials from various sources which had been collected and narrated by men who made their living turning the facts of life into journalism."

(See Franklin Walker's Jack London in the Klondike, 1966, and No Mentor But Myself: Jack London on Writing & Writers, edited by Dale L. Walker, 1979, reprinted, with co-editor Jeanne Campbell Reesman, 1999.)

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One of London's light-hearted comeuppance tales, "Too Much Gold" (Ainslee's, October, 1903), may be a satirical retelling in fiction of the true origin of the Klondike gold rush. Historical figure "Siwash" George W. Carmack, who found gold in a moose pasture near the Klondike River in August, 1896, even has a role in the story.

In the fall of '96, sourdoughs Charles "Kink" Mitchell and "Hootchinoo Bill" Rader paddle to Forty Mile and find it deserted. Everybody, it happens, has decamped for Dawson, a town that has sprung up on a big flat just below the mouth of the Klondike. Bill says he has been in the country seven years and never heard of it.

At the Monte Carlo saloon they learn of the strike on Bonanza Creek made by George Carmack, the squaw man, about whom, Bill says, "I wouldn't put on my mocassins to stampede after anything he's ever find," to which Kink adds, "A cuss that's too plumb lazy to fish his own salmon. That's why he took up with the Indians."

The two laze around, laughing about a stampede of tin horns and drunks but soon are paddling up the Yukon to Dawson. There, when they search for a claim, they find everything on Bonanza staked from source to mouth. Carmack advises them to try a "pup" — a small feeder stream — and they find an unlikely spot, pace off 500 feet, stake the corners and put up a sign, "This Moose Pasture is Reserved for the Swedes and Chechaquos." Afterward they go off looking for "Too Much Gold," a fabled creek in which the gold was said to be so thick that in order to wash it gravel had to be shovelled into the sluice-boxes.

Meantime, Ans Handerson, working for wages all summer, says he likes the look of Kink and Bill's No. 24 moose pasture claim and offers to buy it for $750, this while the two sourdoughs are thinking of selling it to any chechaquo for a bag of flour.

Three months later the two return over the divide in a snowstorm and drop by No. 24 and watch a man working a windlass while Ans Handerson is in his cabin washing a pan of gravel in a tub of water. They see "A mass of yellow, like butter in a churn" and Ans announces that it is a fifty-ounce pan (at $16 an ounce, worth $800) and, he adds, "Ay tank Ay ban wort' five hundred t'ousand dollar."

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According to the invaluable data collected by Earle Labor, Robert C. Leitz III, and I. Milo Shepard (at the end of Vol. III of The Complete Stories of Jack London, Stanford University Press, 1993), London sent "Negore, the Coward" to one Arthur J. Street on October 9, 1903 and subsequently received a check for $250 for it. Evidently Street, who worked for the San Francisco Call and later became an editor for Collier's, bought the story but never published it. (It appeared in Love of Life & Other Stories, Macmillan, 1907).

“This, London's 100th story, is complex in plot and character...”

This, London's 100th story, is complex in plot and character (at times reminiscent of scenes in "Odyssey of the North"), the events taking place in the mid-19th century, in the old days of the Russian occupancy of Alaska.

For eleven days Negore has been trailing his people who are fleeing from Russian invaders. In his tribe's camp, Oona, daughter of Old Kinoos, tells Negore why she cannot mother the children of such a coward as he.

Oona tells of her father Kinoos, who, when she was a child, fled with her along the islands in the midst of the sea after he killed a Russian with his spear. They journeyed to the Great Fog Sea and lived among many tribess over the years. They came at last to Pastolik but the invaders eventually arrived there too and Kinoos, ever the fighter, was captured and blinded by a Russian known as Ivan the Terrible. It was during this time that Oona witnessed Ivan lay the lash on Negore and beat him like a dog.

Negore then tells Oona that he is no coward: as a boy he journeyed alone to Pastolik and beyond into the north, killed the great bear in the Tanana country, fought with the Nuklukyets, the Kaltags, and the Sticks.

Oona challenges Negore to go among the pursuing Russians and draw them into an ambush where the people of his tribe would kill the enemy with spears, arrows, guns and rocks. When the massacre ends, Oona promises, she will be Negore's woman.

Three days later Negore's plan reaches fruition when he is dragged before Ivan and is whipped until he tells Ivan where the tribe is hiding. Ivan and his 40 men follow as Negore leads them up the passage in the rocks where the tribe falls upon them. In the melee, Negore is hit by gunfire, ". . . and as he fell he knew the sharp pangs of life as it wrenches at the flesh to be let free."

But as he lays dying he sees Ivan's hunters falling to their deaths and Ivan himself "hurled there lifeless and crushed by a down-rushing rock. . ." Then the sound subsides and as the tribesmen spear the wounded he sees the face of Oona who says, "Thou art a brave man, Negore; thou art my man, Negore. . ." and in that moment, "even as his memories dimmed and died in the darkness that fell upon him, he knew in her arms the fulfillment of all the ease and rest she had promised him. And as black night wrapped around him, his head upon her breast, he felt a great peace steal about him, and he was aware of the hush of many twilights and the mystery of silence."

NOTE: London must have shared some secrets about this story with Charmian since she wrote of "Negore, the Coward" as ". . .the first story in which he employed any portion of his many-sided love for me." (Charmian K. London, The Book of Jack London. New York: The Century Co., 1921, II, 36.)

Note: To read any or all stories named in this series, see the "Read stories" link which provides an alphabetized list. Click on any story and read the entire text.
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Jack London: The Stories
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