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Part XV of a Series
by Dale L. Walker
(NOTE: The story titled "Flush of Gold" would ordinarily appear at this point in the chronological order of London's stories. However, because its plot is identical to that of London's 1899 tale, "Even Unto Death," the commentary on "Flush of Gold" appears in Part VI of this series in order to better compare the two stories.)
AFTER his 1903 novella The Call of the Wild, the best known of all works in Jack London's body of fiction is "To Build a Fire" (The Century Magazine, August, 1908), a 7,235-word story which at one time was read by and taught to nearly every high school student or college freshman in America. This, of course, occurred in that bygone era when brilliantly crafted, eminently readable, forever memorable short fiction made up school and university lit. textbooks. Today, while the story has nearly vanished from those books, together with student interest in reading from them, it remains among the most anthologized stories ever written, a world classic, familiar by title, substance and author to a high percentage of the literate inhabitants of Planet Earth.
An early version of the story appeared in the May 29, 1902, issue Youth's Companion (See Part X of this series). In this pleasant little yarn Tom Vincent builds his fire under a tree and . . . survives. It was the perfect upbeat-moral story that Youth's Companion editors doted on, a fact London knew as the budding professional who studied the commercial periodicals and the stories they carried. But eventually he realized the plot had more serious potential and so, during the Snark voyage, with the heat and humidity of the tropics for inspiration, he wrote this immortal story of a place 70 miles south of Dawson, Yukon Territory, Canada, where the temperature was 75 degrees below zero.
As Earle Labor states (in his Jack London, New York: Twayne, 1974), "To Build a Fire" is a story of mood and atmosphere, hallmarks of London's finest works, to which must be added masterful characterization — of a red-bearded, tobacco-chewing human, "quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances."
“and as he freezes tries to build
So the man, who is afoot, breaks through the river ice and as he freezes tries to build a fire. But except for a wolf-dog, he is alone and the wolf-dog waits, sits, and watches this fire-provider until the man fails to provide a fire and dies of ignorance of significances, and hubris, and the unremitting cold. Then the wolf-dog turns and trots up the trail in the direction of a camp, "where were the other food-providers and fire-providers."
The 1902 "To Build a Fire" began with the unlovely sentence, "For land travel or seafaring, the world over, a companion is usually considered desirable"; the opening of the 1906 story is not only lovely, it is haunting and had an interesting evolution. In the years between the two versions of the story, London evolved into a mature artist, his narrative gifts in full flower. Always a quick writer — too quick too often — he still managed that perfect, memorable, phrase, that precise word in an assortment of possibilities that instantly created a place, a time, a mood.
How much did he ponder, revise and rewrite this?
"Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little-traveled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland."
Thirty-nine words: not only is daybreak cold and gray but "exceedingly cold and gray," lending an ominous note to what is to transpire; the man (not "Tom Vincent" as in the earlier story, just "the man"), has left the main Yukon trail to travel, afoot, a dim and little-traveled trail. Was London conscious of the poetic cadence and alliteration of where a dim and little-traveled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland?
One thing seems certain: the author must have loved the chilling simplicity of that ominous "cold and gray" image for he employed it with slight variations no less than six times before his immortal 1906 story:
"After interminable hours of toil, day broke cold and gray."
"The day had broken cold and gray . . ."
"Day broke, gray and chill."
"The day of the execution broke clear and cold."
"Dawn broke and merged into day. It was cold and clear."
"Dawn broke and merged into day. It was cold and clear."
From the top of the hemisphere to the bottom, "Make Westing," taking place at Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America, is the story written after "To Build a Fire." Perhaps because the story is cynical, irreligious, and depressing, it bounced around ten periodicals (Collier's, Everybody's, Cosmopolitan, Success, McClure's, Saturday Evening Post, Century, Harper's, Woman's Home Companion, and The Pacific Monthly) before finding a home in the April, 1908, issue of Pall Mall Magazine (London), and the next year, in the American magazine Sunset (April, 1909).
“. . .to the
Evidence of Cullen's grim determination occurs on a July day when the Mary Rogers is making good westward progress and a seaman is washed overboard. A buoy is tossed over the rail but the captain refuses to hard down the helm and send a boat to rescue. The seaman is lost but a passenger named Dorety upbraids Cullen and threatens to swear out a warrant for the captain's arrest in San Francisco and charge Cullen with murder. The threat is a dire mistakes, directed to a man who makes promises to the Powers of Darkness: two weeks after the incident, Dorety is standing alone on the deck when Cullen comes along, disengages the pin holding a heavy block and sends the block hurtling down where it smashes the passenger's skull.
Cullen coolly enters in the ship's log the unfortunate accidents while the Mary Rogers makes westing at a good nine knots.
“a pig-glutton for food, a clever thief”A dogged dog and his frustrated owners inhabit the excellent Klondike tale "That Spot" (Sunset, February, 1908). The dog of the title, neither husky nor malemute nor Hudson's Bay, "looked like all of them and none of them — a yellow-brown-red-dirty-white in color with a spot of coal-black," for which the narrator and his partner paid $110. Spot could steal and forage but when it came to work he became "a mere clot of wobbling, stupid jelly that had to be dragged along by the others." Worse, he was a "pig-glutton for food, a clever thief, breaking into meat caches, raiding other camps . . ."
The owners sold him repeatedly, to the Mounted Police for $75, to a government dispatch courier, maybe 20 times they sold him, from $75 to $150, and he always came back and nobody asked for their money since they were all glad to get rid of him. They couldn't lose him: they marooned him at Caribou Crossing but he showed up in Dawson; he was put on steamers going down the Yukon and miraculously returned. At one point when they were starving and had to eat their dogs, Spot sneaked away and when the ice broke, they saw him in the middle of the jam without a chance of surviving. When they got Dawson, there sat Spot waiting for them, ears pricked up, tail wagging. The dog had a charmed life: they couldn't sell him, lose him or kill him.
In the summer of '99 , after two years of Spot, the narrator pulls out for San Francisco without notice to his partner except to advise that he use a rat poison on Spot. It doesn't work.
One morning after a year has passed and the narrator is prospering in San Francisco, he finds Spot chained to the gate-post of his home. Mrs. Narrator buys a collar and tag for Spot but within an hour of her good work Spot kills her Persian cat. Later he gets into a neighbor's hen-house and kills nineteen fancy-bred chickens.
Fred Churchill has been entrusted with Louis Bondell's stout leather gripsack containing forty pounds of something and is asked to "bring it out" (out of the Klondike, that is) when Churchill departs for the states. Churchill doesn't know what is inside the grip and being a man of uncommon rectitude doesn't look inside even when the bag nearly costs his life. This is the premise of "Trust" (The Century Magazine, January, 1908), an overlong (4,568 words) story of pleasant impossibility.
Churchill endures hellish bad luck and the fell clutch of circumstance when he leaves Dawson: his steamer's engines break down; he freezes his hands paddling a canoe to Thirty Mile River and must dive into the icy water to retrieve the grip when the canoe capsizes. He fights a gale on Lake Bennett before portaging (with the forty-pound sack among him belongings) to Lake Linderman; crosses the Chilkoot and takes a mule and stumbles down to the Scales; fights off two bushwhackers who try to steal the grip and is wounded in the thigh by a bullet for his effort. At last he reaches Skagway after 55 hours travail and six hours of sleep.
At Bondell's home in Seattle he delivers safe and sound the gripsack he has wrestled from Dawson to Dyea. Bondell opens the bag — which contains a heavy Colt .44 revolver, a Winchester rifle, and bullets for both guns — and complains that one of the guns has got wet and is rusting.
"The House of Pride" (The Pacific Monthly, December, 1910) has the distinction of being submitted to 21 commercial periodicals before finding a home — maybe a record for any London story. Labor/Leitz/Shepard, in The Complete Stories of Jack London, Stanford University Press, 1993, list Collier's, Everybody's, Cosmopolitan, Success, Woman's Home Companion, Century, Harper's, Associated Sunday Magazines, McClure's, Saturday Evening Post, Appleton's, Sunset, Youth's Companion, Lippincott's, Harper's Weekly, Harper's Monthly, American, Outing, Sunset, William Heinemann Publishers, and two submissions to Pacific Monthly before it bought the story for $267.
It is a stale tale of caricatures and a milieu — that of the wealthy blue blood — that fascinated London but of which he was utterly ignorant. In "The House of Pride" we come to know Percival Ford, age 35, a fastidious commercial baron of Hawaii, a puritan in things feminine, in sexual matters, in morals. He is the son of missionary Isaac Ford who thought of himself as a "spiritual aristocrat," served the monarch of Hawaii as a minister, then became a banker, built schools, hospitals and churches, invested in sugar, Oahu pasture land, and railroads.
“a friend of nobody but the righteous”For years Ford has been relentlessly hounding a man named Joe Garland, considering the man "dissolute and idle . . . a wastrel, a profligate," and having him fired from several jobs "for immoral living." At a dance Ford is obliged to attend, a Dr. Kennedy comes forward and challenges Ford on the Garland matter: "Who the devil gave it to you to be judge and jury?" Kennedy tells Ford that the half-Kanaka Garland has warm blood whereas Ford's is thin, that Garland laughs and sings, is genial, unselfish and child-like whereas Ford, who lives like an anchorite, "goes through life like a perambulating prayer-wheel, a friend of nobody but the righteous."
Most importantly, Kennedy informs Ford that Garland is Ford's half-brother, that father Isaac was also Joe Garland's father. Ford confirms this, learns it is a well-known fact and that he is one of the few ignorant of it. "He was appalled by what was in his blood. . . . Isaac Ford, the austere soldier of the Lord — the old hypocrite! . . . . The house of pride that Percival Ford had builded was tumbling about his ears."
So far, old hat, but the story worsens, devolves into an incredible triumph for Ford. As the dance breaks up he calls Garland over, acknowledges they are brothers (something Garland has long known but for unexplained reasons has never employed to ward off Ford's attacks) and asks Garland how much he wants to leave the islands forever. Garland agrees to go but refuses Ford's offer of money! At the end Ford claps for a houseboy and orders a lemonade, "And over the lemonade he smiled long and contentedly to himself."
From the slippery to the gripping, "The Seed of McCoy" (The Century Magazine, April, 1909) is a splendid, rousing South Seas tale about the Pyrenees, an iron sailing ship which comes to Pitcairn's Island flying a distress signal and with a cargo of wheat burning in her hold. The fire started two weeks ago, the smoke rising from the hold gives off an odor of burned bread, and the decks are warming as the ship's carpenter caulks and recaulks the deck seams.
McCoy, chief magistrate and governor of Pitcairn's and grandson of one of the Bounty mutineers, comes aboard from an outrigger and tells Captain Davenport there is no beach or anchorage on Pitcairn's and that he should have "slacked away for Mangareva," 300 miles distant. McCoy agrees to go along with her to Mangareva as pilot, hoping to strike the island at mid-morning next day. But the Pyrenees and its cargo of fire strikes a gale, misses Mangareva island and combs the sea for a place to anchor.
“I must see about getting back to Pitcairn.”McCoy fights back a potential mutiny on the stricken ship and tells what happened to the Bounty crewman on Pitcairn's in 1787, killing each other and their native wives so that at the end of two years all had been murdered save four men. These four eventually died, he says, including his grandfather who committed suicide by tying a rock to his neck and jumping into the sea.
Bucking a seven-knot current, the Pyrenees a mass of flame and smoke, McCoy, his whiskers singeing from the flames, at last finds an anchorage, pilots the vessel into a lagoon and onto a bed of white sand as the sails and masts burn and the men scramble for the boats.
As the Pyrenees grounds, McCoy, the seed of old McCoy the mutineer, says, "I must see about getting back to Pitcairn."
With its breath-taking description of hurricane winds, "The House of Mapuhi" (McClure's, January, 1909) is among the best of London's South Sea Tales (1911).
Alexandre Raoul, a wealthy trader, arrives on Hikueru atoll in the Paumotus islands and learns that a native named Mapuhi has found a pearl such as has never been fished up in all the islands. The pearl is flawless, pigeon-egg size, transluscent and softly luminous. Raoul learns what Maphui wants for it: a house with a galvanized iron roof and a porch all around; a big room with a round table in the middle; four bedrooms, each with an iron bed, two chairs and a washstand; a good kitchen with pots and pans and stove; and, as his mother Nauri insists, an octagon-drop-clock. The house is to be built on Fakarava, Mapuhi's home island.
Now another vessel arrives, owned by Toriki, a half-caste trader who Mapuhi owes for trade-goods advanced the year before. Toriki takes the pearl in payment for the debt after which transaction Levy, "the greatest pearl-buyer of them all," arrives on Hikueru and buys the pearl from Toriki for 25,000 francs. By the time Raoul returns to accept Mapuhi's original price, the pearl is in Levy's possession and a huge storm is coming, the barometer falling, the 1,200 inhabitants of Hikueru in peril.
London, in some of his most powerful prose, describes the sultry, dead calm before the wind, the seas rising, people panting for breath, sea spray pinging like rifle shots against houses, people blown off their feet, lashing themselves to trees, the sky turning from leaden to black, the sound of hymns being sung, buildings and homes blowing away, trees splintering, and people, half-drowned, exhausted, "hurled into this mad mortar of the elements and battered into formless flesh."
“. . .The
Mapuhi and his wife survive amid the broken bodies littering the island but his mother Nauri is missing, swept away, forming a life-buoy out of floating cocoanuts and drifting to a tiny island fifteen miles from Hikueru where she is tormented by the corpses washing ashore. One of these is Levy and she finds Mapuhi's pearl in his money-belt. (This deus ex machina solution to the problem of the pearl's whereabouts is among the boldest examples of coincidence, and there are many from which to choose, in London's fiction.)
Nauri manages to float back to Hikueru where she informs Mapuhi that in the morning he will sell it to Raoul for 5,000 French dollars and Raoul will build the house, in the middle room of which will be an octagon-drop-clock.
In "The Chinago" (Illustrated London News, June 26, 1909; Harper's Monthly, July, 1909), all 500 coolies (called "Chinagos" by the natives) on a Tahiti cotton plantation know who killed Chung Ga. The killer is Ah San, who has not been arrested. A witness to the murder, Ah Cho, has been arrested together with four or five others who did not kill Chung Ga.
Ah Cho, age 22, happy and good-natured, does not understand French but sits in a French courtroom as officials drone on — in French. He signed a five-year contract with an English company indenturing himself for labor in the South Seas at fifty cents a day. This is good money since there were men in his seacoast village who toiled a whole year for $10. At the end of five years he could return home and never have to work again; could have a house of his own, a small garden, "a place of meditation and repose . . ." and he has already worked three of the five years.
But he has now been in prison three weeks and the judgement is made: All the suspects are found guilty of the murder of Chung Ga and one of them, Ah Chow, is sentenced to the guillotine. Ah Cho must serve 20 years in prison in New Caledonia. He takes the sentence philosophically: "He was young, and the patience of Asia was in his bones. He could wait those twenty years . . ." He thought of his garden.
However, Cruchot, a dull and stupid head gendarme, has a hangover from a party the night before and in writing the execution order has put Ah Cho instead of Ah Chow on the paper and takes A Cho on a mule-drawn wagon to place of execution. En route Ah Cho learns of the mistake and tries to explain the error to Cruchot, but in vain. To Cruchot he was only a Chinago and he did not want to get a reprimand for his error.
Ah Cho is strapped tightly to a board face up and placed under the knife which Cruchot has told him may just "tickle." Ah Cho sees the knife above blazing in the sunlight, hears the sergeant's voice in sharp command, Ah Cho closes his eyes hastily. He did not want to see the knife descend. But he felt it. The knife did not tickle. "That much he knew before he ceased to know."
Jack and Charmian London arrived at Papeete, Tahiti, on the liner Mariposa on February 14, 1908, Jack with facial neuralgia and toothache and grippe. He finished Martin Eden on the 24th, started "The Seed of McCoy" on the 25th, mailed "The House of Mapuhi" to his agent on March 9, and underwent a series of dental appointments between March 11-19. (See Russ Kingman's slightly overtitled Jack London: A Definitive Chronology (Middleton, CA: David Rejl, 1992). Somewhere in this vicinity, perhaps in lulls between the agonizing toothaches, he wrote "Lost Face" (New York Herald, December 13, 1908), a grim, artistic, historic story set in Russian America (Alaska).
“. . .as he became 'a puppet in the hands of Fate.' ”The tale is of Subienkow, a Polish sea-rover who as a youth in a wealthy family studied under a French tutor who taught him dancing and smuggled to him a copy of Voltaire. He saw Paris, London, Vienna and Rome and "dreamed the fiery dream of Poland's independence," as he became "a puppet in the hands of Fate." He wandered from Warsaw to Nulato with Siberian mines between, spent time with fur-thieves across the Bering Sea to Alaska and in mad orgies at Kamchatka, spent time with Slavonian hunters, with Russian adventurers, in a winter of solitude and starvation on an Aleutian island, with Mongols, Tartars, and Siberian aborigines cutting paths of blood through villages that failed to pay their fur-tribute.
Now, Subienkow sits in the snow, arms tied behind him, awaiting torture while a huge Cossack called Big Ivan, a freebooter of the seas, phlegmatic as an ox, is being tortured and mutilated by Nulato Indians, the squaws in particular doing monstrous things, laughing and clapping as Ivan screams. Subienkow is not afraid to die. "He had carried his life too long in his hands, to shudder at mere dying." But he objected to the torture, "to have his soul upset by the pangs of the flesh, to screech and gibber like an ape, to become the veriest beast — ah, that was what was so terrible."
He tells Makamuk, chief of the Nulato, that he is willing to exchange for his life a great medicine which when rubbed on the skin which makes the skin hard as a rock, turning any blade. Mamamuk, a primitive of boundless benightedness, goes along and under guard, Subienkow goes into the forest to gather the ingredients for his great medicine" — spruce needles, inner bark of a willow, strip of birch bark, moss-berries, frozen roots, whatever was at hand.
He boils the ingredients and rubs the potion on his neck and rests his head on a log and instructs Makamuk to "strike hard" with the axe, The chief strikes hard, Subienkow's head bounces away a foot from the blood-spouting trunk.
Makamuk bows his head in shame. "The fur-thief had fooled him. He had lost face before all his people."
"The Sheriff of Kona" (American Magazine, August, 1909), among London's several works, both fiction and nonfiction, with a leprosy (Hansen's disease) text or subtext, is a story told by John Cudworth, an 18-year resident of Kona (on the western coast of the Big Island of Hawaii).
“. . .The
They had hunted sharks on Niihau and wild cattle on Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, broke horses, branded steers, hunted goats, dived (Lyte could dive to 15 fathoms and stay under two minutes), and surfed. "He had never been sick a day in his life. He did not know what a headache was."
Even so, Cudworth says, "The mark of the beast was laid upon him," malignant and incontestable, "the mark of the thing on his brow . . . . the slight puff of the earlobes . . . the darkening of the skin above both eyebrows . . ." Leprosy.
When told of it by an islander who knew the disease, Gregory thought it was a cruel joke but the islander said, "Anybody can see it. You're developing the lion face. See where the skin is darkened there over your eyes." The disease was confirmed by Doc Stowbridge after which the sheriff turned himself over to the Receiving Station at Honolulu and went down to Molokai, grieving over his wife and children who were being taken care of by his friends.
After nine month passed Cudworth chartered a schooner and with some others ran down to Molokai and freed Gregory.
At the end Cudworth tells the nameless narrator that since he is going to Shanghai he should look up Lyte Gregory. "He is employed in a German firm there. Take him out to dinner. Open up wine. Give him everything of the best, but don't let him pay for anything. Send the bill to me. His wife and kids are in Honolulu, and he needs the money for them. I know. He sends most of his salary, and lives like an anchorite. And tell him about Kona. There's where his heart is. Tell him all you can about Kona."
The ending is lovely but makes no sense and it is inexplicable that the American Magazine editor published the story without quizzing London and asking for clarification: how could Gregory be working in Shanghai if he is a leper? Has the disease regressed or was it misdiagnosed? If so, why is he separated from wife and children? Why is he is working in China? Why does he live "like an anchorite"?
While the horrors of leprosy are suggested in "The Sheriff of Kona," they are graphic in "Koolau the Leper" (Pacific Monthly, December, 1909), so graphic they are reminiscent of the disturbing horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft.
Koolau is an outlaw and a one-time cowboy on Nihau (off the west coast of Kauai, smallest of Hawaii's inhabited islands), who speaks of Molokai as a prison, the result of the will of ruling white men. He wears a crown of hibiscus and rules "a flower-throttled gorge, with beetling cliffs and crags," in the Kalalau Valley on the island of Kaui. Those listening to him are also outlaws and are described as "battle-wrecks," their faces leonine. "Here a space yawned in a face where should have been a nose, and there an arm-stump showed where a hand had rotted off. They were men and women beyond the pale . . . . hideously maimed and distorted . . . creatures that had been racked in millenniums of hell . . . . hands like harpy-claws, faces misfits and slips . . . ape-like travesties . . . . livid putrefactions, great ulcers, disease-corroded faces."
Police and the army try to dislodge Koolau and his followers; five policemen are killed and Koolau feels pride that the authorities were offering a thousand dollars reward for his capture, more money than he ever had possessed: "It was his worthless carcass, rotten with disease, or dead from a bursting shell, that was worth all that money.'
Koolau holds his lair against the army troops, but his people are starving and betray him, preferring Molokai to the cannon shells. Koolau, wounded, tells a young soldier, "I am a free man. I have done no wrong. All I ask is to be left alone. I have lived free, and I shall die free. I will never give myself up."
For six weeks the soldiery hunt him through lantana jungle and guava scrub but at the end of six weeks give up and leave the Kalalau Valley to Koolau.
Then, in one of London's most affecting scenes we see Koolau, two years later, as he crawls into a thicket, lays down and holds his Mauser rifle on his chest. "He lifted his monstrous hands and gazed at them in wonder? . . . . His eyelids fluttered wearily down and the drip of the rain ceased in his ears. A prolonged trembling set up in his body. This, too, ceased. He half-lifted his head, but it fell back. Then his eyes opened, and did not close. His last thought was of his Mauser, and he pressed it against his chest with his folded, fingerless hands."
A far cry from Koolau's story is that of "Chun Ah Chun" (Woman's Magazine, March, 1910), whose enormous hard-won wealth gives him little satisfaction as he grows old, but enables him to find the perfect solution to the problem of heirs versus fortune.
He is a moral paragon and an utterly honest businessman who sees no future for himself as "an alien in his family . . . . no place for him amongst the marvelous seed of his loins, and he looked forward to his declining years and knew that he would grow more and more alien."
He loves the sights and smells of the Chinese quarter, carrying him back to the tortuous alleys of Canton; he regrets cutting off his queue to please Stella Allendale, is not interested in the chatter of the lavish dinners, looks forward to a placid old age — but his wealth stands in the way. Since his unmarried daughters attract men who all seem to worship money he lets the word out that he will give a dowry of $300,000 for Maud and Clara and Lucille and all the others. This announcement is followed by a continuous round of marriages wherein "the air was thick with schemes and counter schemes to gain his favor and to prejudice him against one or another . . ."
Chun Ah Chun begins to liquidate, sending drafts to Shanghai and Macao, letting his son Albert take over the business in Honolulu, sending another son to England with a quarter-million, and giving the third $100,000. He gives Mama Chun the bungalow, the mountain house and seaside residence. Then, one morning over breakfast with all his family and sons-in-laws present, he announces that he is returning to his ancestral soil of China. He then calls for a carriage and is driven down to the Pacific Mail steamer, leaving the family in chaos over his decision. They question his sanity, seek legal means against him. "Lawyers waxed fat in the striving to ascertain the construction of trust deeds. Suits, cross-suits, and counter-suits cluttered the Hawaiian courts." All efforts against him fail.
Meantime, he journeys by steamer to Macao and once there is refused a room in the biggest European hotel, calls for the manager, is "treated with contumely," drives away, returns in two hours as owner of the hotel, fires the manager and clerk, and settles down in the finest suite.
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