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Part IV of a Series
by Dale L. Walker
IT IS EASY to criticize London's youthful fiction, especially those early stories with their impossible drawing room dialogue and pasteboard characters. But more important than calling attention to the trivialities of which all beginning writers are guilty, is to ask the origin of these settings and characters -- where, in brief, London got his ideas of what might be sellable in fiction in the 1890s.
“What he emulated was awful stuff
part. . .”
We know he was an omniverous reader and since he knew and loved libraries, he read the popular books and periodicals of the day and, like every budding writer, emulated for a brief time what he saw and read. What he emulated was awful stuff for the most part, at least as viewed from this century distant, and London's early work was at least no worse than the patterns for it.
What sets Jack London apart can be seen in considering what popular fiction people were reading in 1899-1900 when he made his real professional debut with his Overland Monthly stories.
For an entertaining education on America at the twilight of the Gay Nineties and the dawn of the 20th century, I always turn to that far-too-unsung six-volume historical masterwork by Mark Sullivan, Our Times (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons), specifically Volume I, The Turn of the Century (1937). At the end of this massive volume, Sullivan surveys the popular writers, most of them Americans, of 1899-1903: Edward Noyes Westcott, Irving Bacheller, Winston Churchill, Paul Leicester Ford, Maurice Thompson, Mary Johnston, Edward Caskoden, Henry Harland, F. Marion Crawford, Booth Tarkington, Mrs. Humphrey Ward, Robert Grant, Marie Corelli, Hall Caine, George Barr McCutcheon, George W. Cable, Frank Norris, Gertrude Potter, Hamlin Garland, Owen Wister, Stewart Edward White, John Fox, Jr., and Jack London.
What we see in this astonishing list is the Sahara-like state of American letters when London was making his debut. Elderly readers might recognize Booth Tarkington as author of Monsieur Beaucaire, John Fox, Jr, for his Trail of the Lonesome Pine, Owen Wister for The Virginian, and Frank Norris for The Octopus, but it is safe to say that except for a handful of professorial literary specialists, nobody reads any of them today.
Except Jack London.
He burst upon popular American literature with perfect timing, elbowing his way into and through a crowd of transitory "vogue" writers with his gritty, startling tales of gold-hunters in the Yukon, light years ahead of his competitors and their stories of rural "B'gosh" type heroes with their homey philosophies, incredibly valorous knights of the round table, and fragile females and their minor distresses.
London had experimented with all these threadbare plots, characters, and backdrops in his apprenticeship fiction (and rose above them on occasion, as with such work as "A Night's Swim in Yeddo Bay," "O Haru," and "The Plague Ship"). But his experiences in the Klondike ended all the experiments and the stories he wrote when he returned put the gold in his pocket that he had failed to find in the Northland, and put gold in the literary marketplace that for many years had known only dross.
In entering London's Overland Monthly "period" (for these purposes, the year 1899) I have departed from the general rule of dealing with the stories in the order they were written to the order they were published. While the order written is useful in seeing London's upward development as a commercial writer, the eight Overland stories that made him famous and led to his first book were all written in a relatively short burst of creativity in 1898-1899 and are perhaps better viewed in the order the reading public saw them.
Jack London's true genius as a writer of short fiction came to light with his 18th published story. It appeared in January, 1899, in San Francisco's The Overland Monthly. The magazine, founded in 1868 and edited by Bret Harte through 1871, had fallen on lean times but still held on to a certain prestige and was respected on the eastern seaboard as well as among Pacific coast literati.
The Overland, having in fact infinitely more prestige than cash, promised the 23-year-old author $5 for his story but delayed payment so insistently that London had to storm the office and almost literally shake the pittance from the trousers of the magazine's editor. Almost as pitiful, the editors changed the title from London's "To the Man on Trail" to "To the Man on the Trail: A Klondike Christmas." (London wrote his friend Cloudesley Johns on February 27, 1899: "The compositors made some bad mistakes, the worst being the willful change in the title, and a most jarring one. It was plainly typewritten 'To the Man on Trail'; and this they printed as 'To the Man on the Trail.' What trail? The thing was abstract.")
But for all its fumbling and niggardliness, the Overland honored itself by publishing the story, begged for more, and eventually published nine of the young author's Yukon classics.
"To the Man on Trail" introduces some characters that would soon be familiar names to London's readers: Malemute Kid ("a born raconteur"); Big Jim Belden, up from his claim on the Mazy May; the Englishman Stanley Prince; the tall French-Canadian Louis Savoy; Father Robeau, and Bettles ("the Unquenchable"). These veterans of the gold trails are celebrating Christmas when "a veritable Frost King" comes into their cabin after traveling 75 miles from Dawson in 12 hours. He is Jack Westondale, a sourdough who has twice made a fortune in gold and twice lost it.
After the Kid gives Westondale food for his dogs and helps get the animals in harness, the man hits the trail in -74 degree weather just before a Northwest Mounted Policeman arrives asking for information on the man. Westondale, he says, held up a saloon in Dawson and stole $40,000. Malemute Kid does not talk about Westondale and after the mountie departs tells the others why he remained silent: While he stayed behind at Circle City taking care of a partner with scurvy, Westondale gave $40,000 of hard-won gold to a partner named Castrell to buy claims on the Dominion. The partner lost it all gambling at McFarland's Saloon and Westondale, who was investing the dust and laying plans to go "Outside" (i.e., the States) to see his wife and son, took exactly what Castrell dropped at the tables.
Such is the code the Klondike miners live by, summed up in the toast: "So a health to the man on trail; may his grub hold out; may his dogs keep their legs; may his matches never miss fire. God prosper him; good luck go with him; and -- confusion to the Mounted Police!"
After failing to sell "The White Silence" (originally titled "Northland Episode") to Godey's and Lippincott's magazines, the Overland published it in February, 1899. London was paid another princely $5 for a story biographer Irving Stone (in Sailor on Horseback, 1938) quite correctly called "one of our imperishable classics of the Northlands."
The story involves Malemute Kid, a Klondiker named Mason and his Indian wife Ruth, who are 200 miles from the nearest settlement and have six days' grub for themselves and none for their dogs. A great tree falls on Mason, crushing him -- breaking his back, arm, leg, and paralyzing him from the hips. It is -65 and Mason is in delerium, raving about his childhood coon-hunts, watermelon raids, and swimming holes, in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. In lucid moments he asks the Kid to sell his furs, worth $5,000, and to take care of Ruth and their unborn child, not to send her back to her people but to see that she gets Outside. He begs the Kid to shoot him and push on, but the Kid wants to wait, hoping his friend might recover. They wait but find no game and the starving dogs fight and devour what is left of the dried salmon, scatter the flour, kill and eat one of their own.
“The story contains one of the most memorable of passages...”
The Kid makes a cache of bent pines, wraps and lashes the comatose Mason to it. Cutting the lashings will lift Mason above the ground and prevent his body being eaten by wolves. Ruth bids farewell to her husband and is placed on a sled and mushed downtrail to wait. The Kid returns to the camp. Hours pass but Mason clings to life. At last, aware that they will all die unless he acts ("the bright White Silence, clear and cold, under steely skies, is pitiless"), the Kid drags himself to Mason's bier: "He cast one glance about him. The White Silence seemed to sneer, and a great fear came upon him. There was a sharp report; Mason swung into his aerial sepulcher, and Malemute Kid lashed the dogs into a wild gallop as he fled across the snow."
Thus "the hoary game of natural selection was played out with all the ruthlessness of its primeval environment."
The story contains one of the most memorable of passages of all of London's short fiction:
In April, 1899, the Overland Monthly, seeing the newsstand value of their new star author, increased his pay to a magnanimous $7.50 for the 6,500 word "The Son of the Wolf" in which sourdough Scruff Mackenzie quests for a wife. The story takes place in the days before the Klondike stampede of gold-maddened cheechakos from the States. Scruff has spent the summer fighting mosquitos, washing gold from the bars of the Stuart River, and floating a raft of house-logs down the Yukon to Forty Mile. His search for a wife takes him along the Tanana River to a hunting camp of the Indians called Sticks where white men are called "Sons of the Wolf." Stick Chief Thling-Tinneh invites Mackenzie to a potlatch where he catches sight of the chief's daughter Zarinska (sister, by the way, of Ruth, Mason's wife in "The White Silence").
Mackenzie has to fight two other suitors for Zarinska; they are killed, and the tribal shaman as well, before Scruff and his new wife depart as "The great streamer of fire, the aurora borealis, purple, green, and yellow, shot across the zenith, bridging horizon to horizon."
Except for the refrain -- "The White Silence, for the moment driven to the rimming forest, seemed ever crushing inward; the stars danced with great leaps, as is their wont in he time of the Great Cold; while the Spirits of the Pole trailed their robes of glory athwart the heaveens" -- the story lacks the poetry and thematic strength of "To the Man on Trail" and "The White Silence.""
An even slighter tale is "The Men of Forty-Mile" (Overland Monthly, May 1899), in which Bettles makes the mistake of insulting Lon McFane's Siwash wife after which they decide to duel with their big-bore hunting rifles.
Malemute Kid arrives on the scene and, since there is no law in the Yukon as yet (the Mounted Police are a force of the future) decides to settle the matter. He asks the Forty-Mile storekeeper to measure out "three fathoms of your best half-inch manila," and says he will establish a precedent. At the water-hole duelling place, Bettles and McFane, determined to proceed, step off 50 paces. Then the Kid announces that this, "the only duel in the history of Forty-Mile," will set an example for every tenderfoot who comes up or down the Yukon: "The man who escapes killing shall be hanged to the nearest tree," he says. "Now, go ahead!" and steps back "as Pilate might have done after washing his hands."
The duellists decide against trying the Kid's resolve, but onlooker Scruff Mackenzie asks, "But would you, supposing they had fought?"
"Have I ever broken my word?" the Kid says.
(This story, originally titled "A Northland Duel," then "Forty-Mile Duel," was submitted to eight other periodicals -- the San Francisco Examiner, New York World, San Francisco Chronicle, Truth, Saturday Evening Post, Tillotson & Sons, Chicago Inter-Ocean, and the New York Post -- before ending up in the Overland.)
"In a Far Country," a 6,800-word story (and another $7.50 paycheck to London), appeared in the June, 1899, issue of the Overland, and has been anthologized regularly for over a century. In it, London took a deep pleasure in pitting two "civilized" men -- actually caricatures of such men -- against one another as they are pitted against the harsh realities of pitiless nature. He would mine this idea over and again.
(The story has a unique historical feature in that it portrays one of the fortunately lesser-known routes to the Klondike: the deadly Edmonton trail, the so-called "all-Canada route." It began in the outfitting town of Edmonton and wound north and west to the Mackenzie River delta, thence via the Rat and Porcupine rivers to a point 300 miles above Dawson. In all, the journey covered nearly 2,400 miles of frozen wilderness and eight months was not an unusual time to negotiate the route. This "trail" actually did drive men insane and virtually all those who survived it arrived in the gold country too late to stake a claim.)
In "In a Far Country," arctic gold has lured Carter Weatherbee to give up his snug clerkship to go north. "There was no romance in his nature,--the bondage of commerce had crushed all that; he was simply tired of the ceaseless grind, and wished to risk great hazards in view of corresponding returns." In the company of men Weatherbee joins is Percy Cuthfert, "an ordinary man, with a bank account as deep as his culture, which is saying a good deal....he suffered from an abnormal development of sentimentality. He mistook this for the true spirit of romance and adventure."
By the time these doomed creatures have passed Lake Athabaska with the party of voyageurs they had "hoisted their true colors" as shirks and chronic grumblers, "effete scions of civilization" who were first to turn in at night, last to get up in the morning, first to fall in at meals, last to cook, always lazing at the oars.
The party abandons its boats at the headwaters of the Little Peel and consumes the summer portaging over the Mackenzie to the Rat River, which fed the Porcupine, which joined the Yukon. They are 1,000 miles from Dawson and have lost the race with winter.
While the others vote to go on overland with their dogs, the two "Incapables" decide to stay behind in a cabin on the Porcupine. One in the party calls them the "Kilkenny cats" --which, the tale tells, fought till neither hide, nor hair, nor yowl, was left.
The fates of the two men are foreordained because they do not understand and therefore cannot abide by the immutable Law of the Northland or any other Far Country:
They are left behind with plenty of food, water, even sugar, which they mix with water and use on their flapjacks. But "Save existence, they had nothing in common," one a clerk, the other a "master of arts." They soon grow to hate each other. Weatherbee, the clerk, is revealed to Cuthfert to be "a filthy, uncultured brute, whose place was in the muck with the swine." Cuthfert, the "master of arts," is revealed to Weatherbee to be "a milk-and-water sissy and a cad." They are both lazy, sink into lethargy, quit all personal hygiene, let their cabin go to filth and their garments to rags, gorge themselves, become scurvy-ridden, their bodies covered with rashes and frostbite and its mortification of the flesh. "To all this was added a new trouble--the Fear of the North," London wrote. "This Fear was the joint child of the Great Cold and the Great Silence."
At the end they have become atavistic beasts and kill each other.
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Copyright © 2002 by Dale L. Walker
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