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Part V of a Series
by Dale L. Walker
“Thus did his manhood remain virgin...”
"The Priestly Prerogative" (Overland Monthly, July 1899), seventh of London's nine Overland stories, was originally titled "Father Robeau's Confession" and fetched the writer, now standing on the brink of national success, another $7.50 check. It is centered on a theme London used several times, summed up in the opening lines: "This is the story of a man who did not appreciate his wife; also, of a woman who did him too great an honor when she gave herself to him."
Edwin Bentham and his wife Grace are waifs trailing behind the Klondike rush of '97 and finding the Yukon River closed and no way to proceed to Dawson. With three others they spend the winter selling bones and frozen hides to dogteams, then, six months later, when the sun came back, they travel on. Edwin is indolent and Grace breaks trail: "Thus did his manhood remain virgin to the travelers who passed like ghosts on the silent trail," London writes. "Thrust by mischance into a man's body," Edwin is weak and selfish, "glossed over with a skin-deep veneer of culture and conventionality." He is that familar bugaboo of Jack's, a clubman and a society man, "the sort that grace social functions and utter inanities with a charm and unction which are indescribable; the sort that talk big, and cry over a toothache; the sort that put more hell into a woman's life by marrying her than can the most graceless libertine that ever browsed in forbidden pastures."
He is, one might say, a blood brother to Percy Cuthfert of "In a Far Country" and numerous characters in the earlier "rubbish" stories.
Grace, by contrast is London's ideal: a "brick," a slender, girlish creature: "to know her was to know a soul which dwarfed one's own, yet retained all the elements of the eternal feminine." She would appear again, as Frona Welse in A Daughter of the Snows, Ruth Morse in Martin Eden, Maud Brewster in The Sea-Wolf, Dede Mason in Burning Daylight, and again and again, under various names, in the author's novels and stories.
The two move on to old Fort Selkirk, then to the Stuart River. There, as "the man lay down in the snow and blubbered, it was the woman who lashed him to the sled, bit her lips with the pain of her aching limbs, and helped the dogs haul him to Malemute Kid's cabin." In Dawson, Grace "applied herself to the task of pushing her big baby to the fore," and for her efforts on behalf of this revolting, inert mass of a husband, Edwin gets credit for the things Grace does to keep them alive. "Of course, they said the wife was a brick, and only a few wise ones appreciated and pitied her." It is Grace, of course, who stakes the claim on French Hill, files it, and washes out $1,000 a day in raw gold.
Enter Clyde Wharton, whose claim is near that of the Benthams. Clyde and Edith meet frequently on the trail and talk, and after Edwin gets brutal with her she begins visiting Clyde's cabin. This scandalous situation brings about the intervention of Father Robeau who employs his priestly prerogative and reminds her of her marriage vows and of the things that cannot be. She decides she must go back to Edwin but she and Clyde profess their love and when Edwin goes on his way, presumably Grace and Clyde go on theirs.
The story exemplifies London's career-long tendency to drift into melodrama, in which characters become caricatures, but there is something quite touching in this and the other similarly-themed London stories in which he explores, always without success, "the eternal mystery of woman."
In "The Wife of a King" (Overland Monthly, August 1899), the mission girl Madeline also proves to be worthier than the man she loves, Cal Galbraith. He is no Edwin Bentham, however; he is a Klondiker who fell ill on the Lower Yukon and found shelter with the Sisters of the Holy Cross and there met Madeline, an orphan whose white father had been killed by a grizzly and whose Indian mother had died of starvation.
Cal falls for her and after a grand wedding and potlach, the two endure many hardships before he strikes it rich and builds a cabin for them in Circle City. By then, more white women have arrived in the Northland, frowning upon the Indian wives they see, and Cal becomes discontented, feeling "vague yearnings for his own kind, for the life he had been shut out from,--a general sort of desire, which men sometimes feel, to break out and taste the prime of living."
With the advent of his "own kind," in the Northland, his love for Madeline cools and with wild rumors of an Eldorado in the making in the Klondike, Cal puts his friend Tom Dixon in charge of his claims, kisses Madeline and baby Cal good-bye and takes passage upriver on a steamer.
She waits for him. The summer fades. She prays, hears tales of Cal's doings, that he struck a rich claim, something about a Greek dancer, and one day harnesses the dogs and with baby Cal lashed in the sled mushes off to Malemute Kid's cabin. He is a friend from mission days and feeds her team, puts the baby to bed, and lets her open her heart to him.
“...a story that must have thrilled female readers . . .”
In Cal's long absence, Madeline meets the young mining expert Stanley Prince, Lucky Jack Harrington, the violin player, Bettles, and other great men of the Yukon country. She waltzes with Prince, she is taught to clothe herself by the wife of Clove Eppingwell: she is the wife of an Eldorado King, "yet in all her life her feet had known no gear save red-tanned moosehide," and she learns impeccable English.
Madeline is transformed.
Then one night Cal Galbraith drops in and watches Madeline and Prince dancing. Later he speaks to her in polyglot Chinook and insists she come home with him.
"I beg pardon," she replies, "I have agreed to go to supper with Mr. Harrington. Besides, there's no end of dances promised."
Cal, reduced now to Eldorado King on his knees before Eldorado Queen, begs for a dance. At this ,"The wife of the king glanced at her card and inclined her head."
There is a world of underdog triumph in that inclination and a story that must have thrilled female readers, especially, and most of the male ones, at least those with a sense of humor.
London's final story for the Overland was "The Wisdom of the Trail" (Overland Monthly, December, 1899), a 3,000-word tale that reads like an unfinished draft rather than a polished final work. The plot is murky, there are too many off-stage characters and except for Sitka Charley, the characters on-stage are scarcely defined. This is particularly true of a white man called "Joe," central to the story yet inexplicably featureless and characterless.
What we can gather is that Sitka Charley has lived long among white men and has assimilated white rules of civilized conduct. He "alone knew the white man's wisdom, the honor of the trail, and the law." Now he is on trail somewhere in the head-reaches of the Stuart River with two Indians, Kah-Chucte and Gowhee, and the Eppingwells, husband and wife (who are mentioned in "The Wife of a King"). Clove Eppingwell vanishes from the story after a single mention but Charley admires Mrs. Eppingwell, a cheery lady of great fortitude and courage.
Their journey -- going where and for what purpose we are not told -- takes them through "the dismal vastness of the Northland" and all in the party are starving, frost-bitten, and close to perishing. Another white man in the party, named Joe, is deserted by two other Indians, Moose-Head and Three Salmon, who leave Joe lying in the snow. Now Charley orders Kah-Chucte and Gowhee to assist Joe. Charley gives the two Indians "the law" -- the law being, apparently, that the Indians will not desert Joe, will make sure he does not lay down on the trail to die, and that they will share the cups of flour allotted to them. But Joe, "soothed and content under the anodyne of delirium," is dragged roughly downtrail by Kah-Chucte and Gowhee. They beat him. He falls farther behind. They fix flour and water and drink it, offering none to Joe.
Charley tells them, "Think not to cheat the law," asks what they want done with their possessions, then raises his rifle and executes them. His gunfire, ironically, is answered by other rifle shots and Charley "gave a fleeting glance at the men who lay so quietly, smiled viciously at the wisdom of the trail, and hurried on to meet the Men of the Yukon."
I have been haunted by "An Odyssey of the North" (The Atlantic Monthly, January, 1900) for 50 years, regard it as the second of London's two Northland masterpieces (The Call of the Wild being the first) and among the best long short stories of our literature. I am also continually appalled to know that an editor at the Atlantic had the audacity to ask London to cut 3,000 words from the opening section of this story. (The original manuscript ran 12,500 words and, as London wrote to Cloudesley Johns on Augut 10, 1899, ". . .I only succeeded in getting it down to an even ten thousand.")
I have been a fiction editor for a major New York book publisher for over ten years, editing novels and short fiction anthologies. A rare thrill for a fiction editor is to come across a new writer whose work is so luminous and compelling that it leaps into the brain and begs encouragement. In 1899 Jack London was such a writer. He had served his apprenticeship, learned his craft in his 20 published stories, and, at age 23, stood on the brink of prose mastery, a Kipling of the Northlands but an American original. Any good editor receiving "An Odyssey of the North" would have rejoiced, danced around the office, kissed his secretary, cornered the publisher to tell of his once-in-an-editor's-lifetime discovery, then wired Jack London saying: "We are thrilled with 'Odyssey' and want to publish it. It is 12,500 words, long for us, but no revision is required; indeed none is needed. We are associated with Houghton Mifflin, the great book publisher. Come to Boston as our guest. Much to talk about."
Instead, some Atlantic functionary, accustomed to making things fit magazine space, counted words instead of reading them and asked for a 3,000-word cut.
I'd give anything to know what happened to the 2,500 words London excised from the story. My bet is that they should never have been cut.
In any event, Jack was paid $120 -- a top-of-the-market sum for any freelance in that era -- and the Atlantic bought a classic work of fiction.
"Odyssey" is an intricate story-within-a-story, told in the "omniscient" viewpoint (in which the writer can be everywhere at once, including inside the minds of his characters), and framed by scenes at the opening and end involving some of London's familiar Yukon characters.
Malemute Kid, Bettles, and Meyers, on the trail 75 miles out of Dawson, come upon their home cabin and find it occupied by Stanley Prince of the Mounted Police and a dozen or so nondescript voyageurs, mail deliverers in the Queen's service, under his command. The Kid has heard that one of Prince's men, a "glum-looking fellow" in the group, had journeyed down from the Bering Sea in the dead of winter eight years past and had traded otter skins for dogs at Pastilik. The Kid calls him "Mr. Ulysses" and "the Strange One."
He of the otter skins seeks out the Kid for a grubstake and the Kid weights out 60 ounces of dust for him. The Indian buys out of the Queen's service and heads to Dawson, promising that he'll pay back within a year and put the Kid onto something rich "beyond the dreams of avarice."
In his cabin below the Stuart a year later, the Kid, Otter Skins, and Axel Gunderson and his wife have gathered. Gunderson is a yellow haired giant, a 300-pound seven-footer, rough-hewn with a rugged brow, massive jaw, and pale blue eyes. His Indian wife "rested against his great breast like a slender flower against a wall." Her name and fame had traveled with her husband through the Northland. Otter Skins is leading The Gundersons to a gold-rich valley somewhere in the distant wilderness. Malemute Kid, apparently, wants no part of the expedition and will be content if the grubstake loan he has made to "the Strange One" is repaid.
Many weeks later, as the Kid and Stanley Prince are playing chess in the cabin, an apparition, frozen, starving, emaciated, frostbitten, his skin garments in tatters, staggers in cackling and singing a sea chanty -- "such as men lift when they swing around the capstan circle and the sea snorts in their ears." He raves something about Unga laughing at him with hate in her eye.
He is Otter Skins, the Kid's "Strange One," actually Naas, a chief and son of a chief of people at Akatan in the Aleutians, "beyond Chignik, beyond Kardalak, beyond Unimak. . . .in the midst of the sea on the edge of the world."
Naas tells his story.
He, head man of Akatan, loved the girl Unga and courted her, along with Yash-Noosh, another strong hunter. Then, a ship arrived at Akatan commanded by a mighty man with a voice of thunder and pale blue eyes and yellow hair. He was "a man such as the gods have forgotten how to fashion...in the making of Axel Gunderson the gods had remembered their old-time cunning, and cast him after the manner of men who were born when the world was young." A vague tradition of the sea seemed to cling about him, "a Norse sea rover, on southern foray." He looked at Unga and at Naas, then a mere stripling drunk on the white man's black bottles. Gunderson gave Naas guns, powder and shot, axes and knives and tools, then took Unga with him to his ship -- "took her in his great arms, and when she tore at his yellow hair, [he] laughed with a sound like that of a big bull seal in the rut."
Soon thereafter, Naas began his odyssey in search of Unga, traveling east and asking about the strange ship and the men of the sea. He journeyed to Unalaska, Kadiak, Atognak, to sealing grounds where he shipped on a fur-trade schooner into the Pribyloff Islands and the Russian Seas, to Yeddo Bay and Copper Island in Japan. A Russian man-of-war, with Gunderson and Unga aboard, took Naas and others prisoner to a Russian port where he and his comrades were imprisoned in salt mines and scarred by the knout. Naas escaped into the forest and journeyed many months, fought with Indians for dogs and skins and crossed the ice to Golovin Bay and Pastilik where he met a priest and traded otter skins for dogs to go on. Eventually he joined the Queen's service under Stanley Prince.
Naas learned that Gunderson, the "sea lion," and Unga had become rich "from drawing gold from the ground" and were in England. He followed them there and to other countries, learned they had lost their wealth and returned to the gold country of the Yukon.
He met them in Dawson -- they did not recognize him -- and led them east to "the spot where the bones and the curses of men lie with the gold." They cached their grub and traveled into the heart of the great mountains and into a deep valley, "the mouth of hell," Gunderson called it, at the bottom of which was a cabin and the bones of dead men. They found a great vein of gold, staked claims, and departed for Dawson.
“. . .they starved and pushed on, eating their moccasins.”
They found that their food caches had been raided by wolverines so they starved and pushed on, eating their moccasins. Naas says of Gunderson, "He was a great man. His soul lifted his body to the last; nor did he cry aloud, save for the sake of Unga. . . .his was the strength of the strong." After he died in the snow Naas revealed his real identity to Unga. "I had thought she would be overjoyed at the sight of me," he says, but she sneered at the idea of returning with him to Akatan to "live in the dirty huts, and eat of the fish and oil, and bring forth a spawn. . ." She called him a swine and a dog and "laughed till the silence cracked, and went back to her dead."
At last, Unga laid down with her arm around her sea king's neck, her face deep in his yellow hair, "And in this manner," Naas says, "they still lie up there in the snow."
He tells the others that he cannot return to Akatan, that he has small use for life and yearns to die by the rope as punishment for leaving Unga and Axel Gunderson to die.
Stanley Prince considers the act murder but Malemute Kid says, "There be things greater than our wisdom, beyond our justice. The right and the wrong of this we cannot say, and it is not for us to judge."
At the end: "Naas drew yet closer to the fire. There was a great silence, and in each man's eyes many pictures came and went."
Many pictures come and go in reading this magnificent story, and they come and go long after the reading is done.
How, one wonders, did readers of the staid The Atlantic Monthly react to this epic tour de force, its prose poetic in an almost Biblical style? (James I. McClintock, in his Jack London's Strong Truths [East Lansing, Mich.: Michigan State University Press, 1997], says the story evokes Kipling "in its measured cadence and rhythmical, incantatory movement." Both London and Kipling, McClintock states in his brilliant examination of the story, "combined a grandiloquent tone with the matter-of-fact, the exotic with the ordinary, an epic swing with the rapid movement of clipped, journalistic reportage.")
Did the Atlantic readers discover the images, dark and foreboding with death hanging over every sentence of Naas's narration of his search for Unga? Did the reader see the bitter irony of the ending, foreshadowed throughout, and realize that when Unga is kidnapped, fighting and tearing at the hair of the sea lion Gunderson, that Naas has lost her forever and no matter how long and arduous his quest for her, that she will never return to him?
Did the reader realize they were reading a work by a 24-year-old genius of American letters?
London's first book contract, for The Son of the Wolf, was signed with Houghton Mifflin on December 21, 1899. The book appeared on April 7, 1900, and brought together nine Northland stories: "To the Man on Trail," "The White Silence," "The Son of the Wolf," "The Men of Forty-Mile," "In a Far Country," "The Priestly Prerogative," "The Wife of a King," "The Wisdom of the Trail," and "An Odyssey of the North."
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