Excerpt From The Lives of Jack London, By Michel Viotte, with Noël Mauberret Now Available from Firefly Books
Excerpt From The Lives of Jack London
Now Available from Firefly Books
Adventures in the Far North 1897 — 1902
(Excerpt pages 40 – 53)
By Michel Viotte, with Noël Mauberret, Published by Firefly Books Ltd., English-Language Edition copyright © 2018 Firefly Books Ltd.
On July 14, 1897, the steamship Excelsior sailed into San Francisco. On board were 40 prospectors returning with $500,000 worth of gold from the Klondike, a wilderness area in western Canada. The news spread like wildfire and triggered an unprecedented stampede: in the following weeks, tens of thousands of men would set sail to take their chances in the North. They first had to travel to Alaska, a territory bought from Russia 30 years earlier—and then, from the cities of Juneau, Skagway or Dyea, complete a perilous journey of several hundred miles across the great expanses of the Far North before they could begin prospecting.
On July 25, Jack was one of the first to leave. He embarked on the SS Umatilla accompanied by his brother-in-law James Shepard, Eliza’s husband. Once in Juneau, they hired the services of the Tlingit (the coastal peoples who guarded the Chilkoot Pass), and canoed up the Lynn Canal, then the Dyea River for 100 miles. Their first ordeal was Shepard’s health; exhausted and sick, he had to return to Oakland. Jack then joined forces with some seasoned men he encountered along the way and set off to cross the terrifying Chilkoot Pass with the veterans.
Prospectors with their dog team, Yukon, 1898. Photograph © Library of Congress
The “Chilkoot,” at 3,700 feet above sea level, offers the most direct passage between the mountains bordering Canada. To reach it, Klondikers had to climb one step at a time up a steep ice-covered slope, carrying all their equipment on their backs, an absolute nightmare. Their prospecting equipment, as well as warm clothes to survive in the arctic cold, tents, blankets and food, were separated into 65-pound loads. Each man then ferried these loads to the summit, walking in an unending column for days. Many men lost their lives in this ordeal, victims of exhaustion or carried away by avalanches.
Those who survived the Chilkoot Pass then had to follow the route to the lakes—Linderman, Bennett or Taggish—about 30 miles from there and build a raft to continue northwards down the Yukon River.
On September 8, Jack and his companions reached Linderman Lake and quickly set about building a small craft they called the Yukon Belle. With his maritime knowledge, Jack was promptly named captain. Then started a race against the clock to complete the journey before winter settled in and trapped the water in ice. Over a journey of more than 370 miles, the Yukon Belle faced frequent storms and extreme currents. It nearly capsized when passing through the White Horse or Box Canyon rapids. A month later, on October 9, the group finally reached a gold mining camp at Upper Island on the Stewart River and decided to move to nearby Henderson Creek to begin prospecting.
Prospectors’ raft passing through the Miles Canyon Rapids, Yukon, 1898. Photograph © Library of Congress
After a few days, Jack and three other companions had staked their spots and traveled to Dawson City, 80 miles to the north, to file their claims. Dawson was the only major town in the region, built from scratch in the early days of the rush and before long ballooned by thousands of newcomers. The Mounted Police patrolled the area, and in a few months, many shops and services appeared: a post office, bank, food stores, a church and a makeshift hospital built by a priest, Father William Judge. Above all, Dawson provided prospectors with the only recreation for miles around. The bars were open 24 hours a day and, for a little gold dust, provided alcohol, dancers and gambling. The White Chapel District offered several brothels and small wooden cabins where prostitutes entertained their clients.
At the beginning of December, after six weeks in Dawson, Jack returned to Henderson Creek with his registration in his pocket for Claim No. 54. Winter had fallen on the Yukon and made any attempt at prospecting impossible. Shut off in their isolated cabins, the gold seekers were forced to hang on for long months while enduring the glacial cold. Jack would later quip that a Klondike night equaled “forty days in a refrigerator.”4
The ground inside was freezing and everyone needed to stay warmly dressed, moccasins on their feet. Their frozen food was stored on simple shelves. Jack spent long hours lying on his bunk, reading by the light of his kerosene lamp. He also enjoyed contemplating the surrounding wilderness, whose immutable calm impressed him: “Nature has many tricks wherewith she convinces man of his finity . . . but the most tremendous, the most stupefying of all, is the passive phase of the White Silence. All movement ceases, the sky clears, the heavens are as brass; the slightest whisper seems sacrilege, and man becomes timid, affrighted at the sound of his own voice. Sole speck of life journeying across the ghostly wastes of a dead world, he trembles at his audacity, realizes that his is a maggot’s life, nothing more. Strange thoughts arise unsummoned, and the mystery of all things strives for utterance. And the fear of death, of God, of the universe, comes over him, — the hope of the Resurrection and the Life, the yearning for immortality, the vain striving of the imprisoned essence, — it is then, if ever, man walks alone with God.”5 Jack would always regard the Far North as an exceptional revealer of human nature and explained that, in the Klondike, he had found himself.
As proof, he took a knife and symbolically engraved on one of the walls of a friend’s cabin: “Jack London, Miner, Author, Jan. 27, 1898.”6
When he wanted to relieve his loneliness, Jack visited other nearby Klondikers for a drink and a few cigarettes, or a game of cards. Most of the time, their group could be found in French-Canadian Louis Savard’s cabin, which was the roomiest and benefited from a large fireplace.
Discussions were lively around the fire and Jack often took the floor, developing his favorite themes: Darwin, Spencer and socialist ideology. Despite his young age—he was then only 21—he captivated this new audience and earned their respect: “One could not meet him without feeling the impact of a superior intellect,”7 reported a friend.
They frequently shared their meals. The menu was nearly invariable: beans with bacon and a few slices of leavened bread, fried in a pan. A few times, a moose brought back from the hunt broke the routine.
When spring arrived, the melting of the snow mantle finally allowed prospecting to resume. But Jack’s pickaxe failed to reveal the thinnest vein. It soon became clear that the Yukon would not turn out to be his hoped-for Eldorado. His inexperience was certainly a factor, but the deterioration of his health was also a concern: he contracted scurvy, “Arctic leprosy,” caused by lack of fresh vegetables in his diet. The disease was exhausting. His gums bled, his teeth came loose, his face swelled up. He was treated for several days at the hospital in Dawson, but his condition continued to decline. He had no other choice, if he wanted to survive, but to return to California as soon as possible.
On June 8, 1898, he embarked with two companions in a canoe and traveled 1,500 miles leaving the Yukon, north to the Arctic Circle, before bearing west to link up with the Bering Sea. After 20 days, he reached St. Michael, Alaska, a center of Inuit trade where a US military post had just been established. From there, he managed to get to Seattle on board a schooner before finally making his way to San Francisco by steamship.
Back in Oakland, Jack learned that John London, his adoptive father, had died during his absence. Although without resources, he alone was now responsible for taking care of his family’s needs. The sale of his gold dust brought him $4.50 (!) and, although he quickly recovered from the scurvy, he was unable to find a job. So, he decided to plunge back into writing, with typical manic stubbornness.
He flooded editors and magazines with novels, articles, poems, songs and plays. He even had to borrow money for stamps, and pawned his few possessions: his watch, his bicycle, his raincoat. For months, his texts were regularly rejected. Yet he refused to despair, aware that his writing was gradually improving, and with the deep conviction that success awaited him at the end of the road: “I’m going to stick to my writing, and the publishers are going to accept it whether they like it or not. And some of these days they’ll be glad to take the stuff they’ve rejected and pay me a good price for it. Some day I shall hit upon my magnum opus.”9
Jack drew tremendous literary inspiration from his adventures in the Far North and planned to transcribe what he experienced along with the many stories collected from other prospectors, trappers and Indigenous peoples: men fighting against the cold, the solitude, the wolves and, of course, the madness of the gold rush. Gradually, his efforts were rewarded. In January 1899, six months after his return, “To the Man on the Trail,” one of his first short stories, appeared in the magazine Overland Monthly. He received five dollars in payment.
Others followed, in the space of a few months: “A Thousand Deaths,” “In a Far Country,” “From Dawson to the Sea,” and on April 7, 1900, his first collection, The Son of the Wolf, was published. His second, The God of His Fathers, appeared the following year. Then a third, Children of the Frost, in 1902.
Jack’s realistic style, stripped of all the artifice of 19th century Victorian literature, seduced readers and critics alike. In both New York and San Francisco, they could not stop singing his praises and started calling him the “Kipling of the North.”
“The whole body of water, rushing crookedly into the narrow passage, accelerated its speed frightfully and was up-flung into huge waves, white and wrathful. This was the dread Mane of the White Horse.”1
“They no longer walked upright under the sun, but stooped the body forward and bowed the head to the earth. Every back had become a pack-saddle.”2
“There nobody talks. Everybody thinks. You get your true perspective.
I got mine.”3
“A stream of short stories flowed from his pen.”8 (Martin Eden)
The first third of the novel Burning Daylight (prepublication in the New York Herald June 1910, book published in October of the same year), fashioned in the form of a fable, takes place in the expanses of the Far North during the gold rush. The main character, Elam Harnish, is a gold digger, nicknamed “Burning Daylight” for his energy and zeal for getting an early start to the day. He’s a force of nature, famous throughout the Klondike, whose every visit to the Dawson City saloons became the stuff of legends.
After 12 years of prospecting, Elam finally discovers a rich vein. He heads back to California with his fortune to start a business where he must contend with the world of finance, again with success. But success leaves him with a bitter taste; disgusted by a corrupt and immoral system, he feels the need to find meaning for his life. When he discovers love, he decides to retire to his ranch and live simply, along with his beloved.
Smoke Bellew, (prepublication in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1911, published in book form in October 1912) is Jack London’s last work on the Far North. In it, he continued to describe the harsh living conditions in the Yukon, but this time in a quirky, humorous way. The collection includes 12 short stories, and its main character is Christopher Belliou, a San Francisco journalist, who set off on a gold rush adventure to find new literary inspiration.
Having sailed to Alaska on the SS Excelsior, he crosses the Chilkoot Pass, faces the rapids on the Yukon River and arrives in Dawson City, where he takes part in a sled race to win a valuable claim. These vagaries are all experienced with another prospector encountered along the way nicknamed “Shorty,” because of his small size, and the two make a comical duo. Christopher also earns a nickname along the way, “Smoke Bellew,” in reference to the speed he exhibits on the trail!