Sunday, November 14, 2021

In a Far Country

Jack London (1876–1916)
From Jack London: Novels & Stories

Four of Jack London’s acquaintances in Dawson City, July 1898: Marshall Bond, Oliver H. P. La Farge, Lyman R. Colt, Stanley Pearce, and their two dogs Jack (a 140-pound Saint Bernard–Scotch Collie mix that was the inspiration for Buck in The Call of the Wild) and Pat. Photographer unknown. Yale University Library. The photo, signed by London on the back, is among Marshall Bond’s papers at Yale. A copy of this photo with London’s handwriting identifying the dog Jack as belonging to Louis Bond (Marshall Bond’s brother) is in the Jack London Collection of the Huntington Library.
The year after Jack London died, The Silhouette, a short-lived Oakland-based literary magazine, published a brief item he had mailed to the editor, who had asked him to identify the factors that led to his literary success. London outlined his early years as an errand boy, an oyster pirate, a sailor on a sealing schooner in the Bering Sea and off the coast of Japan, a jute factory worker, a cross-country tramp to Boston (and back, through Canada), and an inmate in a New York jail (for vagrancy). That brought him up to the age of 19, when he began thinking of becoming a writer. He enrolled in high school while working as a janitor and, a year later, entered the University of California while working at a laundry but dropped out halfway through his freshman year. As he explained, “having decided that I was a failure as a writer, I gave it up and left for the Klondike to prospect for gold. It was in the Klondike that I found myself. There nobody talks. Everybody thinks. You get your true perspective. I got mine.”

He left the Bay Area for the Klondike in July 1897 and returned home a year later with less than five dollars’ worth of gold dust in his pockets. While wintering in a cabin eighty miles south of Dawson City, he had come down with a severe case of “Arctic leprosy,” or scurvy, and when spring arrived his fellow prospectors helped him constructed a raft on which, accompanied by camp doctor B. F. Harvey, he returned to Dawson to recover. With a pair of new companions, he then traveled 1,500 miles down the Yukon River in a small boat and finally, at the mouth of the river on the western edge of Alaska, he caught a steamer heading back to the States. (You can see a map of his journey here.)

Biographers have noted how easily he befriended the older, more seasoned campers and how he remained in touch with many of them for the rest of his life. W. B. Hargrave later recalled:
It was in October of 1897 that I first met him. . . . No other man has left so indelible an impression upon my memory as Jack London. He was but a boy then [but] he possessed the mental equipment of a mature man, and I have never thought of him as a boy except in the heart of him. . . . There were not many of us that winter in the little cabin on the Yukon; but the isolated group of cabins housed some lovable and adventurous souls [and] there is hardly one of them whom he has not immortalized in his writings.
London’s year in the Klondike helped him get not only his “true perspective” but also his subject matter and, above all, his characters. One man who appears, thinly disguised, in several Klondike tales is Ira Merritt Sloper, a scrawny, emaciated forty-year-old who had spent several years living in South America before teaming up with London on the ship to Alaska. Sloper’s experience as a ship carpenter and Jack’s previous career as an oyster pirate made them an invaluable pair when the miners had to navigate the Yukon River. One of their adventures is retold in “Through the Rapids on the Way to Klondike," which describes how they transported their party’s supplies through the nearly impassable Whitehorse Rapids and then went back and brought through the possessions of helpless married couple.

Sloper and two other men spent the winter as London’s roommates in a cabin measuring ten by twelve feet, and—as often happened in the camps—they became irritated with one another, provoked by the petty disputes and annoying habits that long isolation can amplify in the minds of the confined. The friction came to a head when London mistakenly used Sloper’s valuable, well-tended axe on the ice and broke off its edge. Discomfited by Sloper’s anger, London ended up leaving their camp and moving into a nearby cabin that housed Hargrave and “Doc” Harvey. London and Sloper apparently reconciled by the time they met up again in San Francisco; in December 1898, London served as a witness for his friend when Sloper’s wife sued for divorce after he, like London, returned from his trip with hardly a cent to his name.

London’s fifth published story, “In a Far Country,” also features Sloper—under his real name. The story is about a pair of men who, trapped in a cabin for the winter, suffer from both scurvy and stupidity and slowly drive each other crazy. While the obvious inspiration for the tale is London’s own experience wintering with Sloper, the two antagonists, a spiritless middle-class clerk and a self-indulgent “gentleman” of means, are nothing like the real-life roommates. Instead, in an homage to his friend, London portrays Sloper as a heroic 90-pound man “fleeing from a South America fever-hole” who “whipped his stronger comrades into venturing a thousand miles of the stiffest hardship man can conceive.” It is Sloper who predicts that the two “Incapables,” left behind in their cabin, will turn into fighting “cats” before the winter is over.

Notes: The voyageurs were French Canadian boatmen who transported furs. A Yukon stove-pipe was a homemade portable contraption consisting of one chamber for fuel and another for cooking. A slush-lamp was another homemade item, usually constructed from a tin can and fueled with bacon grease rather than oil. “The Boston Burglar,” an American folk song based on an old sea shanty, and “The Handsome Cabin Boy,” an English sea shanty, were popular in the late nineteenth century. German socks are long, thick socks that can be strapped at top.

*   *   *
When a man journeys into a far country, he must be prepared to forget many of the things he has learned, and to acquire such customs as are inherent with existence in the new land. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.