Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Service, London & Growing Up with Alaska, the Yukon - and the Other

While it may not seem so, I've been thinking a great deal about Robert Service and his writing during this trip, and have been working my way (again) through his collected poems.

Approaching Dawson City, and thinking both about Service and Jack London, I recalled some of my introduction to their writing, and the youthful romantic notions that the latter (and certainly both writers) conjured in their readership, despite the age of the reader.

I still have a book - Jack London Stories (1960) - that my parents gave to me. I was a voracious reader (that quality has come and gone through the decades), and my father also passed on to me books from his youth - which I still own. Books like: Lost Indian Magic (Grace and Carl Moon, 1918) and Rolf in the Woods (Ernest Thompson Seton, 1911). There is a penned note in the frontpapers of the latter by him (my father) that reads: "When I was a kid, I must have read this book & Robin Hood a dozen times each. I think Seton's a swell guy."

My father - it was bound to emerge, sooner or later - died at the beginning of June, age 89, after struggle with Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. I've known many intelligent people in my life, but he was one of the smartest I have ever known. Besides being trained as a doctor in 2 and half years, a shortened medical program for WWII, he taught himself seven languages - and instilled in me a love of reading, writing, the outdoors - and a respect and curiousity about people, their cultures and beliefs.

I read out loud “The Cremation of Sam McGee” at Whitehorse, Y.T., timing it to coincide with our passing Lake Lebarge, slightly north of town. Whitehorse has two main access roads into the city, and one of them is “Robert Service Way” - such is his significance to the city.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun,
By the by the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see,
Was that night on the marge of Lake LeBarge
I cremated Sam McGee

and later in the poem

A pal's last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! He looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

It became clear to me after passing through Dawson City that Whitehorse and the Yukon Territory were really just a “touchstone” place (and fertile inspiration) for both the poetry of Service and the writing of Jack London. Each spent a relatively short time there. Service as in his early twenties when he lived in the Yukon, an then traveled the world. London was 21 when he traveled to north from Oakland to be part of the 1897 Gold Rush; however, he soon returned after developing scurvy.

Although also traveling all over the world, and writing more than fifty books in about twenty years, London's Klondike tales were the most lucrative for him during his relatively short career (he died in 1916, age 40).

He was the archetype of the American hero who tried to live what he wrote. He was also the Californian Pilgrim, in search of the new at all costs, as if life would go on forever. He made himself a myth in his own time and for ours.” (Andrew Sinclair)

I've picked up several other books on this trip, and much of what permeates the writings of Service and the individual's struggle to assert himself/herself of London is echoed in this line from Rudy Wiebe's The Mad Trapper (1980). It the fictionalized account of the true story about Albert Johnson, who eluded the RCMP during a manhunt for 50 days in the Yukon in winter, 1931. Here is that quote from the book:

A lean businessman looked at him sourly.
Yeah,” he said. “And how far does a man have to go, to get away from snoopy police?”
"You never get away from anything,” the grizzly-bearded man beside him said, his parka half draped off his shoulders. “There's always some bitching government thing following you.”


Sounds kinda like Palin's song and dance.

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