Perfection Revisited

Volumes that should be found on every outdoorsman’s bookshelf. And in case you’re wondering, I have never found a single female who enjoyed reading Jack London. No idea why. Maude Brewster, the heroine of The Sea-Wolf, is eminently admirable.

by Terry Wieland

Beginning with my sojourn in high school, which was never yesterday, as Robert Ruark would say, scholars of literature have put forth two candidates for the title of “the perfect short story.”  One is The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, by Ernest Hemingway; the other, To Build a Fire, by Jack London.

Hemingway is written about endlessly by both hunting and fishing writers, revered as a great writer who was also a great outdoorsman, and placed wild things and wild places in the top tier of literature, in place of effete salons and angst-ridden urbanites.  He needs no introduction.

Jack London, on the other hand, has long-since fallen out of favor with literateurs because of his perceived Nazi sympathies, mainly expressed in The Sea-Wolf and various “racist” tracts extolling the idea of übermenschen.  An odd thing, though—which he shares with Hemingway—is that he is claimed as one of their own by both the far left and the far right.  In London’s case, his socialist credentials are wrapped up in his non-fiction The People of the Abyss, an account, published in 1903, of his time among the inhabitants of the slums of east-end London.

The to and fro’ in Hemingway is too well known to revisit.  His most “socialist” work is To Have and Have Not, while his writing generally is anti-war.   Can’t argue with that.  His alleged “masculine posturing” is viewed as right wing, and Macomber is cited as evidence of misogyny.  Upon such rubbish are academic theories built.

There is an interesting third parallel:  Russian author Mikhail Sholokhov.  His epic two-volume novel, And Quiet Flows the Don and The Don Flows Home to the Sea—yes, epic, as epic as Beowulf—could be claimed by either political wing.  Or both.  It tells the story of the Don Cossacks before, during, and after the Great War, and through the Russian Revolution and subsequent civil wars.  It does not extol Communism, and is anything but an example of the execrable “Socialist Realism” that was promoted under Joseph Stalin.

If these Penguin paperbacks look well read, they have been: A good half-dozen times, from start to finish, over the past 60 years. Sholokhov was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1965. Great literature is above political doctrine, and even Joseph Stalin could accept that. Occasionally. Very occasionally.

Stalin himself had pretensions as a poet.  He was as mercurial as, well, mercury, and just as deadly, yet he tolerated and even admired Sholokhov, and allowed his work to be published, just as he did, to a certain extent, with Boris Pasternak.

(To link The Quiet Don, as the two novels are grouped, to our theme here, there is fishing early on in the first volume, and horses and hardship throughout.)

Jack London’s most famous works stem from the Klondike gold rush of 1898, notably The Call of the Wild.  It tells of a dog, Buck, abducted from California and turned into a sled dog, that escapes and goes feral among the timber wolves.  It’s a great story that has not benefited from its repeated Disneyfication.  But then, what has?

To Build a Fire is something else again.  Like Macomber, the ending is anything but happy.  The man—he is identified no other way—takes on Mother Nature and loses.  He is the only character in the story, aside from his dog, and we’d like to believe the dog lives happily ever after.

In English class, we were taught that every story required conflict, and there were three kinds:  Man against Nature, Man against Man, and Man against Himself.  Macomber is clearly the last, while Fire is the first, but both stories are more complex than simple combat, and both carry clear messages for hunters and anyone else who ventures into the outdoors.

The African bush is, for most of us, hostile terrain, at least at first; Jack London’s deep-winter Klondike in a serious cold snap—that is, temperatures approaching seventy below—is equally hostile but less easy to imagine.  Anyone can conjure a wounded Cape buffalo or an angry black mamba, but cold so intense that spit turns to ice before it hits the ground is something else again.

On my first trip to Alaska, I took a volume of Jack London, figuring there’d be lots of time to take refuge in the Lornie B’s cabin and read while Prince William Sound’s October rains drummed on the cabin roof.  It rained for 19 days out of 21, so I was right about that, and The Sea-Wolf proved appropriate.  If you’ve read that it’s a Nazi tract that should be shunned, ignore that drivel and give it a try.  It’s actually an account of how an overly civilized man (Humphrey van Weyden, a literary critic) can learn to survive in the harshest conditions.  (Forget the 1993 movie, which is a travesty and a gross misrepresentation, as one expects from Hollywood.)

When I began writing this missive, I intended to concentrate on Jack London and Robert W. Service, the Klondike poet laureate, if a mining camp can have such a thing.  Since space is running out, I’ll save Service to another time.  Suffice to say, he is as much out of favor with the literary elite as London, and for many of the same reasons.  (“He writes poetry that rhymes!  Can you imagine?”)

But if you want a prose-poetry tag team that defines an era, a place, a cast of characters, and conflict of all three incarnations, you would be hard put to match a pairing of To Build a Fire and Service’s masterpiece, The Cremation of Sam McGee.

“There are strange things done, ‘neath the midnight sun…”

Indeed there were.  And, I expect, still are…

Gray’s shooting editor Terry Wieland has been a winter camper since childhood and, thanks largely to Jack London, always looks to see if there is a snow-laden tree branch anywhere before he builds a fire.  It’s worked so far.