When fiction borrows from real life: the Alaskan behind London’s ‘Burning Daylight’
Imagine yourself – yes, you sweet reader – a character in a novel. How would you feel, sitting in your favorite chair reading the version of you that a writer has turned into a fictional character? Would the president recognize, let alone approve, the moving you throughout the pages of the novel?
Real people appear frequently in fiction – sometimes under their own names, sometimes not.
Several decades ago, New York Times columnist William Safire wrote a bestseller about Abraham Lincoln. Safire said it clearly: it’s a novel. But so many legends surround the Great Emancipator that it’s hard to know where the facts end and where the fiction begins, even in some of Lincoln’s biographies.
Novelist Thomas Wolfe (1900-1937) wrote “Look Homeward Angel,” a long fictional tale of his childhood in Asheville, North Carolina, featuring himself and his parents as the main characters and many neighbors as extras. . The representation of the Wolfe family as Gloves – a betrayal in the minds of the inhabitants of the house – caused such an uproar in Carolina that Thomas Wolfe did not return home for eight years.
Probably the best-known Alaskan who has become a fictional character (putting aside the politicians in their memoirs) is Elam Harnish (1866-1941), a gold rush dog musher, miner, lumberjack and a sourdough that is fully certifiable by any definition. Nicknames proliferated during and after the Gold Rush – for example, the Snowshoe Kid or the Highpower Swede. Harnish was known as “Burning Daylight,” a nickname allegedly given to him by a cabin mate Harnish urged out of bed because it was a bad morning; he said the companion was “burning the light of day.”
Writer Jack London (1876-1916), who joined the Klondike Rush as an inexperienced novice, knew Harnish well. According to Harnish’s account, they were cabin mates. About 10 years after London stopped searching for gold in the frozen north and returned to his hometown of San Francisco, he wrote the novel “Burning Daylight”. It is still printed by the University of Alaska Press. The hardcover edition I have was published by Macmillan in 1913. It has a rough drawing of a dog musher and his husky on the copper colored cover.
The first chapters of “Burning Daylight” take place in Circle City on the Yukon River in 1895, before the Klondike stampede. It’s Daylight’s 30th birthday, and he came to the local saloon this winter’s eve to celebrate. This tall, strong, generous and handsome man proclaims, “The drinks are on me, boys!” and the party is on. The omniscient author – London – tells this part of the story in “Robert Service-ese”; that is to say, the imagery, the allusions, the clichés of the poetry of service.
It’s a bit like issuing character uniforms. Thus, the French will not fail to begin his sentences with “By Gar” and the Scandinavian with “By Yupiter”. The Lady who is known as Lou appears in this bar as La Vierge. Well, she’s got a heart of gold – and has her own gold, so she doesn’t blame Daylight. She is after her body. But Daylight prefers the manly camaraderie of the woods. No woman will tie it to the strings of her apron.
The next hundred pages are placed on the winter mail trail. Daylight shifts from Circle City to Dyea and returns with the frosted mailbags, and this interlude is the best part of the book. As he proved in his new classic “To Build a Fire”, London was a master painter of the natural world. The frozen Yukon River, the snow-capped hills, the midday sun barely peering on the horizon are beautifully rendered.
In a short time, gold was discovered in the Klondike. The rush is on. Daylight isn’t just a miner with a pick and a shovel – he’s a visionary staking concessions wherever digging looks promising. It applies modern industrial techniques to mining. He grows rich, still loved by his male peers but successfully resisting female temptation. With $ 11 million in his Gladstone bag, he’s headed to San Francisco to “try his hand” at a bigger game.
To wrap up what amounts to Shakespeare’s three-minute recap of “Burning Daylight,” in the Bay Area the musher-miner becomes a cruel and rapacious titan of the industry that crushes his rivals, leaves the underdog even more. trodden and triples his fortune. He also becomes a martini-soaked miserable, flabby and obtuse – but not so obtuse that he doesn’t notice that his stenographer, Dede, is a pretty little girl. When a nationwide financial panic ruins many capitalists, Daylight barely survives – but now, girl-enlightened, he abandons his empire and the newlyweds cross the bay to reach Sonoma, finding marital bliss on their farm.
The love of a good woman saved a man gone bad. Take back the Tin Pan Alley hit of yesteryear, “Big Bad Bill is Sweet William Now”.
A New York Times review said London had no talent for portraying men and women: Jack, stick with the dogs.
The major magazines of 1890-1910 were replete with similar redemptive stories. The real dynamics of gender relations have been relegated to the police blotter.
What did Harnish think of “Burning Daylight? Apparently he said the book was like the Northern Times: sometimes good, sometimes bad, but he was happy that London remembered him.
Jack London’s Elam Harnish was built like a lanky NFL receiver. Historian Terrence Cole reported that the Harnish who died in Fairbanks and rests in Birch Hill Cemetery was, albeit muscular, five feet two inches tall.
Michael carey is an occasional columnist and former editor of the Anchorage Daily News editorial page.