CANADA

Dawson City, YK

The Bit of Jack London That’s Stayed in the Klondike

Interior of log cabin where Jack London spent the winter of 1897-98

The interior of the log cabin Jack London spent his Yukon winter in. Two weeks after he turned 22 he wrote “Jack London, Miner Author Jan 27, 1898” on the wall. Ask museum staff to point it out.
JOHN MASTERS/Meridian Writers’ Group

THE 100TH anniversary of the death of American writer Jack London (died 22 Nov., 1916) has been marked in internationally in numerous ways, including by the re-release of a 2015 documentary of his life (Jack London: American Original); the appearence of a new, two-volume collection of his works, in French; and the publishing of two fresh German biographies. There’s also a planned Broadway musical based on his 1909 novel, Martin Eden.

As London wrote in his journal, cravings for “romance and adventure” were what kick-started his short life. Born poor and illegitimate in San Francisco, he set out to see the world, travelling on freight trains and ocean freighters, from the South Seas to the Far North, working as everything from an oyster pirate to a gold miner.

“I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow than a sleepy and permanent planet,” he said. “The function of man is to live, not to exist.” He fulfilled his goals all too well, dying at age 40 after having written more than 20 novels, numerous poems and essays and dozens of short stories.

The two books he remains best-known for are The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906), both based on his time in Canada’s Yukon Territory, where he went to take part in the Klondike Gold Rush. It’s a good thing the novels worked out because moiling for gold didn’t. After six weeks carousing in Dawson City bars he wintered in a log cabin, got scurvy and developed lasting health problems. He left in spring 1898.

That draughty cabin, or at least half of it, has been moved from the goldfields and rebuilt in Dawson City, next to the Jack London Museum. (The other half is in Jack London Square in Oakland, California, next to Heinolds’ First and Last Chance Saloon, where the author liked to drink.)

Dawson’s Jack London Museum is a modest building displaying photos, letters and artifacts from the author’s short stay in the territory. What greatly enhances a visit is the depth of knowledge and enthusiasm of the guides, whose London expertise extends well beyond his time there. They are—as is appropriate given the subject—good storytellers.

Beyond the cabin and museum, the entire town of Dawson City (winter population 1,400) is itself a step back to the days of the gold rush (1896-1899): its buildings preserved, its roads still unpaved and lined by wooden sidewalks. If you come when the place isn’t too full of other tourists it’s easy to imagine the 21-year-old bustling through a very similar streetscape.

Jack London’s enduring fame is as a writer of adventure novels, penned for an urban audience that would have found their settings exotic. Today, the patina of time makes most of them seem even more remote. Not all, though. A book that’s started being noticed again is his 1908 novel, The Iron Heel, sometimes called the first dystopian fiction. It’s about the rise of an oligarchic tyranny in the United States.

 

ACCESS

For more information on the Jack London Museum visit the Dawson City website at http://dawsoncity.ca.

For information on travel in Yukon visit the Travel Yukon website at www.travelyukon.com.