By Jack London. Afterword by Eric Heyne. Classic Reprint Series. University of Alaska Press. 424 pages. 2019. $21.95
I first heard the term “burning daylight” early in my Alaska experience, and quickly learned it was associated with Jack London, an author whose northern tales had captivated me as a child. But until now I had not read the book whose title the phrase comes from. In fact, it’s probably been 20 years or more since I last read anything by London, and visiting this somewhat unfocused novel served as reminder of the author’s remarkable talents, as well as his deep shortcomings.
Originally published in 1910, and recently reissued with an afterword by University of Alaska Fairbanks English professor Eric Heyne, “Burning Daylight” was London’s final novel to incorporate Alaska and the Klondike into its settings. It has the feel of an effort by London to return to the fertile ground that he made his name upon, and write his way out of a genre he had become pigeonholed in.
Thus the book opens in Alaska and remains there for its first third, offering no end of subarctic adventures, before decamping to London’s home state of California, where it switches gears and becomes both a withering critique of Gilded Age values, and a love story. Along the way we get a saga that runs from riches to rags several times over.
Burning Daylight is both title of the book and the nickname given to its main character. Elam Harnish is introduced in the opening scene when he waltzes into a bar in Circle City in the dead of winter, a couple of years prior to the strike in the Yukon that would forever change the North.
Daylight, as he is referred to throughout the story, has been in Alaska since the late 1880s and is known as a superman among supermen. So much so that it becomes one of the book’s faults and mars his character from ever becoming fully developed. He’s too über-male to be believed. As he wends his way across Alaska and the Yukon, there is seemingly nothing Daylight cannot do, and do better than anyone else. This leads to another shortcoming found not just here, but elsewhere in London’s work as well. A racism that would have gone unnoticed a century ago, but that leaps off the page today, when readers can only shake their heads at London’s claim that even Athabascans are in awe of Daylight’s prowess on lands they have dwelt upon for thousands of years. It’s a bit hard to swallow.
Still, thrive he does, so much so that Daylight sees the future in the creeks feeding into the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike rivers. Through speculation on land and claims that matches his proclivity towards barroom gambling, Daylight departs Dawson City at its height with an $11 million fortune ($342 million in today’s dollars) and heads south to find new heights to scale.
Daylight lands in San Francisco, where he takes to stock trading. After a brief trip to New York City, where he loses his shirt in a swindle and regains it at gunpoint, he returns to the Bay Area, where he sets to work financing the growth of what was, circa 1900, the sleepy bedroom community of Oakland (in a moment that eerily foretells disaster to come, Daylight promises to fill the hillsides with eucalyptus trees; it was the popularity of those trees that helped fuel the 1991 firestorm that turned those hills and the homes built on them to ashes).
Meanwhile, Daylight falls in love with the stenographer he has hired for his office. Dede Mason emerges as the one who will bring Daylight to question all he has become, a man with billions by today’s standards, but who has in the process lost the man he was. No longer physically strong and mentally acute, he’s become fat and drunk on his own wealth. And while Daylight falls in love with Dede as she is, Dede is in love with Daylight as he was, when he first ventured south.
And so the conflicts and challenges that are resolved over the second half of this novel are brought into play. How they are worked out I will leave for readers to discover.
The book’s strengths come from the power of London’s writing, which could romanticize both the land and the people of the North in ways that have forever defined our understanding of the Gold Rush era. London’s descriptions of landscapes are rarely matched, and here in both Alaska the Sonoma Valley, he brings readers deep into the terrain his protagonist wanders through.
There are also philosophical flourishes that place his story in the broad sweep of history. London’s influence on the contemporary author Cormac McCarthy have only drawn limited notice, but a passage early in the book sounds like something right out of “Blood Meridian,” though sans the relentless violence and cynicism.
“And yet, men have so behaved since the world began, feasting, fighting and carousing, whether in the dark cave mouth or by the fire of the squatting place, in the palaces of imperial Rome and the rock strongholds of robber barons, or in the sky-aspiring hotels of modern times and in the boozing kens of sailor town. Just so were these men, empire-builders in the Arctic night, boastful and drunken and clamorous, winning surcease for a few wild moments from the grim reality of their heroic toil.”
The man could write, but he could also be a hack, and the novel devolves into triteness to reach its happy ending. But it also offers a subtext of environmental sustainability that perhaps could have been refined in later works had London not first abused himself into an early grave.
“Burning Daylight” is hardly London’s best work. But it is pivotal to his evolution as a writer. It’s been largely overlooked, but this reissue allows us to ponder again both what London was capable of, and what he could have been had he overcome his own demons as effectively as his lead character does here.