When fiction borrows from real life: the Alaskan behind London’s ‘Burning Daylight’

Imagine you — yes, you, gentle reader — a character in a novel. How would you feel, sitting in your favorite chair reading about the version of you a writer has transformed into a fictional character? Would the chaired you recognize, much less approve of, the you in motion throughout pages of the novel?

Real people appear in fiction frequently — sometimes under their own name, sometimes not.

Several decades ago, New York Times columnist William Safire wrote a bestseller about Abraham Lincoln. Safire made it clear up front: This is a novel. But so many legends surround the Great Emancipator it is hard to know where fact ends and fiction begins, even in some Lincoln biographies.

Novelist Thomas Wolfe (1900-1937) wrote “Look Homeward Angel,” a lengthy fictionalized account of his childhood in Asheville, N.C., featuring his parents and himself as major characters and many neighbors as extras. The portrayal of the Wolfe family as the Gants — a betrayal in the minds of the home folks — provoked a Carolina uproar so loud Thomas Wolfe did not return homeward for eight years.

Probably the best-known Alaskan who became a fictional character (putting aside politicians in their memoirs) is Elam Harnish (1866-1941) a Gold Rush dog musher, miner, woodsman and fully certifiable sourdough by any definition. Nicknames proliferated during the Gold Rush and after — for instance, the Snowshoe Kid or the Highpower Swede. Harnish was known as “Burning Daylight,” a moniker allegedly bestowed on him by a cabin mate whom Harnish hectored to get out of bed because the morning was a-wastin’; he said the mate was “burning daylight.”

Writer Jack London (1876-1916), who joined the Klondike stampede an untested greenhorn, knew Harnish well. By Harnish’s account, they were cabin mates. Some 10 years after London quit moiling for gold in the frozen north and returned to his hometown, San Francisco, he wrote the novel “Burning Daylight.” It’s still in print through the University of Alaska Press. The hardcover edition I have was published by Macmillan in 1913. It has a crude drawing of a dog musher and his husky on the copper-colored cover.

The opening chapters of “Burning Daylight” are set in Circle City on the Yukon River in 1895, before the Klondike stampede. It’s Daylight’s 30th birthday, and he has come to the local saloon this winter eve to celebrate. This big, strong, generous, handsome man proclaims, “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, the imagery, the allusions, the cliches of Service poetry.

This is rather like issuing the characters uniforms. So the Frenchman is sure to begin his sentences with “By Gar” and the Scandinavian with “By Yupiter.” The Lady Who Is Known as Lou appears in this barroom as The Virgin. Well, she does have a heart of gold – and has her own gold, so she is not after Daylight’s. She’s after his body. But Daylight prefers the manly comradeship of the woods. No woman is going to tie him to her apron strings.

The next hundred pages are set on the winter mail trail. Daylight mushes from Circle City to Dyea and back with the frosty postal bags, and this interlude is the best part of the book. As he proved in his classic short story “To Build a Fire,” London was a master painter of the natural world. The frozen Yukon River, the snow-covered hills, the midday sun barely peeking over the horizon are beautifully rendered.

Before long, gold is discovered in the Klondike. The rush is on. Daylight is not just a miner with a pick and shovel: He is a visionary who stakes claims wherever the diggin’ looks promising. He applies modern industrial techniques to mining. He becomes rich, still beloved by his male peers but successfully resisting female temptation. With $11 million in his Gladstone bag, he heads for San Francisco to “try his hand” in a bigger game.

To conclude what amounts to a Three-Minute Shakespeare summary of “Burning Daylight,” in the Bay Area, the musher-miner becomes a cruel, rapacious titan of industry who crushes rivals, leaves the downtrodden further trodden, and triples his fortune. He also becomes a martini-soaked, flabby, obtuse wretch — but not so obtuse he fails to notice his stenographer, Dede, is a pretty little gal. When a national financial panic ruins many a capitalist, Daylight barely survives — but now, enlightened by the gal, he gives up his empire and the newlyweds move across the bay to Sonoma, finding marital bliss on their farm.

The love of a good woman has saved a man gone wrong. Cue 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 describing men and women: Jack, stick to dogs.

The major magazines of 1890-1910 were packed with similar redemptive tales. The actual dynamics of male-female relationships were relegated to the police blotter.

What did Harnish think of “Burning Daylight?” Allegedly, he said the book was like the northern weather: sometimes good, sometimes bad, but he was happy London remembered him.

The Elam Harnish of Jack London was built like a rangy NFL receiver. Historian Terrence Cole reported that the Harnish who died in Fairbanks and lies in the Birch Hill Cemetery was, though muscular, 5-foot-2.

Michael Carey is an occasional columnist and the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News.

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