Literature of the Gold Rush

Of the tens of thousands of men and women who rushed to the Klondike gold fields, some who returned empty-handed sought to tell their tales in writing. A number of stampeder autobiographies appeared over the next few decades, while hundreds of newspapers and magazines chronicled returning stampeders' stories. Two of the most noted writers to emerge from the Klondike Gold Rush were Robert Service and Jack London.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Robert Service
The Cremation of Sam McGee

When a man journeys into a far country, he must be prepared to forget many of the things he has learned, and to acquire such customs as are inherent with existence in the new land; he must abandon the old ideals and the old gods, and oftentimes he must reverse the very codes by which his conduct has hitherto been shaped. . . . It were better for the man who cannot fit himself to the new groove to return to his own country; if he delay too long, he will surely die.

Jack London
The Son of the Wolf

Although Robert Service came late to the rush, he was still able to capture the longing, dread and thrill of those who made the journey. His poems included The Cremation of Sam McGee, The Spell of the Yukon, and The Shooting of Dan McGrew. The British born poet (1874-1958) made his first trip into the Yukon seven years after the rush began. He had landed a job in 1903 with The Canadian Bank of Commerce and in 1904 he was sent to work in the bank's White Horse branch in the Yukon Territory. The growing town had taken its name from the nearby White Horse Rapids on the Yukon River. Service had published at least two poems before he arrived in the Yukon, but neither had gathered much attention. When he was asked to contribute a poem for the local newspaper, White Horse Star, he produced The Shooting of Dan McGrew.

A month later, Service wrote The Cremation of Sam McGee, basing it on a local tale. He had found his voice. The two poems, combined with three others he wrote while in White Horse, were to be printed privately for his family and friends. The publisher recognized that he had been given literary gold and offered the poet a contract. When Service finally reached Dawson in 1908, he was still working as a bank teller. But by the next year, he saved enough money to quit.

Robert Service left Dawson to work as a war correspondent for the Toronto Star. He settled in Europe and in 1913 married a French woman, Germaine Bourgoin. He worked as a Red Cross ambulance driver during the war while continuing to forward dispatches to the Star. Service did not settle in any one spot for too long, but he continued to write wherever he moved. The first volume of his autobiography, Ploughman of the Moon was published in 1945, the second, Harper of Heaven was finished two years later. He returned to Europe at the end of World War II, and died in France in 1958.

Jack London was born on January 12, 1876 in San Francisco, California. He was twenty years old when the great Klondike gold discovery was made. Unlike Robert Service, who relied on his imagination for his vivid portrait of the great gold rush, London lived and worked in the midst of the excitement. As a boy, he worked at various jobs on board a series of ships. He seemed to enjoy writing as much as adventure, and before long was able to blend the two. Drawn to the north by the lure Klondike gold, London spent the winter of 1897/1898 in the Yukon. Although the young, rugged writer reveled in the wild Klondike life, London did not strike it rich in the gold fields, and returned home to California in the summer of 1898 suffering from scurvy.

London began writing short stories and novels about life in the far north. He published some of the stories in the Overland Monthly, including In a Far Country, the first chapter of Son of the Wolf, which first appeared in the June 1899 issue. In 1903, he produced what would become the best known book from the gold rush--The Call of the Wild, the adventures of Buck, a dog ripped from a comfortable life in the U.S. and sold as a sled dog to Klondike stampeders.

His Klondike writings proved to be London's gold mine. In addition to The Call of the Wild, which helped catapult London to international fame as the most popular (and highest paid) writer of his day, London's stay in the Yukon inspired a number of short stories including The Son of the Wolf, 1900 and Children of the Frost, 1902.

By 1900 London had married Bess Maddern, and the couple had two daughters, Joan and Bess, before divorcing. London married Charmain Kittredge in 1905. The pair traveled together, including a journey to the South Pacific. London never stopped writing, and produced 50 books and hundreds of short stories between 1900 and 1916. London and Charmain were most at home in California, where their dream home was to be built. Sadly, the house caught fire and burned before the couple ever moved in. Jack London continued to travel and write until his death on November 22, 1916 from gastrointestinal urmeic poisoning. He was 40 years old at the time, and left a enormous volume of work on a variety of themes--including his most eloquent portraits of the Klondike and its great gold rush.