Monday, October 9, 2017

The Trail of the Goldseekers by Hamlin Garland

A rather dismal Klondike travelogue
Jack London became a literary superstar by writing about the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s in works such as The Call of the Wild and White Fang, but he wasn’t the only author to venture up to the Yukon Territory during the great stampede to the North. Hamlin Garland, one of American literature’s pioneers of realism, also made the arduous journey to the Klondike River region, as chronicled in his book The Trail of the Goldseekers: A Record of Travel in Prose and Verse, published in 1899. Unlike London, at the time of the Gold Rush Garland was already an established man of letters, having achieved some degree of literary fame with books like Main-Travelled Roads and Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly.

The two also differ in that while London went North with the serious intention of striking it rich, Garland makes it clear that he is “not a gold seeker, but a nature hunter,” who went simply for the experience of the journey and to enjoy the beauty of the landscape. In pursuit of the latter end, he decided to take the longest route to the gold country, the overland route through British Columbia, also called the Long Trail. From his home in Wisconsin, he takes the Canadian railroad to the end of the line in Ashcroft, British Columbia. There, he and his traveling companion Burton purchase horses and supplies and begin the long haul northwestwards towards Dawson.

Though London’s trip to the Klondike was far from successful, he reveled in the romantic, adventurous spirit of the undertaking. Even his nonfiction writings on the Gold Rush are filled with admiration for the hardy souls who undertook the adventure and the savage wilds through which they passed. Garland’s account of his own journey, on the other hand, is dull and grueling by comparison, taking the form of a repetitive sequence of indistinguishable rivers, barren fields, and mosquito-infested, hoof-sucking swamps. In other works I’ve read by Garland, he has demonstrated a faculty for beautifully descriptive nature writing, but such passages are rare in this book. The beauty of the land is measured by the availability or scarcity of horse feed. Though he judges the Gold Rush as a foolhardy endeavor and opines that the goldseekers are rapers of the land, his own account presents a surprisingly unpoetic and utilitarian view of the natural landscape.

Nor does the book succeed very well as a journalistic or historical record of the Klondike experience. Garland clearly was better off than most of the men he encountered on the trail. Unlike the typical goldseeker, he could afford the finest horses and a boat ticket whenever one was required. In the final chapters, as he reaches the mining towns in Alaska and the Yukon, Garland finally delivers some first-hand perspective of the Gold Rush as a sociological phenomenon. For the better part of the book, however, he is off on a trail where he seems to be quite happy with minimal human contact. Unlike London, Garland doesn’t show much interest in the stories of the men he meets. More than anything, he just wants to write about his horse.

As its subtitle indicates, this book includes poetry in addition to prose. Each of its 26 chapters is followed by one to three poems. These are generally rather simple, straightforward rhyming stanzas of realistic natural imagery. Garland is no Robert Frost, but his verses are pleasantly evocative of the North and are a welcome addition to the narrative. As a whole, prose and verse combined, The Trail of the Goldseekers is just OK. I consider myself an admirer of Garland’s writing and am grateful for his contribution to American literary naturalism, but this is not his best work.
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