Monday, September 10, 2018

Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska by Rockwell Kent

Bad weather and father-son bonding
In the early 20th century, Rockwell Kent was a household name in book illustration, most notable for his work on the 1930 Lakeside Press edition of Moby-Dick. He also wrote and illustrated his own books, mostly relating his personal artistic adventures in remote locations in the Far North. His book Wilderness: A Journey of Quiet Adventure in Alaska, published in 1920, is Kent’s account of one such journey to Fox Island in Resurrection Bay, near what is now Kenai Fjords National Park. Kent and his son, also named Rockwell, traveled to Alaska in the Summer of 1918 for the express purpose of finding a cabin somewhere in which they could temporarily live like hermits in the wilderness. In Resurrection Bay they meet an elderly man named Olson who tells them he has a cabin out on Fox Island that they can rent. After purchasing and packing their supplies for a long stay, the two Rockwell Kents settle in to be Olson’s sole neighbors on the otherwise uninhabited isle. The book details their stay from August 1918 to March 1919.

Though I admire Kent for the journey he undertook, as far as life-in-the-wilderness memoirs go, this one is a bit disappointing. It contains little naturalistic observation of wildlife and not even much scenic description. Moments of philosophical reflection are likewise few and far between. So what does Kent write about? Mostly the weather, and it’s almost always bad. Relentless rain, fog, and snowfall are the norm, often keeping the father and son indoors. Kent also writes a lot about cutting down trees, chopping wood, and other household chores. He also makes frequent trips to the city of Seward that also detract from the wilderness narrative.

Though Kent is an artist, he doesn’t write much about painting either. He frequently mentions that he’s painting or drawing, but never gives much indication of his artistic process or even his subject matter. In fact, he probably writes more about stretching canvases than about actual painting. He does occasionally surprise the reader, however, by going off into a mini-essay on art in general, written with keen insight and profound eloquence. Another subject Kent covers well is his relationship with his son and the effect their sojourn in the Alaskan wilds is having on the boy’s own independent spirit. Though at times the trip sounds miserably cold and dreary, the warmth that develops between the bonding father and son is infectious and enviable. In addition, the Kents’ narrative benefits from frequent visits by Olson, who turns out to be not just a goofy hermit but also a former adventurer, an entertaining conversationalist, and a lovable codger.

The book includes dozens of illustrations by Kent. About half are realistic drawings of Alaskan scenery, and the rest are more idealized, allegorical pictures inspired by the trip, with figures in dramatic poses against abstracted backgrounds. The former category are more successful, at times evoking his famous illustrations for Moby-Dick. The digitized versions of the book online don’t really do justice to Kent’s art, so if the illustrations are of importance to you you’ll have to get your hands on a printed copy to get their full effect.

Despite the surprising paucity of both nature and art in this painters’ wilderness memoir, it does make for an enjoyable read. Whether you are an artist, a lover of solitude, or just someone who’s ever dreamed of making an extended trip to Alaska, it is fun to live vicariously through the Kents at their hermits’ fantasy camp, even if the weather sucks.

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