Few writers have had such an extensive output of work as Jack London. During his 15-year career, he wrote 49 books, including novels, short-story collections, plays and political pamphlets – a number equalling more than three books a year.
Jack London's contribution to early 20th century American literature is somewhat underestimated; critics claim that his vast production holds a varied literary quality. However, Jack London was an immensely popular author in his time, and his major works are enjoyed by a large audience even today.
Jack London (1876-1916), or John Griffith London, which was his original name, led a turbulent and dramatic life, and much of his writing was inspired by his own life experiences from the 1890s gold rush in Alaska to the sordid slums of East-End London. Thematically, his stories evolve around man’s encounter with the harsh elements of untamed nature. Jack London’s most famous novels are The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906) both set in the wilderness of Alaska, where wolves, sled dogs, greedy prospectors and loose women represent the different aspects of the fight for survival in the wild. The two stories have also been successfully adapted for film.
Jack London’s writing belongs more to the naturalist and socio-critical tradition than the modernist style that was predominant at the time.
Flush of Gold by Jack London
Lon McFane didn’t tell me what to expect at Surprise Lake. Surprise Lake? It was Surprise Cabin to me, as it turned out.
We came upon the cabin abruptly. For a week on trail we had met no one. And there is was, right before my eyes, a cabin. The next moment Lon had rapped on the door, and a woman’s voice told him to enter.
“Have you seen Dave recently?” she asked.
“Nope,” Lon answered carelessly. “I’ve been in the other direction, down Circle City way. Dave’s up Dawson way, ain’t he?”
I thought it was Dave coming when I heard your dogs,” she said.
After that she said nothing, but seemed to be listening for the sound of dogs along the trail. Lon was cooking supper, while I lay back on the blankets and watched her. I looked at her face, unnoticed by her, and the longer I looked the harder it was to take my eyes away. It was a wonderfully beautiful face.
Suddenly, as if for the first time, she seemed to notice my presence.
“Have you seen Dave recently?” she asked me. It was on the tip of my tongue to say “Dave who?” when Lon coughed loudly. “No, I haven’t,” I answered. “I’m new in this part of the country.”
“But you don’t mean to say,” she interrupted, “that you’ve never heard of Dave – of Big Dave Walsh? Lon, tell him about Dave,” she said.
“Oh, Dave is a fine man,” he said. “He’s a man, every inch of him, and he stands six feet four in his socks. His word is as good as his bond. The man lies who ever says Dave told a lie, and that man will have to fight with me too – if there’s anything left of him when Dave gets done with him. For Dave is a fighter.”
A howling of the dogs took the woman to the door. She opened it an inch and listened.
“Where is Dave Walsh?” I asked in an undertone. “Dead,” Lon answered. “In hell, maybe. I don’t know. Shut up.”
In the morning it was quick breakfast, feed the dogs, load the sled and hit the trail. The woman stood in the doorway and watched us off. I carried the vision of her unearthly beauty with me.
“You didn’t know her?” Lon asked suddenly. I shook my head.
“You noticed the color of her hair and eyes and her skin, well, that’s where she got her name – she was like the first warm glow of sunrise. She was called Flush of Gold.”
“Why do you speak of her in the past tense, as if she were dead?”
“Because the darkness of her soul is the same as the darkness of death. The Flush of Gold that I knew is dead.”
“I do not understand,” I said. Begin at the beginning, and tell me the whole story.” And Lon began.
“Marie, which was her real name, was the daughter of an old Frenchman who first came to California in the days of gold. The search for gold eventually brought him to Alaska, where his daughter was born. He took very good care of her after her mother died. Flush of Gold was the pet name he gave her.
She was remarkably beautiful. She turned all men’s hearts – and heads. It was her beauty that made all men love her.
Big Dave Walsh came to Alaska in the late 1880s – a real pioneer. He was twenty years old then. He was a young bull. When he was twenty-five he could lift clear of the ground thirteen fifty-pound sacks of flour. He was a bull, a great bull. He could kill the strongest man in the country with hard work. He could travel all day with wet feet when the thermometer registered fifty below zero.
Yet Dave Walsh was soft and easy-natured. Anybody could lie his last dollar out of him. But he had a way of laughing off his softness; “It doesn’t matter,” he said. Now don’t get the idea that he had no backbone. He went after a bear with an airgun. When it came to fighting, he was the toughest ever. He was easy and kind with the weak, but the strong had to give trail when he went by. And he was a man the men liked.
Dave never took part in the big gold rush to Dawson. He discovered gold himself at Mammon Creek. Cleaned eighty-four thousand up that winter, and opened up the claim so that it promised a couple of hundred thousand for the next winter. Then he took a trip up the Yukon, where he first saw Flush of Gold. I remember the night. I shall always remember. It was something sudden, and it makes one shiver to think of a strong man with all the strength withered out of him by one glance from the soft eyes of a weak, blond girl like Flush of Gold. The sight of Flush of Gold had sent Dave clean daffy. They said afterwards that he had been drunk. And so he had. He was drunk, but Flush of Gold was the strong drink that made him so.
That settled it, that first glimpse he caught of her. He did not start back down the Yukon in a week, as he had intended. He lingered on a month, two months, all summer. There was romance sprinkled all over Dave Walsh. And Flush of Gold loved him, and having danced him through a whole summer, at the end their engagement was made known. Fall came, and Dave had to be back for the winter’s work on Mammon Creek, but Flush of gold refused to be married right away. Dave lingered on in Dawson, but she wanted her freedom a while longer; and she would not marry until next year. And so, on the first ice, Dave Walsh went alone down the Yukon behind his dogs. The marriage was to take place when he arrived on the first steamboat of the next year.
Now Dave was as faithful as the Pole Star, and she was as false as a magnetic needle in a cargo of loadstone. Dave, who never doubted anybody, doubted her. He was afraid to trust her till the next year. Before he left her, he announced to Flush of Gold that they were plighted to each other. Dave was very dramatic, with fire in his eyes. He talked about “until death do us part”. He took her by the shoulder with his great paw and almost shook her as he said: “Even unto death are you mine, and I would rise from the grave to claim you.” Flush was pretty badly frightened.
In Dawson, that winter, was a music player, a Russian count, who played the violin and the piano, and sang – for pleasure only, as he did not need the money. Flush of gold soon lost her heart to him.
Anyway, she was plighted to Dave, and Dave was coming up on the first steamboat to get her. That was the summer of 1889, and the first steamboat was to be expected the middle of June. Flush of Gold was afraid to throw Dave down and face him afterwards, so it was all planned quickly. The Russian count was her obedient slave. She planned it; the Count took his orders from her. He caught that first steamboat down. And so did Flush of Gold. It was the Golden Rocket.
As the Golden Rocket sailed down the Yukon, heavily laden with a lot of poorly secured deck cargo, it passed the Glendale, bound up for Dawson. As the steamers saluted, people thought Dave was on board the Glendale hurrying to Dawson for Flush of Gold. But Dave Walsh wasn’t on the Glendale.
On the deck of the Golden Rocket preparations were being made for a wedding. There was a missionary on board, getting off at the next stop, so they had to use him quick. That’s what they’d planned to do, Flush of Gold and the Count, get married on the boat.
The reason Dave Walsh wasn’t on the Glendale was that he was on the Golden Rocket. It was this way. He had gone off on a moose hunt with an Indian, one morning the spirit thermometer went down to seventy-five below zero. And that morning the Indian broke through the ice and wet himself to the waist. Of course he began to freeze right away. The proper thing was to build a fire. But Dave Walsh was a bull. It was only half a mile to the camp, where a fire was already burning. He threw Mr Indian over his shoulder – and ran with him – half a mile – with the thermometer seventy-five below. That’s suicide. There’s no other name for it. That Indian weighed a lot, and Dave ran half a mile with him. Of course he froze his lungs. Must have frozen them near solid. Anyway, after a few terrible weeks, Dave Walsh died.
the Indian decided to take Dave’s body to Forty Mile, which was Dave’s headquarters. He put his cargo on a steamboat. An there you are, on the deck of the Golden Rocket, Flush of Gold being married, and Dave Walsh dead in his big box.
The missionary had lined the pair up and started the wedding service. He had just reached the point where he was saying “In sickness and in health,” and “Until death do us part”. Just then an oblong box began to slide down. Flush of Gold and the Count were facing the box; the missionary had his back to it. The box must have fallen ten feet straight, and it hit end on.
It couldn’t have been better planned. The box struck on end, and on the right end. The whole front came off; and out swept Dave Walsh on his feet, partly wrapped in a blanket, his yellow hair flying and showing bright in the sun. Right out of the box, he swept upon Flush of Gold. No doubt he was rising from the dead to claim her. Possibly that is what Flush of Gold thought. At any rate, the sight froze her. She couldn’t move. She just watched Dave Walsh coming for her. And he got her. It looked almost as though he threw his arms around her, and down to the deck they went together. We had to drag Dave Walsh’s body clear before we could get hold of Flush of Gold. She was in a faint, but it would have been just as well if she never came out of that faint; for when she did, she began screaming the way insane people do. She kept it up for hours.
Oh, yes, she recovered a bit, but she still lives in darkness. She believes that she is waiting for Dave Walsh, and so she waits in the cabin he built for her. And she is no longer fickle. It is nine years now that she has been faithful to Dave Walsh, and the outlook is that she’ll be faithful to him to the end.”
I lay silently under the blankets for the space of a minute.
“What happened to the Count?” I asked. “Is he still in the country?”
But there was a gentle sound of heavy breathing, and I knew Lon McFane was asleep.
Tasks and Activities
- Though Jack London is not a typical representative of modernist literature, this short-story has one feature that was a popular technique used by modernist writers. What is that?
- Most of the narrative is told by Lon McFane. How does that work for the writer in terms of language, for example?
- How is the story structured?
- Comment on the narrative angle of the story.
- What would you say is the theme of this short-story?
- When justice is done in a narrative, we call it poetic justice. Do you think the plot of this story holds poetic justice in any way?
- Jack London has been criticised for the macho image of many of his protagonists – tough men taming the wild elements either of nature, dogs, wolves, or women. Does this story support such criticism?
- Comment on the first couple of lines of the story.
- If you are critical, you may find certain elements in the plot that seem a bit on the verge of credibility (or at least, they are not fully explained). What elements might that be?
- Jack London’s popularity is quite remarkable. Why do you think so many readers are attracted by this kind of literature?
- Find more information about Jack London’s dramatic life: his radical political views, his extravagant life-style, his woman affairs, and his suicide.
- Search the net for information about Alaska and the gold rush of the 1890s. See if you can find the locations that are mentioned in the story.
- Check YouTube for trailers or clips from the films The Call of the Wild and White Fang.