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October 23, 2017

Robert Service's Yukon Gold

On this day in 1874, Robert Service -- the Kipling of Canada" -- was born in Preston, England. When he was twenty-one, Service quit his bank job in Glasgow and hit out for Canada, serious enough about fulfilling his dream of becoming a cowboy that he brought his Buffalo Bill outfit along with him. Ten years later he was back working in a bank, at a branch in White Horse -- where, by this time, the only rush was the one to get out of town:
    When the Great Cold came to the Yukon it clamped the land tight as a drum. The transients scurried out, and the residents squatted snugly in. They were the sourdoughs; the land belonged to them; the others were but parasites living on its bounty. This is what we felt as we settled down to the Long Night....
As Service tells it in Ploughman of the Moon, one of his two volumes of autobiography, his three winters in White Horse were the "incubation of all worth while in my life," and idyllic: the workload cut to almost nothing, the daily snowshoes into "the Great White Silence," breathing "below-zero air as bracing as champagne," so much fun at indoor baseball or dancing or cards that "I don't think I ever tasted a drop of hooch." On his winter walks Service composed and then tossed in a drawer "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" and "The Cremation of Sam McGee," the two poems which would make him famous and rich. Enough others went into the drawer over the next months that, when cleaning it, he decided that he had enough to publish. The book was at his own expense, and only as many copies as his $100 Christmas bonus might buy -- something to give to his friends, although Service had enough literary ambition to ask one local, a fellow Scot, if he might want a half-interest in publishing the collection: "Poetry! D'ye take me for daft?. . . Ye can jist stick yer poetry up yer bonnie wee behind."

The publisher of Service's private edition was so taken with the stuff that he returned Service's money, told him that he had sold 1700 copies of the book already -- from the galley proofs, and only in his city -- and offered a contract. The Songs of a Sourdough was published in 1907, and two years later Service was able to quit the bank, and every other job but writing, for good -- "Dan McGrew" alone making him a half a million dollars. Service spent the next fifty years in Paris, the French Riviera, Hollywood, and traveling the world. In "My Cross" Service laments that his public was only interested in his simple rhymes "of gutter and of grime / Of pimp and prostitute," but in "My Lady Luck" the view of White Horse is summery:
    . . . For Dan McGrew and Sam McGee
    Saved me from sordid strife;
    And I am grateful to these two
    For sunshine in my life.
    My turning point in luck I see
    Refulgently began
    The night I roasted Sam McGee
    And perforated Dan.

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