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Summer reading

July 27, 2012

While I have obviously not been around the blog lately, I have not been idle. Several rainy days have even kept me inside!

When I have not been here:








Or here:








And most recently, here: 








Or doing this:








I have been slowly moving through my summer reading list. So far I’ve read Leslie Thomas’ novel, Flight of the Goose, Ernestine Hayes’ memoir, Blonde Indian, two collections of Yup’ik oratory (When I Became Aware and Stories for Future Generations), and Edward Hoagland’s travelogue, Alaskan Travels. For the time being, I’m just going to write about Hoagland’s book, but do feel free to ask me about the others in the comments.

In Edward Hoagland’s addition to the genre of Alaskan travel writing, Alaskan Travels: Far-Flung Tales of Love and Adventure, he makes an off-hand comment that, while somewhat insignificant to the larger goals of the collection, nonetheless is indicative of Alaskan letters, especially as written by a traveler. Near the end of the collection of stories that make up Hoagland’s reminisces of a love-affair with a competent frontier traveling nurse, he writes “Alaskans were generally a goaded group, masked by the beards they grew to ward off mosquitoes” (126). The category “Alaskans,” then, is a purely masculine one, even though Linda, Hoagland’s paramour, is a woman and just as “goaded” (i.e. “born on the wrong side of the tracks: their fathers’ drunks, their mothers’ bruises” [ibid.]). This is not the first time he has used facial hair to distinguish those who belong from those who do not, referencing his own beardless state. Now, of course, “beard” and masking leaves open some interesting room to think about what is going on between masculinity, crisis, frontiers and a haunting of the north by a feminization of the work force, the emasculation of the “last place” to which men can travel to be men—even though Hoagland readily puts this ethos under pressure, revealing the false assumptions and contradictions of these very same migrants. He writes:

Almost everybody in their thirties appeared to be provisionally allied with somebody of the opposite sex. But only in these ultimate frontier areas was the pattern likely to be the old-fashioned system of a bold young man with a helpmate female. Mostly, through Linda, I was meeting women who had fine, well-paying careers—nurse, teacher, social worker—and were living with men marginally employed at temporary, tentative jobs, sometimes because they were Native Americans grasping for a life ring, at sea in a world topsy-turvy, sometimes white exiles from the Lower 48 at loose ends. (135)

Throughout the book, Hoagland reaches the limit of his masculinity, facing impotence when confronted with a cold that was “ominous like an undertow in surf when you belatedly recognize it after enjoying yourself, then realize that the ocean isn’t exhilarated, as you are by your swim and may sweep you off and smother you” (82). After a walk at forty below zero, he returns to Linda “sufficiently awed by the cold to become impotent, despite being zipped securely inside a double sleeping bag and talked to severely by a nurse in a manner one would ordinarily respond to with alacrity” (87).

While working with tropes of cold and darkness that are no stranger to Alaskan letters (think Jack London’s popular short story, “To Build a Fire,” that continues to be taught in schools and anthologized), Hoagland, like “the man” in London’s story, loses his vitality to the almost living, uncaring, malevolent cold. However, what has changed is that it is no longer losing life that is at stake, but the very essence of man—control, sexual prowess, erection. In the previous passage, it is not just the cold that enervates the narrator, it is the cold linked to the female nurse, Linda—the narrator is unable to perform from contact with one and in the presence of the other. While women are doing just fine in the North with high paying if still service type jobs, the men have lost the frontier, they have conceded defeat and are no longer, apparently, masters of their future, the future (“North to the future” is a popular slogan for the opportunities Alaska is supposed to afford).

In London’s formulation, the dog is the inheritor of the North, he has the ability to survive, to fall back on his “canniness”—on buried lupine instinct, reverting back “to the wild” (this is the case for The Call of the Wild, although it is somewhat more complicated for the wolf turned dog in White Fang and the dog in “To Build a Fire” survives through being better adapted to the north along with his return to “the camp it knew, where were the other food-providers and fire-providers”). In the modern arctic, however, it is women that are now running the show, leaving London and Hoagland impotent in their wake.

And in a chilling destruction of the London man-dog survival pact, Hoagland writes:

Yet Joe, too, fed his dogs on dogs. Here he was in this center of dog-raising for profit, theoretically, except that the dogs weren’t selling lately; there were ‘thousands of pounds of dead dogs in this village’ yearly. ‘Why not use them? The team does real well on them.’ Since the Indians [Koyukon Athabaskans] believed it was Huklani, or ‘bad medicine,’ to feed dogs to other dogs, the whole town’s came to him for a dollar apiece when they got old or didn’t pan out. Cardboard boxes of frozen bodies sat in the yard that he would cut into three-pound cross-sections–hair, bone, and all–with his chainsaw and put in the twenty-gallon black bean pot simmering on a tripod over a driftwood fire. (129)

Hoagland comes back to the image of the chainsawed dog at several points in the book–the image seems to haunt him and yet he will not deal with the feelings it brings up directly, each time side-stepping to the next image, person or activity, adhering strictly to the narrative conventions of travelogue to never reveal his own culpability in the images and emotions he offers. Dogs are at the heart of life for humans in the north; they allowed humans to flourish where they would have been hard pressed to do so on their own and they continue to enjoy a special place in modern human activities and representations of the north. Yet Hoagland finds something dark, perverted, and unnatural at the heart of the relationship, representation, or enactment of white men and their dogs in modern Alaska. The black bean pot simmering with pieces of dog are cannibalistic–men who move north to the future are, in effect, killing not only the last wilderness ideal, but themselves as well.

  1. Lesley Thomas permalink

    Reblogged this on Notes from the Otherworld and commented:
    Arcticisms has read Flight of the Goose! I am honored.

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