Monday Jul. 25, 2016

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To the Virgins to Make Much of Time

Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
      Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles today,
      Tomorrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the Sun,
      The higher he’s a-getting
The sooner will his race be run,
      And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
      When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
      Times, still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time;
      And while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
      You may for ever tarry.

“To the Virgins to Make Much of Time” by Robert Herrick. Public Domain.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1897 that 21-year-old novelist Jack London (books by this author) sailed from San Francisco, on his way to the Klondike to search for gold. He was on board the SS Umatilla with his brother-in-law, James Shepard, who was close to 70 years old. Shepard and his wife, Eliza, who was London's sister, mortgaged their house to afford the passage and gear for the two men. They had a smooth eight-day trip from San Francisco to Juneau, Alaska, and then took boats to Dyea Beach, the start of the Chilkoot Trail. The Chilkoot Trail was a difficult 33-mile journey through the Chilkoot Pass, but it was the most direct route from the coast of Alaska to the Yukon. When Shepard saw the Chilkoot Pass, he realized that there was no way he would make it. He gave all his gear to London and went home to California.

The Chilkoot Trail was brutal. The trail rose a thousand feet in the last half mile, and men had to carry all their gear on their backs because it was too steep for animals. Prospectors climbed in one single-file line. If anyone faltered and got out of line, they were not let back in. So many men were unable to survive in the Klondike that the Canadian Mounted Police mandated that all prospectors bring one ton of supplies, the minimum for a year there. So London had to climb up the Chilkoot Pass over and over, with 100-pound loads each time.

Once London made it over Chilkoot Pass, he was in Canada. From there, it was 500 miles to Dawson City, the outpost of the gold rush. After hiking through a frigid marsh up to his knees, London arrived at Lake Lindemann, the beginning of a web of rivers and lakes that would eventually lead to Dawson City. London reached Dawson City just as the Arctic winter was setting in. London came down with scurvy due to the lack of fresh vegetables, and was forced to head back to the ocean. He was not alone in turning back. Of the 100,000 potential prospectors who set out for Dawson, only about 30 percent made it, and of those, about 4,000 actually found gold.

London returned to San Francisco sick and depressed, but he started writing about his adventures in the Yukon. The Atlantic Monthly accepted his story "An Odyssey of the North," in which he wrote: "On the bottom there was a cabin, built by some man, of logs which he had cast down from above. It was a very old cabin, for men had died there alone at different times, and on pieces of birch bark which were there we read their last words and their curses. One had died of scurvy; another's partner had robbed him of his last grub and powder and stolen away; a third had been mauled by a baldface grizzly; a fourth had hunted for game and starved — and so it went, and they had been loath to leave the gold, and had died by the side of it in one way or another. And the worthless gold they had gathered yellowed the floor of the cabin like in a dream." In the year 1899, London published more than 50 pieces — poems, essays, and stories. Early in 1900, he published his first book, Son of the Wolf, a collection of short stories based on his adventures in the Klondike, and that led to his book The Call of the Wild (1903), which made his career.

On this day in 1952, the archipelago of Puerto Rico became a self-governing commonwealth of the United States. It had been attacked by the Dutch and the French, pillaged by Ponce de León and various pirates, and, much to the surprise of the indigenous Taíno tribe, “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in 1493 and handed over to Spain.

One year after Puerto Rico became a self-governing commonwealth, one of the largest migrations in the world occurred: more than 70,000 Puerto Ricans emigrated to the Unites States, settling mostly in New York, New Jersey, and Florida.

It was on this day in 1814 that a man named George Stephenson made the first successful demonstration of the steam locomotive in Northern England. His engine pulled eight loaded wagons of 30 tons’ weight about four miles an hour up a hill.

It’s the birthday of writer Eric Hoffer (books by this author), born in New York City (1902). He spent most of his life working on the docks as a longshoreman, and he wrote philosophy in his spare time, including The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951). Eric Hoffer said, “When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.”

It was on this day in 1788 that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart entered into his catalog the completion of one of his most beloved works, Symphony Number 40 in G Minor (sometimes called “The Great G Minor Symphony”). It was written in the final years of Mozart’s life, when things were not going well. An infant daughter had died a few weeks earlier, he had moved into a cheaper apartment, and he was begging friends and acquaintances for loans. But in the summer of 1788, he wrote his last three symphonies: Symphony Number 39 in E-Flat, Symphony in G Minor, and the Jupiter symphony. It is not known for sure whether Mozart ever heard any of these symphonies performed.

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