Saturday, February 15, 2014

Literary Smellscapes: A Jack London Vignette

One of my favorite places in California is Jack London’s former ranch in Glen Ellen, up in Sonoma County. I love the setting—the serenity, the views, the scents—and can see why the place meant so much to him. Even the burned ruins of Wolf House are haunting and beautiful. Another house serves as a museum and is full of evocative stuff from his adventurous life. I’m finally reading The Road, a 1907 memoir of his hobo days in the 1890s. The prose is rough-and-ready but the stories are vivid. Here London gets his point across with some olfactory, even multisensory, imagery:
Often I think over my tramp days, and ever I marvel at the swift succession of pictures that flash up in my memory. It matters not where I begin to think; any day of all the days is a day apart, with a record of swift-moving pictures all its own. For instance, I remember a sunny summer morning in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and immediately comes to my mind the auspicious beginning of the day — a “set- down” with two maiden ladies, and not in their kitchen, but in their dining room, with them beside me at the table. We ate eggs, out of egg-cups! It was the first time I had ever seen egg-cups, or heard of egg-cups! I was a bit awkward at first, I’ll confess; but I was hungry and unabashed. I mastered the egg-cup, and I mastered the eggs in a way that made those two maiden ladies sit up.  
Why, they ate like a couple of canaries, dabbling with the one egg each they took, and nibbling at tiny wafers of toast. Life was low in their bodies; their blood ran thin; and they had slept warm all night. I had been out all night, consuming much fuel of my body to keep warm, beating my way down from a place called Emporium, in the northern part of the state. Wafers of toast! Out of sight! But each wafer was no more than a mouthful to me — nay, no more than a bite. It is tedious to have to reach for another piece of toast each bite when one is potential with many bites. ( . . . ) 
At any rate, it gave my tongue time to wag. Those two maiden ladies, with their pink-and-white complexions and gray curls, had never looked upon the bright face of adventure. As the “Tramp-Royal” would have it, they had worked all their lives “on one same shift.” Into the sweet scents and narrow confines of their uneventful existence I brought the large airs of the world, freighted with the lusty smells of sweat and strife, and with the tangs and odors of strange lands and soils. And right well I scratched their soft palms with the callous on my own palms — the half-inch horn that comes of pull-and-haul of rope and long and arduous hours of caressing shovel-handles. This I did, not merely in the braggadocio of youth, but to prove, by toil performed, the claim I had upon their charity.
Jack London
The Road (1907)

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