ExtendedPublished by Webmaster on 07/21/2003 (43828 reads)
Robert was then transferred to the bank in Dawson City. There, the young men employed at the Bank Of Commerce shared a bunkhouse and mess where they celebrated events in each other's lives. On June 22,1908 they had a dinner celebrating the publication of "Songs of a Sourdough".
The Canadian Bank Of Commerce In Dawson City
It was banking, which Service fled in Scotland, that let him make his name as the poet of the North American roughneck. They took him on in Victoria, watched him, gave him a raise, and sent him to Kamloops in the middle of British Columbia. In Victoria he lived over the bank with a hired piano, and dressed for dinner. In Kamloops, horse country, he played polo. In the fall of 1904 the bank sent him to their White Horse branch in the Yukon. With the expense money he bought himself a raccoon coat, just like in the whiskey ad.
Robert Service lived in the Yukon as a dandy, not a prospector. The big gold strike there had been in 1898, when Service headed south from Vancouver. Now the small miners had gone north to the Alaska strike, and their old claims were being dredged by machine. White Horse had 30,000 people in 1901: in 1910 there would be 9,000. In the ruins of the boom town, Service carried on as he had in Kamloops and Victoria, moving strictly in the upper crust. He skated in the winter, and played midnight tennis in the Arctic summer.
He was saving his money. His laundry, his food, and his lodging were paid for by the bank. The plan was to acquire capital, and try the free life again as a small investor instead of a tramp. He aimed for five thousand dollars, to yield twenty dollars a month at five percent. Service achieved his goal in a grander manner than he planned, through poetry.
He had been writing from time to time. "The Old Log Cabin" appeared in the White Horse Star on May 2, 1902, while Service was still a store clerk in Victoria. "Apart and Together," a poem of love in his Glasgow manner, appeared in Munsey's Magazine in December 1903. His collected verse includes at least one poem, "Song of the Wage Slave" written at the mission in Los Angeles.
It was the work of a few months at the end of 1906 that made Service a famous poet and a free man. The editor of the White Horse Star had asked him to write a bit of local color to give at a church concert. The poet had been reciting in public, entertaining his set with chestnuts like Ernest Lawrence Thayer's "Casey at the Bat" and Rudyard Kipling's "Gunga Din." Asked for "something about our own bit of earth," he stayed up all night in the bank to write "The Shooting of Dan McGrew." The barroom classic was not performed at the church concert, but a month later Service was up all night again, writing "The Cremation of Sam McGee." He heard a prosperous miner tell the shaggy dog story at a party, and went straight to his desk.
In the weeks to follow he wrote "The Call of the Wild," "The Spell of the Yukon" and "The Law of the Yukon." He bundled the five together with what else was in his desk, and sent Songs of a Sourdough (Toronto: William Briggs, 1907) south to Toronto to be privately printed. He mailed it to his father, who had emigrated there with the family, with his Christmas bonus. The idea was to have a hundred copies to give to friends.
But an enterprising salesman sold 1700 copies in advance orders from galley proofs before the publisher offered Service a regular contract, ten percent royalty on a dollar book, and sold fifteen impressions in 1907. That same year there was an edition in New York, Philadelphia, and London. The London publisher, T. Fisher Unwin, struck a twenty-third printing in 1910, and thirteen more by 1917.
He stayed on at the bank in White Horse for another year, then moved to Dawson as teller. He reached Dawson by sleigh from White Horse, in April, 1908. The first year he wrote Ballads of a Cheechako (Toronto: William Briggs, 1909) on a deliberate schedule. He used the issue of excluding an especially coarse poem, "The Tenderloin," to bargain for a 5% increase in royalty from his Toronto publisher. In November of 1909 he refused promotion to manager and left the bank. He had more than $5000 saved. Publisher's checks never stopped arriving his whole life long. He walked. He read old files of the Dawson News in the Carnegie library. He negotiated a royalty of fifteen percent for his first novel. In the spring of 1910 he personally delivered the manuscript of The Trail of Ninety-Eight, A Northland Romance (Toronto: William Briggs, 1909) to his publishers in Toronto and New York. The novel was still in print in 1928, when Clarence Brown directed the movie version, with the same name, for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Robert Service spent the remainder of his long life doing as he pleased. After delivering his manuscript, he toured the continent by train, boat, stagecoach, foot and canoe, visiting New Orleans and Havana on his way to his mother's farm in Alberta. He arrived back in Dawson in 1911, after a difficult wilderness trip up the Mackenzie River from Edmonton, more than 2,000 miles by treacherous water in a light canoe. Like Stephen Crane, who became a combat correspondent after writing his Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, Service the ex-bank clerk went to play at the life he had made his name writing about.
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