Join the discussion on Jack London’s ‘Burning Daylight’
Editor’s Note: The ongoing Jack London Book Discussion Group will discuss “Burning Daylight” on Friday at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, led by London scholars Iris Jamahl Dunkle and Susan Nuernberg. Some say “Burning Daylight” is the bestselling book of his lifetime.
Jack London wrote “Burning Daylight,” his novel about a superman from the Klondike, during 1909 when he and his wife, Charmian, had to abruptly return from their voyage around the world in their custom built sailboat, the Snark.
London was plagued with yaws, a contagious skin disease he picked up in the tropics that left him so ill he had to be hospitalized in Australia. It’s no wonder that at this time in his life he chose to create a protagonist who was so strong that he could withstand everything nature threw at him and more.
“Burning Daylight” was first published serially in 1910 in the New York Herald and then as a book by Macmillan that same year, and is told in two parts. The first is set in the Yukon Territory in 1893.
Elam Harnish, a 30-year-old prospector, has picked up the nickname “Burning Daylight” for his habit of waking his fellow comrades at the crack of dawn with the complaint that daylight is burning. London likely borrowed this phrase from Shakespeare, who uses it in “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”
At 30, Daylight is considered an old-timer by his fellow miners, but still he shows super human strength that far exceeds them all. In the end, Daylight makes it big and retires from the Klondike as a rich man.
In Part Two, Daylight moves with his newfound wealth to the Bay Area where, using his skills at the poker table, he battles the great titans of industry until he increases his wealth to $30 million. This gamble, however, comes at a cost. In the city, where business is conducted, Daylight loses his physical strength and develops a taste for cocktails.
As the novel progresses, what continues to elude Daylight and what becomes more and more of his driving need is love. Daylight grew up motherless in a mining camp in Eastern Oregon and spent his life in similar types of environments where women were scarce. When he meets Dede Mason, Daylight has hit the mother-lode, London implies: Her hair shone golden and her eyes were flecked with gold.
After many rides through the Oakland hills together, Daylight makes the biggest gamble of his life, leaving behind his riches to get back to the simple life on a ranch in Glen Ellen with the love of his life.
At the heart of this novel is a man who lived larger than life but still couldn’t have it all until he gave something up. Perhaps this lesson was revealed to London as he sailed the South Seas with the love of his life, and perhaps that’s why the book still reads so well. It’s a lesson, we as humans need to continually relearn.
We may find the mother lode, but the only wealth that remains, that feeds us, is love.
Join the discussion from 2-4 p.m. Friday, Aug. 21 at Jack London State Historic Park, 2400 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen. Cost is $10 plus $10 parking. Register at jacklondonpark.com. Download the book at london.sonoma.edu/writings/BurningDaylight.
Iris Jamahl Dunkle teaches writing and literature at Napa Valley College and is the author of “Gold Passage,” “Inheritance” and “The Flying Trolley.”