June 20, 2010

Harte: Let the stately Polar bears waltz

In a move later called "Seward's Folly" in reference to Secretary of State William Seward, Alaska officially became a territory of the United States on June 20, 1867. The land was purchased from Russia at a price of $7,200,000 under the administration of President Andrew Johnson. The move was unpopular, in part because the land was mostly barren; critics called it an "icebox."

Still early in his literary career at the time was Bret Harte, a New Yorker by birth and Californian by choice. He commemorated the acquisition of Alaska in his poem "An Arctic Vision." In it, he praises some of the same aspects about Alaska which critics denounced (slightly edited for length):

Where the short-legged Esquimaux
Waddle in the ice and snow.
And the playful Polar bear
Nips the hunter unaware;
...Let the news that flying goes
Thrill through all your Arctic floes,
And reverberate the boast
From the cliff's off Beechey's coast,
Till the tidings, circling round
Every bay of Norton Sound,
Throw the vocal tide-wave back
To the isles of Kodiac.
Let the stately Polar bears
Waltz around the pole in pairs,
And the walrus, in his glee,
Bare his tusk of ivory;
...Slide, ye solemn glaciers, slide,
One inch farther to the tide,
Nor in rash precipitation
Upset Tyndall's calculation.
Know you not what fate awaits you,
Or to whom the future mates you ?
All ye icebergs make salaam, —
You belong to Uncle Sam!

Leaning on his icy hammer
Stands the hero of this drama,
And above the wild-duck's clamor,
In his own peculiar grammar,
With its linguistic disguises,
Lo, the Arctic prologue rises:
"Wall, I reckon 'tain't so bad,
Seein' ez 't was all they had;
True, the Springs are rather late
And early Falls predominate;
But the ice crop's pretty sure.
And the air is kind o' pure;
'Tain't so very mean a trade.
When the land is all surveyed.
There's a right smart chance for fur-chase
All along this recent purchase,
And, unless the stories fail,
Every fish from cod to whale;
Rocks, too; mebbe quartz; let's see, —
'T would be strange if there should be, —
Seems I 've heerd such stories told;
Eh! — why, bless us, — yes, it's gold!"

While the blows are falling thick
From his California pick.
You may recognize the Thor
Of the vision that I saw, —
Freed from legendary glamour.
See the real magician's hammer.

*The image above is from the New York Public Library Digital Archives, which has a fairly substantial collection of Bret Harte images.

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