Vagabond of Verse:
Robert Service -- A Bigraphy

416 pages,
ISBN: 1851587047

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Justice to Service
by Jim Christy

Robert Service took more gold out of the Yukon than Jack London, but he didn't hit the Klondike until the Rush was a memory. Everybody who knows anything about the Scots bard-who was born in Lancashire-knows this, though generations of commentators have pretended to expose what they call a myth; they stress that rather than an adventurous sourdough, Service was a shy little bank clerk who stumbled onto the mother lode.
In Vagabond of Verse, James Mackay examines both the real myth and the false one, and reveals that there was more than a little of both strains-"Klondike high-roller" and retreating pencil-pusher-in Service's personality.
Though born in England in 1874, most of Service's childhood was spent at Kilwinning in Scotland. These were bleak, penurious years and Mackay's recounting of them is equally cheerless. All his life, and in two autobiographies, Service played fast and loose with facts. Mackay feels it behooves him to supply "the truth". So we get the real name of Service's grade school headmaster, as well as that man's successor, and for good measure a history of the school. It seems as if Mackay does this sort of thing-and he does it throughout the book-not for the reader's enlightenment, but as a rebuke to previous biographers. The preface reads like book-jacket copy: Mackay assures the reader that he has produced a "fully rounded and illuminating" biography, which he hopes "truly does justice to one of the literary enigmas of our time."
To be fair, Vagabond does do justice to the wandering bard, but this justice doesn't begin until Service leaves his bank clerk's position in Glasgow and comes to British Columbia in 1896. His first job was on a farm in the Cowichan Valley of Vancouver Island. Next we see him in California, where he dug ditches, washed dishes, and was tutor to three prostitutes in a San Diego brothel. As a parting gift, one of the girls gave him a guitar, and for the next couple of years he roamed the Southwest singing for his supper.
In October 1903, broke and weary, Service landed a job with the Canadian Bank of Commerce in Victoria; the next year he was transferred to Kamloops and, a few months later, to Whitehorse. It was there, in the spring of 1906, that the immortal muse touched him-he almost shrugged her off.
Service used to sing the old songs and recite the old poems at social gatherings but was looking for new material. The editor of the Whitehorse Star advised him to "stake the rich paystrike" of the recent Yukon past. One Saturday night while a bunch of the boys were whooping it up at a saloon down the street, Service sat in his teller's cage and began to write. By five in the morning, he had finished "The Shooting of Dan McGrew". A month later he composed "The Cremation of Sam McGee".
He sent off the manuscripts of these and a few other poems to a firm in Toronto that produced religious tracts but maintained a sideline in vanity publishing. The account of what ensued after the firm's salesman got on the train headed west with Service's page proofs in his pocket is without parallel in Canadian publishing history, or probably that of any other country. Suffice it to say that before the first book actually went on sale-and before the salesman reached Revelstoke-the poems had gone through three printings.
Service could not comprehend the change in his fortunes, and for a while kept his bank job even though his monthly royalty statement surpassed his yearly salary. But once he finally left, he was gone for good.
He took up residence in Paris in 1912, and made it his home, between travels, for the next twenty years. He arrived in the middle of the greatest upheaval that poetry would ever experience, the modernist revolution. Service remained unaffected.
Though he would never again in his long life achieve anything like his first success, his story is neither tragic nor the least bit sad. His life was filled with travel, adventure, and extreme good fortune, and the recounting of it is enjoyable once the author gets him on that ship heading west in 1896.
Vagabond of Verse is the antithesis of dreary, modern biographies with their jejune would-be psychoanalyses and searchlights of rectitude. There is no evidence whatsoever that he was anti-semitic, beat his wife, or wrote mash notes to the gardener.
He died a millionaire at Monte Carlo in 1958. It is all too easy to poke fun at him and his rollicking rhymes, all too easy for "serious" poets to raise their eyebrows and look down their noses. But I've heard natives stand up and recite him extemporaneously in Dawson City, Yukon, St. Augustine, Florida, and Vienna, Austria.

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