(Wesleyan University Press)
In 1931, Rockwell Kent elected to go a-wintering not in the Barbados, nor at the Costa Brava --- but in Greenland. Yes, that Greenland, where all is surrounded by rain and snow and glaciers and Eskimos and seals ... and the sun goes on vacation for three or four months a year.
He settled in Igdlorssuit, on the western shore of the country, and brought his own house with him, since the citizens of that chilly, rocky, barren land lived, for the most part, in turf huts. Cold, wet, dirty, sodden sod huts.
When I was a lad, Rockwell Kent was known for two things. He was a painter and lithographer --- illustrated some lovely if not lusty (for the time) books, including The Memoirs of Casanova and Don Quixote.
He was also famous for his politics, and even before I knew what the word "fellow-traveler" meant, I recall reading a letter to The Saturday Evening Post complaining about their using the artistic services of Rockwell Kent, to which there was a tart reply that their in-house artist was Norman Rockwell --- a far cry, indeed, from Rockwell Kent (and George Lincoln Rockwell, one might have added.)
Now that I have gone all the way through Salamina, I should add that Kent has one other notch on his belt: that is, he is a jim-dandy writer. He reminds me of friends of mine who can sit down to jot me a letter (or nowadays an e-mail) and it is as if they have cut off a bit of heart and soul and sent it off by express. It's writing with spirit and fun and, most of all, such a complete sense of rightness.
Reading Salamina I am there in the freezing north, standing next to Kent as he tries to slip away from his busy, busybody Salamina, his housekeeper, just to have a moment alone (although she doesn't permit it; she worries that he will catch his death); or him sitting in on a kaffemik, where the Greenlanders invite you over to their crowded abode to sip a bit of coffee,
Seated along the sleeping-platform, seated everywhere that there are seats and standing where there aren't are people. It looks, as you walk in, as though a business meeting were in progress; the business, it appears, is silence. It has the feeling of a constrained silence, for the occasional interruptions to it, being mostly such personal remarks by one woman to another as, "That is pretty work on your kamiks; what do you think of mine?" are in undertones... Yet it is a good-humored silence: they're nice people, pleasant people, always ready to return your smile for smile.
One of my definitions of a good travel writer is that he has to take the most simple day-to-day activity and make you want to be there.
The second is that he must either make himself interesting or funny or so strange that we want to be there with him or her --- in the midst of it all, enjoying the hell out of it, the good and the bad of it, not wanting it to end.
In this way, Kent is a star in the diadem of travel-writing: on the same level as Helena Petrovna Blavatsky on India, or Hugo Williams on the Far East, or Blaise Cendrars on South America, or S. J. Perelman or Captain Joshua Slocum on sailing around the world, or Carlos Amantea or the virtually unknown but down-home charming Everett Gee Jackson on Mexico.
And --- we should never forget --- one who traveled somewhat the same territory as Kent, although under a bit more duress, the brave, understated Apsley Cherry-Garrard hunting penguin eggs and damn near dying in the attempt to do so in Antarctica.
All these books make you want to be there ... well, almost: Apsley-Gerrard for one made us very glad we weren't, which was part of the magnet: he was there, we weren't, thank God.
It is a matter, I guess, of being sentient, and knowing how to put the words together --- such as when Rockwell Kent decides to build his house in Igdlorssuit. These are his workmen, the Greenland folk helping him to construct it:
It was a steep walk up the hill, yet no one minded it. Their mood was festive; the loads they chose to carry matched it. It was a holiday to work; they kept it one. Sometimes, by way of sport, someone would take a staggering load and stagger with it while the others laughed. He'd make the grade and drop the load on its allotted spot; then he and all the rest would sprawl out on the grass to take, as it would seem, a well-earned rest. They came at seven and they stayed till five. They were faithful to the hours of their employment, and delightful company thoughout them; it was their hours that they'd sold me for hire, not, it appeared, their labor. Thus every day was a prolonged social event that brought me the acquaintance of many charming people and, incidentally, somewhat advanced the work at hand.
One of the most beguiling aspects of Salamina is the off-hand style of the writing. In this, he reminds one of a bit of Perelman:
It would be hardly fair to write of Greenland, of its noble fjords and mountains, of its unending summer days, of its calm seas, blue skies, and flowering meadows, of the aurora and the stars, of the beauty of its winter-spring, of the goodness of its people, of the warmth of the hospitality of the Greenland Danes, of the benevolence of the whole Danish enterprise, and not to say --- and it's true --- that winter days are dark, and storms at sea severe, and cold intense, and flowery meadows often bogs, and summer days infested by mosquitoes, and people dirty --- often lice-ridden, and not always good --- and Danes, however kind, too often lazy and incompetent.
§ § §
There are a few surprises here. One is that Kent does not deny a mid-winter depression that lasted for the entire nine weeks of total darkness in the village,
Yet I welcomed the pitch-darkness of the most clouded nights as offering release from the continual restraint that I was under to conceal my trouble. Then, only in the darkness, could I be alone...
Another was that he fell into the habit of the Greenlanders of sleeping with anyone who happened to be about when it was bedtime. Because in the cold dark blanketless world of his village, at times it was only bodily warmth could keep one from freezing to death. He ended up sleeping with various traveling companions, male and female, and Salamina and several other housekeepers --- but he is shy about defining what it meant to be "sleeping" with someone. We wonder, indeed, why he names his entire book after his erstwhile housekeeper.
Another surprise is that his drawings, many presented here along with lovely chapter headings, are really not very good. He just can't get the lower parts to work. The various characters of the village often seem to be floating just off the ground, feet and body and legs at all the wrong angles, unanchored, going off to join with the auroras.
Finally --- and this is no surprise, since he is a painter --- his take on the scenes around him are not only painterly, they are described in painterly fashion (note "madder" below --- which my dictionary tells me is "a moderate to strong red.") He too, it turns out, is a musician, and this appears from time to time:
Picture a Temperate sea and mountain view; Clear day, late afternoon in fall; blue sea, and golden-purple shadowed land, and pale-blond lower sky; purple to gold, pale light to deep-toned madder. Now, into that, like a shaft of sunlight into a lamplit room, like violins and flutes above the bass, high-pitched, ethereally pure, so clean, sharp, dazzling that it almost hurts, see ice appear. The pale-gold sky is somber now; sea, sky, and land are of one low tonality against which sings that poignant whiteness.--- Linda WrangellGo to a reading from Salamina